Marruecos pretende convertirse en el líder regional que necesita el Sahel

Morocco aims to become the regional leader needed in the Sahel


22 | 02 | 2024


The decline of French influence has created a power vacuum that Rabat is trying to fill by presenting itself as an outlet from the African hinterland to the Atlantic.

In the picture

Bastion of the Moroccan city of Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast [Kayaky].

For more than a century the power of reference letter for part of North Africa and the Sahel, France is rapidly seeing its influence in the region collapse. The forced departure of its troops from several troubled Sahel states in recent years is leading to a diplomatic leadership vacuum that other countries are trying to fill. There are the moves of Russia and also those of Morocco, which aspires to play to the full some of the advantages it finds in its relationship with the Sahel, such as serving as a logistical link in the exit to the Atlantic.

"The Sahel is not, nor has it ever been, a region like any other," Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told a press lecture in Marrakech following a ministerial summit attended by Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Morocco itself. His statements echoed similar comments made in 2020 regarding the Sahel Coalition intended to be led by France. However, those statements served merely as a reinforcement of relations between Morocco and its partners in the Sahel, always in the shadow of the former colonial power's diplomatic leadership in the region. Over the past few years, however, France has witnessed a collapse of its influence and diplomatic authority in the Sahel, underscored by multiple coups d'état that exhibit greater loyalty to Moscow than to Paris. It is this diplomatic leadership vacuum that Morocco intends to fill with a major promise to the Sahel countries: fostering their development through access to the Atlantic Ocean.

Why Morocco?

The steep decline of French influence in the Sahel has created a major power vacuum in the region. Nigerian Foreign Minister Bakary Yaou Sangaré criticized the French government during the lecture press briefing for "not understanding the will of our people to take their destiny into their own hands." Despite President Emmanuel Macron's statements in 2022 justifying Operation Barkhane, claiming that it succeeded in "preventing the training of a caliphate", the forced withdrawals of the French army from Niger at the end of 2023 and from Mali and Burkina Faso already earlier that year speak for themselves.

The role of group Wagner and the economic and military concessions made by many African countries to Moscow have been essential to expel France from the Sahel, and at the same time sabotage the US security strategy in the region. This power vacuum suits Morocco like a glove. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Sergei Lavrov will visit Morocco at the end of December 2023. Morocco sees a unique opportunity to position itself as a leader in the field of development and security for the Sahel countries, and both Russia and the United States, a very important ally of Morocco, recognize this.

Why the Sahel?

Morocco's interests in the Sahel are numerous, and require a high level of diplomatic cooperation with other heavyweights in the Arab world. First of all, Morocco, like Europe, has an interest in controlling the irregular migratory flow that mainly stems from the Sahel and West Africa. entrance This interest is based both on an understandable desire to maintain domestic stability by limiting mass immigration, and on the need to maintain stable diplomatic relations with Spain, its largest trading partner and the largest gateway to the European continent for West African refugees. Social unrest and the training of urban centers of populations vulnerable to human trafficking already present significant problems in Senegal and Mauritania due to forced displacement of populations in the Sahel. Morocco wishes to avoid this complication.

Second, the sustainable economic development of the region is of critical interest to Morocco as well as the United States and the European Union. The lack of job opportunities in countries with highly youthful populations has instilled the perspective that migration is the only viable economic opportunity, from which we observe the socio-economic migrant crisis ending its journey across the Mediterranean. This economic growth will be impossible without a coherent and successful security strategy, as the greatest enemy of development in the region has always been the weakness of institutions in the face of corruption and bad governance.

Finally, as is often the case with Morocco, the Sahel is inevitably another geopolitical area where Rabat can assert itself against its historical rival, Algeria. In December 2023, Radio Algeria announced that Morocco and the United Arab Emirates were collaborating to carry out a subversive campaign in the Sahel that would minimize Algiers' influence in the region. According to the station, Abu Dhabi is said to have made a 15 million euro loan for Rabat to strengthen its relations with its partners in the Sahel, either by participating in the fight against terrorism or by strengthening its relations with the military regimes in the region. On the African continent, the divide between the Moroccan and Algerian presence is as sharp a contrast as in the case of the American and Russian, or Iranian and Israeli skill . Any strategy of economic development that is backed by Morocco (and, inevitably, by Emirates, with whom Morocco has strengthened relations since 2020) deals a mortal blow to Algerian influence in the region. The irredentism of 'Greater Morocco' depends on the minimization of the other major Maghreb power in Algiers.

Will it work?

It is difficult to say whether the Moroccan strategy, which continues at development, will be sufficiently successful. The Moroccan foreign minister stated that "where many see problems, the King [Mohammed VI] sees opportunities. Where some speak of despair, the King sees potential." By betting on a sustainable economic development strategy for its partners in the Sahel, Morocco is advancing a different solution to the present open confrontation in the region between government and opponents backed by Russia and Algeria, and therefore faces different obstacles.

For now, the proposal to "connect" the Sahel countries to the Atlantic Ocean is based on a Moroccan project to attract foreign investment to finance the construction of trade corridors. Despite not knowing exactly the nature of how this system of trade and logistical corridors would work, nor what route it would take to lead to the Atlantic Ocean, it is likely that Morocco, both for geographical (relative proximity) and geopolitical (the quest to legitimize Greater Morocco) factors, would seek to connect such a system of infrastructure to the territory of Western Sahara.

The diversification of the Sahelian economies is also of interest in order to implement a long-term economic development system. In a region that is increasingly suffering from the effects of desertification, the very high dependence on the primary sector (which employs, on average, 80% of the population) poses a risk to economic stability. The United Arab Emirates has benefited over the years from promote various mineral and natural resource extraction projects in the Sahel, generating employment and a certain level of economic stability in Niger and Chad, for example. The weakness of their institutions, and social and political unrest, however, have made any significant progress impossible.

To be successful, any Moroccan strategy will have to attack the main problem, that of institutional instability, at its roots. The economic development and the increased control of migration flow will naturally follow from this. The challenge on this entails avoiding two dead ends that may seem too tempting for a successful resolution: the strategy of subversive confrontation, supported by Russia and Algeria, which have stalled economic growth and exacerbated migration, and the strategy of direct intervention by the former French colonizer, which has culminated in more failures than successes. Will this be enough to lay the groundwork instructions for a strong and influential Moroccan foreign policy in the region? Probably yes. It remains to be seen whether the project of Greater Morocco will then truly come to life.