Morocco and Saudi Arabia reach a breaking point

In February, Morocco recalled its envoy to Saudi Arabia as relations between the two countries began to break down. Ambassador Mustapha Mansouri returned to Rabat following the airing of a documentary on Saudi news channel Al Arabiya that attacked Moroccan ownership of Western Sahara, a disputed piece of land on the west coast of Africa. While the ambassador claims the recall is only temporary, tensions have been rising for years between the two countries and there is no clear end in sight.

The build-up

The problematic documentary was preceded by months of growing tensions, particularly regarding the war in Yemen. Morocco has suspended its involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has been at a stalemate for years and resulted in a devastating humanitarian crisis. The Moroccans have also been frustrated by Saudi Arabia voting against their bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The Saudis, along with the UAE, did so after Morocco refused to support Saudi Arabia in their two-year-long embargo against Qatar. When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman toured North Africa last year, he was not received by the Moroccan king.

The breaking point in bilateral relations came in January, when Qatari news channel Al Jazeera aired an interview with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita. During this interview, the minister spoke about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and indicated that Morocco’s participation in the war had changed for humanitarian reasons. This was interpreted as an attack on Saudi Arabia and their policies in Yemen. Soon after this interview, the Al Arabiya aired the documentary critical of Morocco.

The documentary

The documentary aired on Al Arabiya claimed that Morocco invaded Western Sahara after Spain departed from the colony in 1975. Morocco considers the area to be Moroccan Sahara, an extension of its sovereign territory, but the Saudi documentary referred to the region as “Western Sahara,” a contentious term in Morocco. The program referred to the territory in question as “occupied” and made statements in support of the Polisario Front, a Western Saharan group that aims to end Moroccan control over Western Sahara. The network on which the documentary was aired, Al Arabiya, is a direct competitor of Al Jazeera, on which the Bourita interview was broadcasted.

Why does the Western Sahara matter?

Western Sahara is an area on the northwest coast of Africa consisting mostly of desert. Once a Spanish colony, Morocco annexed the region in 1975. Since then, the Moroccans have been in essentially constant conflict with the Polisario Front, the group consisting primarily of the Sahrawi people, indigenous nomads. The front initially fought against the Spanish during colonial rule, resulting in the Spanish withdrawing from the area and agreeing to partition the territory between Morocco and Mauritania (although Mauritania has since retracted their claim.) The Polisario Front is not alone in its quest for an independent Western Sahara. An International Court of Justice ruling in 1975 stated that Morocco’s claim to what was then known as the “Spanish Sahara” was weak and did not negate the Sahrawi right to self-determination. Morocco ignored this ruling by moving tens of thousands of Moroccan “settlers” into Western Sahara in order to claim residency. Morocco’s interest in the territory is attributable to Western Sahara’s significant phosphate reserves.

Although the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (the state of Western Sahara created by the Polisario Front) is recognized by several governments and is a member of the African Union, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have historically supported Morocco’s claim to the territory. For Saudi Arabia to insinuate that Morocco does not have a legal claim to the area is not only insulting to the Moroccan government but also signals a significant policy shift for the country. Questioning Morocco’s legitimacy gives credence to the Polisario Front and their government, a fear for the Moroccans. Saudi Arabia was well aware how such an accusation would be viewed as “[a challenge to] the Kingdom of Morocco’s territorial integrity,” in the words of Ambassador Mansouri.

Looking forward

Perhaps realizing their mistake, the Saudis have since tried to make up for the offending documentary. A Saudi news outlet, Al Riyadh, published an editorial praising Moroccan diplomacy and current king, Mohammed VI. In the editorial, the Saudis attempted to reverse its position by referring to the Western Sahara as “Moroccan Sahara.” Saudi Arabia has yet to officially respond to this crisis, and it is unclear if the Moroccan envoy to Saudi Arabia will ever return. Morocco’s conflict with the Saudis is part of a growing trend of disillusionment with the Saudi kingdom by its neighbors. After the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, many Arab nations, including Morocco, voiced no support for Saudi Arabia. Morocco is also only the latest of nations to condemn the human rights violations in Yemen that are caused in large part by the Saudi-led war. Although Saudi Arabia is an indisputable hegemon in the region, it is losing allies dramatically and quickly.Morocco’s turn away from the Saudis may also be a first step in the country becoming a regional petroleum exporting powerhouse. This move may lead to greater Moroccan independence and the exertion of power in the region. However, it may also cause Saudi Arabia to further target Moroccan interests to keep them economically reliant on oil imports. Regardless, the Moroccan-Saudi tensions are clearly about a lot more than a single documentary.

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Author: Julia Broomer

Julia Broomer is a staff writer at The Compass. She is a freshman majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in the Middle East and minoring in Arabic and Sociocultural Anthropology.  Her interests include counter-terrorism, social and political conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, and comparative cultures in the region.