Morocco’s triumphant return to the African Union after a thirty-three-year break marked the culmination of a lengthy and intense diplomatic offensive designed to expand its circle of African allies to key nations in regions far from its historic sphere of influence in the Sahel, as well as in West and Central Africa. Now that the Kingdom has successfully barged into the African fold, its diplomatic realpolitik and strategic behavior will be put to the test in an institution where its traditional political adversaries—Algeria and, since 2004, South Africa—are determined to stymie its ambitions.

Morocco has varied interests but is focused on two main deliverables: wooing a new breed of moderate and pragmatic African leaders with promises of win-win economic and security benefits;1Youssef Ait Akdim, “Offensive Diplomatique et Économique de Mohammed VI en Afrique de l’Est,” Le Monde, Oct. 21, 2016, and leveraging its rising economic weight to expand political support for its claim over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that Morocco has always considered an integral part of its territory. These two goals are intertwined as partnerships built on assertive pragmatism facilitate mutually beneficial cooperation, which creates conditions for political entente. The recent political rapprochement between King Mohammed VI of Morocco and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda reflects this new diplomatic organizing principle, of political alliances undergirded by dynamic and pragmatic insights that trump the ideological dogmas of prior eras. This thinking outside old constraining blinders is also steering the process of normalization with Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, South Sudan, and Zambia.

The re-orientation of Moroccan foreign policy towards regions long considered unfamiliar or unfriendly terrain required the Kingdom to untangle its own censuring parameters that have constrained its diplomatic options to countries supportive of its rule over the Western Sahara. Since Morocco withdrew from the Organization of African Unity—which became the African Union in 2002—in 1984 over the seating of the self-proclaimed Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), it has taken a hardline position on what it deems its inviolable sovereign rights. Over the past three decades, the question of the Western Sahara has been a litmus test for Moroccan-African relations. Rabat nurtured its allies in Francophone Africa, deploying all the conventional economic, cultural, and security tools to consolidate its circle of friends and thwart the machinations of its adversaries, who have attempted to isolate it from every regional and international grouping.

The diplomatic dividends of this strategy were on dramatic display in July 2016 at the 27th African Union (AU) Summit in Kigali, Rwanda, when twenty-eight African countries penned a letter to the AU calling for the suspension of the SADR’s membership.2Franck Kuwonu, “Morocco Flexed Economic Muscles and Returned to the AU,” Africa Renewal, The irony of this diplomatic show of force, however, is that although Morocco enjoys majority support within the AU, the body has in recent years become a major diplomatic thorn in the country’s side. Taking advantage of the disorganization of Morocco’s allies within the AU, its adversaries have transformed the organization and its various mechanisms into advocacy entities for the SADR within the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, and other international institutions. Morocco also found itself deliberately excluded from AU-led platforms for peace and security in the Sahel Sahara, a region where the Kingdom has important security, economic, and cultural interests.3Julien Daemers, “Maghreb-Sahel Security Cooperation: From Mirage to Reality,” in Re-Mapping the Sahel: Transnational Security Challenges and International Responses, dir. Cristina Barrios and Tobias Koepf, no. 19 (June 2014): 51-58.

For decades, Morocco has sought to maintain influence in the African Union while opting for the empty chair. Yet in recent years, it has become clear that an empty chair ceded the strategic advantage to its adversary. The only recourse became to reverse decades of state doctrine, the cornerstone of which was to expel what Morocco calls a “phantom” state, the SADR, from the only organization that recognizes it in the world. The decision to join a body that contains the SADR as a member required significant political courage and strategic foresight, even if Morocco will not cease its efforts to put an end to what it considers an oddity of international politics.

The return of Morocco to the AU is bound to shake up the organization, as the country is determined to oppose all actions, policies, and strategies it deems inimical to its vital interests. It is exactly such a prospect that drove its adversaries, namely Algeria and South Africa, to go to great lengths to try to block its return to the African fold. The fact that they were outfoxed by Morocco’s all-out offensive is a testament to the Kingdom’s solid support within the AU, and a harbinger for the diplomatic battles to come over the Western Sahara question and the perennial Moroccan-Algerian tension over regional leadership in the Sahel Sahara region.

Morocco’s immediate goal is to nudge the AU towards neutrality, and then to gradually garner support for a win-win political solution to the Western Sahara dispute.4Jacques Roussellier, “Morocco Brings the Western Sahara Issue Back to the AU,” Sada, Jan. 31, 2017, With its new style of assertive diplomacy tempered by pragmatism, the Kingdom does not want the dispute to affect its drive for expanding the market for its products and firms in Africa. Morocco’s primary concern has always been the fear of being penned in by a ring of encirclements stretching from its closed eastern border with Algeria to its volatile northern border with Spain.5Bakary Sambe, “Le Maroc au Sud du Sahara, une Stratégie d’Influence à l’Heure des Mutations Géopolitiques,” in Le Maghreb et son Sud, vers des Liens Renouvelés, ed. Alain Antil and Mansouria Mokhéfi, (Paris: CNRS, 2013). Its complicated relationship with Mauritania to the south made alignment with sub-Saharan Africa an absolute necessity in Morocco’s anti-encirclement diplomacy. With the ascent of King Mohammed VI to the throne in July 1999, Morocco imbued these strategic partnerships with significant economic value, beyond prior security considerations, as well as the traditional close personal relationships of leaders. The Kingdom’s recent pivot to Anglophone Africa and its push to rejoin the AU are driven by the same specter of geo-strategic encirclement. Morocco’s trade relations with the EU have become entangled in court rulings and legal considerations over the Western Sahara.6Luigi Lonardo, “The EU’s ‘Diplomatic Accident’ with Morocco Shows the Perils of Judge-Led Foreign Policy,” March 7, 2016, The imperative for the Kingdom to reduce its dependence on the European market and rebalance towards Africa’s fastest growing economies has never been greater.7Ned Pagliarulo, “EDA: Morocco Overly Dependent on Trade with Europe,” Global Risk Insights, Dec. 1, 2014,

Morocco enjoys significant comparative advantage over its regional competitors, making it already the first investor in West Africa and the second largest in the continent. Its advanced firms (including banking, insurance, and telecommunications), industrial companies (mainly phosphates),8Ghalia Kadiri, “Le Maroc Mise sur la Diplomatie du Phosphate pour Étendre son Influence en Afrique,” Le Monde, Dec. 28, 2016, increasingly sophisticated manufacturing (aerospace, electronics, and cars) and rising capabilities in renewable energy9Celeste Hicks, “Morocco Lights the Way for Africa on Renewable Energy,” The Guardian, Nov. 17, 2016, position it to play a leading role in advancing King Mohammed VI’s cherished goal of solidarity-based, South-South cooperation.10Terence McNamee, Greg Mills, and Peter Pham, “Morocco Wrong-Foots Its African Critics,” Daily Maverick, Feb. 1, 2017, In this vein, the country recently launched major initiatives to power agricultural sustainability and improve food security through the building of mega fertilizer plants adapted to local soils in several African countries, most notably Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Nigeria—three countries Morocco had long shunned for their support of the Polisario Front. Another ambitious and strategic South-South partnership is the recent agreement between Morocco and Nigeria to build a transcontinental gas pipeline designed to power Africa.

Now that Morocco has flexed its diplomatic and economic muscle to regain its seat at the African Union, the Kingdom faces a new context where it must defend its core interests while at the same time proving that it is a responsible stakeholder whose membership benefits the AU, rather than deepens the divides of the continent. Only time will tell if Morocco’s guiding mantra of assertive pragmatism in diplomacy will usher in a new era of mutually beneficial development and cooperation for the African continent.