Obama's Morocco Opportunity

Next week's visit by the Moroccan king is rife with chances for cooperation.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI will meet with President Barack Obama in Washington on November 22, amid cascading conflict in the Arab world and new challenges in Arab-American relations. The possibility of US-Iranian detente has stirred hopes among many in the West that a peaceful resolution of the nuclear standoff is possible—but Gulf states and others in the region have voiced concerns about the new initiative. The same may be said of Washington’s UN-brokered accord with Moscow and Damascus calling for the peaceful destruction of the Syrian regime’s chemical-weapons stockpiles: Americans weary of war are relieved by the avoidance of a new military entanglement, whereas the Saudi government has dubbed the agreement “blatantly perfidious”—a sentiment shared by others in the region. Midway into the cloistered US-backed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, fears abound that the process will come to naught and lead to a new Intifada. Meanwhile, Iraqi streets bleed. Tunisians polarize and radicalize. Egypt’s revolution grows militaristic. And recent statements from the White House seem to suggest that the administration would like to pare down its expenditure of attention to the Arab region in order to “pivot” elsewhere, pursuing more challenges and opportunities in other parts of the world.

In this fraught context, the King’s official visit has the potential to serve three important functions: First, the monarch can help President Obama reassure Arab allies about American policy goals and enlist their help in strengthening the effort to achieve them. Second, the two leaders can partner in boosting the likelihood of a Palestinian-Israeli breakthrough. Third, the two men can lay the groundwork for a new partnership between the United States and Morocco outside the Arab world—and in doing so, demonstrate that a Washington policy “pivot” need not be a zero-sum game among disparate regions of the world clamoring for American attention.

Prior to his arrival in Washington, the Moroccan monarch visited the United Arab Emirates—together with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, one of the most prominent governments in the region in opposition to Iranian and Muslim Brotherhood expansionism in Arab countries. The king’s relations with the United Arab Emirates are so strong that the mother of the reigning emir of Dubai routinely refers to him as “my son.” There is a comparable degree of deep, visceral connection between King Mohammed VI and the rulers of most of the other Gulf states, as well as the enduring Kingdom of Jordan. Add to these bonds the fact that Morocco is also America’s oldest Arab ally—the first country, indeed, to recognize the United States of America in 1777—and the potential for King Muhammad VI to bridge present gaps between the United States and its longtime Arab partners becomes obvious.

There is, moreover, a firm basis to expect that such an effort would yield results. Arabs favorably disposed to the United States would like to view Obama’s approach to Iran as an attempt at judiciously testing the Tehran regime’s outreach to the international community. Moderate Arab states hope that if Tehran’s proposed negotiations prove deceptive, the White House will expose the regime’s duplicity for what it is, then move to a more confrontational stance with the international credibility of having left no stone unturned. A transparent discussion between President Obama and the Moroccan monarch may be all that is necessary to equip the king with the resolve to urge other Arab leaders to shore up the President’s efforts—diplomatically, politically, economically, and, if appropriate, through heightened intelligence and security cooperation. As to Syria, a frank exchange of views between the two leaders can help determine whether there is sufficient common ground to enable the US and the Gulf states to cooperate more closely on trying to end the conflict. No head of state is better suited to think through such questions with an American president than King Muhammad VI.

As to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Moroccan leader can contribute strategic depth to the American-backed peace effort, thanks to his credibility not only with moderate Arab states but also with each party to the conflict. On the one hand, the King is a trusted friend to the Palestinian people: As head of the pan-Islamic “Al-Quds Committee,” a coalition of Arab and Muslim states, he has been a champion of Palestinians’ social and political rights on their native soil. He has endowed hospitals and other charitable projects in the Palestinian territories, and spoken persuasively in support of the Palestinians in international venues east and west. At the same time, he has also earned the trust of many Jews in Israel and the diaspora: From the days of his grandfather, who saved 265,000 Moroccan Jews from the Nazis; to his late father, who established enduring security cooperation with the Jewish state; to the present time, in which King Muhammad VI has spoken out against Holocaust denial and sponsored interfaith initiatives to bring Jews and Muslims together, Israel and its supporters have come to trust the monarchy.