Since 2016, relations between Moscow and Rabat have been booming, despite political differences.
After its military intervention in the Crimea in 2014, Russia was sanctioned by Western countries. It then sought to re-establish or consolidate its relations on the African continent, basing itself in particular on the countries that already had a link with the USSR. “Struck by Western sanctions, Russia is trying to regain the influence it had in Africa before 1989, when glasnost and perestroika destroyed the former Soviet Union,” explains Colonel Juan A. Mora Tebas, associate analyst at the Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies (IEEE) in his 2019 article on Russia’s return to the African “big game”. Africa has become the transcendental element of Moscow’s foreign policy, as it is essential to achieve Russia’s goal of playing the role of a global player belonging to a great power”.
The development of relations between Rabat and Moscow, particularly in the sectors of agriculture, fisheries or the fight against terrorism, is therefore part of a logic of geopolitical expansion of Russia in Africa, even if Morocco, which is close to the West, is not one of those countries under Russian influence. Thus, in March 2016, King Mohammed VI was received in Moscow by Putin. Several visits followed, including that of the Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrouchev, in December 2016. Then in 2019, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two countries met in Rabat.
The benefit of Russian counter-sanctions
In retaliation to the Western economic sanctions against Moscow, Vladimir Putin introduced in 2014 a total embargo on a long list of food products. The Cherifian kingdom benefited from these Russian counter-sanctions by becoming a source of supply. “The volume of bilateral trade is no longer negligible as it reached 1.47 billion dollars in 2018”, explains Arnaud Dubien, director of the Franco-Russian Observatory, in an article in Le Monde diplomatique. The two countries would also seek to increase their tourism relations. According to the Russian press agency Ria Novosti, in 2018, the number of Russian tourists in Morocco increased by 10% compared to 2017.
Juan A. Mora Tebas says that to counter the risk of isolation, Russia has sought to create new opportunities in Africa, even though Westerners were more discreet there. “Russia is trying to capture most of the continent’s wheat market, especially in Algeria, Morocco and Libya. In fact, it is already Egypt’s largest supplier of wheat,” the analyst said. For its part, “in the economic field, Morocco is seeking an amplification and diversification of its international relations and partners,” he adds.
Political and security issues
At the same time, cooperation between Rabat and Moscow in the security field is also developing since 2016 in the name of the fight against terrorism, despite the differences between the two countries on the conflict in Syria. “There are Franco-Belgo-Moroccan, members of the Maghreb and Chechen diaspora who have gone [to fight] in Syria. The cooperation is therefore taking place in the field of intelligence. Terrorism has no smell, Moroccans, Algerians, Israelis, cooperate in these areas because circumstances dictate it,” explains Pierre Vermeren, professor of contemporary history at the University Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne and specialist of the Maghreb.
In addition, to counter international sanctions and the decline in oil exports, Russia is also seeking to export more arms to Africa.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) “between 2014 and 2018, Russia accounts for 49% of total arms exports to North Africa”. “It is in the field of security that Russia is consolidating itself as a relevant actor on the continent. With the formula “arms exports as well as education and training”, this is Russia’s real business niche in Africa”, confirms Juan A. Mora Tebas.
For Pierre Vermeren, the rapprochement between Moscow and Rabat is therefore above all a political strategy. Indeed, by developing its relations with Russia, Morocco, “takes away from Algeria the monopoly of its relationship with Russia”. Algeria is indeed considered an adversary of the Cherifian kingdom, particularly because of its support for Western Sahara. Algiers continues to obtain arms from the Russians, while Morocco has an arsenal of Western weapons, purchased from the United States or France: “While the United States has moved closer to Algeria […], Russia is moving closer to Morocco, so the balance is restored in the Maghreb,” says Pierre Vermeren.
The question of Western Sahara
This game of influence raises the question of Western Sahara, a delicate point of disagreement between Morocco and Russia. Indeed, this non-autonomous territory according to the UN is controlled de facto at 80% by Morocco, which considers it as its southern provinces. Since November, the ceasefire has been broken between Morocco and the Polisario Front, representative of the Sahrawi people. However, for Russia the political solution of the conflict in Western Sahara must be based on the resolutions of the UN Security Council. Although renewed several times, the UN mission for the organization of a referendum in Western Sahara created in 1991 by Security Council Resolution 690 has still not succeeded.
Russia also denounced the decision of the United States to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara following the normalization of relations between Morocco and Israel. “Following the recognition of the Sahara as part of Morocco by Donald Trump, Morocco launched an international tender ($1,000 million) for a macro-port the size of Tangier Med in Dakhla, south of Western Sahara. A port that would handle in the first years of its activity, around 2029, a quantity of goods similar to the port of Barcelona in 2020: 2.2 million tons”, explains Juan A. Mora Tebas.
However, according to him, the port of Dakhla would be of strategic interest to the Russians. Moscow could thus “project itself towards the Atlantic, West Africa and South America, but also neutralize, in part, the Chinese influence in the region (port of Nouakchott in Mauritania) and strengthen the presence of its fishing boats in the rich Saharan shore,” says Juan A. Mora Tebas, who believes that the recognition of the “Moroccanity” of Western Sahara by the United States and the announcement of the creation of a U.S. consulate in Dakhla is a “maneuver of American anticipation” to block the development of Russian influence in the region.
The development of relations between Morocco and Russia is therefore part of a more global strategy which consists in obtaining access to the Atlantic through ports or naval bases, but also in redefining the balance between the different Western powers, Chinese and Russian in Africa. All this in the context of the crisis in Western Sahara. A multi-player chess game that is far from over.