opinionBy Johara Hall
All eyes are on the North African states of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt as each country struggles to form a stable democratic government. But amid the chaos, Washington is looking to strengthen pre-existing ties in the region with countries whose governments have survived the Arab Spring.
The Maghreb state of Morocco is a case in point. King Mohammed VI, a longtime United States ally, has been credited for adeptly overcoming popular uprisings despite significant economic and political grievances--soaring unemployment levels, poverty, endemic corruption, censorship, and human rights violations--by holding a constitutional referendum designed to introduce political reform. Although protesters argue that the constitutional reform was essentially cosmetic, the referendum and last November's multiparty elections have appeased demonstrators--at least for now.
Meanwhile, the US has shown increased interest in fortifying its relationship with the North African kingdom. Antonin Tisseron, a research fellow at the Thomas More Institute suggests that "the United States' interest in a tighter relationship with Morocco is focused on the battle against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism." For the US, Morocco is a country of stability in a region of havoc. The uncertainties surrounding Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya and the "Islamization" of the Sahel region leaves the US with few other stable allies. Hafidh Mimouna of the daily pan-African news source, Le Griot, reinforces Tisseron's assertion adding, "viewed as a pivot of stability in a troubled North Africa, Morocco is positioning itself as a central player in a renewal of America's North African policy, one that is more inclusive and less intrusive." Strengthening ties with the Moroccan government is one of the few ways in which Washington can inhibit Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) from further strengthening itself throughout Mali--once considered the most stable of West African democracies--and neighboring Mauritania.
The relationship between the two countries is not strictly geopolitical. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Moroccan Foreign Minister Saad El Dine Otmani took part in a strategic dialogue in Washington this past September to discuss key concerns and to further economic relations between the two countries.Tisseron adds that "according to the Arab American Chamber of Commerce, based on official statistics of the U.S. Government, Morocco in 2011 placed fourth in the Arab world as a destination market for U.S. exports, behind the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt."This increased ranking is partly due to the enforcement of the free trade agreement between the two countries that was signed in 2004 and put into force on January 1, 2006.
Economic development is paramount to ensuring meaningful democratic reform and continued stability in Morocco as recent demands from protesters have been rooted in economic issues rather than political demands. With expected surges in international petroleum costs and a more or less stagnant economy, the country is bound to face heightened challenges. More than anything, Morocco needs investment partners. The government has introduced reforms to improve its investment climate in order to encourage foreign investment but hopes for additional investment partnerships, particularly from North America. Thus, a key determinant of how strong the US-Morocco alliance will be rests upon the development of commercial relations between the two countries.
It has become increasingly clear that monitoring the growing network of political, economic, and commercial relations between the US and one of its oldest allies is essential to understanding Washington's shifting foreign policy as it aims to reestablish relations in a region facing grave challenges.