SIM REPORT: Morocco and Germany tensions amid discord over Western Sahara sovereignty to impact mobility

Sim Report: North Africa, Issue 6 

On 1 March, a letter from Morocco’s minister of foreign affairs, Nasser Bourita, was leaked to local media outlets. The content, which was addressed to Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani, suggested that government departments move to suspend all ‘contact, interaction or cooperative action’ with the Germany embassy alongside associated political foundations and cultural organsiations. Bourita notably confirmed in the letter that the foreign ministry has already halted all contact with German diplomatic representatives in the Rabat embassy as well as with those based in consulates in Casablanca and Agadir. The action against Germany was outlined in the letter as due to ‘deep misunderstandings’ with Berlin on ‘fundamental questions of the Kingdom of Morocco’, which were not specified.

 The suspension of contact with the embassy marks a significant escalation in diplomatic tensions between the two countries. While no reason was explicitly stated as to why Morocco’s foreign ministry enacted the measures, it follows a number of events over recent months that have likely provoked this response.

Germany’s stance on the question of sovereignty in the disputed Western Sahara region has been widely cited as one of the leading reasons behind the move. Following former US President Donald Trump’s decision in January 2021 to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, Berlin led the EU’s condemnation of the act, citing a UN-resolution that affirmed the region’s right to self-determination. On 21 December 2020, Germany’s ambassador to the UN, Christoph Heusgen, notably submitted a statement to the UN Security Council requesting that the US act ‘by the rules and…implement Security Council resolutions and international law’.

The fact that Germany took the lead against the US in criticising its support of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara likely fuelled simmering criticism of Berlin from government officials in Rabat. This existing resentment against Germany was in part likely first triggered back in January 2020 after Chancellor Angela Merkel did not invite Morocco to the Berlin International Conference on Libya. The snub prompted Bourita to express ‘deep astonishment’ in a press statement, citing the country’s involvement at the ‘forefront of international efforts to solve the Libyan crisis’. In a sign of continued tensions in connection to this exclusion, in October 2020 Bourita turned down Germany’s invitation to a new conference on Libya. 

An additional issue that has likely fuelled tensions was the reclassification of Morocco in late February by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global money-laundering and terrorist-financing watchdog. FATAF designated Morocco as a grey-list state, meaning it is now officially considered a haven for supporting terror funding and money laundering. The decision largely stemmed from Rabat’s failure to comply with FATF recommendations on anti-money laundering policies and combating financial terrorism (AML/CFT). However, a report published on 12 February by German-based Transparency International, which outlined Morocco’s failures in addressing systemic corruption across the public sector, has notably been identified by critics of the designation as a key influencer in FATF’s decision. Speculation on German influence over a listing that undoubtedly comes as a serious blow to Morocco’s foreign investment prospects has likely worked to further inflame resentment against Berlin in recent weeks.

Alongside the existing tensions, there is also a strong potential that Morocco’s actions against the German embassy form part of a wider strategy campaign in securing support from EU member-states on the question of Western Saharan sovereignty. Discussions are currently ongoing at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over the Morocco-European Union trade agreement, which has been disputed by the pro-independence Polisario Front (PF) who contest that Morocco is effectively looting Western Sahara’s natural resources, specifically agricultural goods, fish and phosphates. A ruling from the ECJ is not set to be reached for several months; if it falls in PF’s favour, it is highly likely that Morocco could implement retaliatory measures against the EU. In this light, the recent actions against Germany are potentially a means of highlighting this zero tolerance attitude towards critics of their position on Western Sahara.

Overall, businesses with interests in Morocco and Germany should continue monitoring all government updates and revise contingency plans in preparation for potential disruption to mobility in light of the elevated diplomatic tensions and tit-for-tat measures. Most recently, this has been exemplified by the German embassy in Rabat, which announced on 5 March that the issuing of Schengen visas had been halted indefinitely with the embassy citing COVID as its official reason for the suspension. The visa allows Moroccan citizens entry into the Schengen Area via air, land or sea for stays of up to 90 days within a 180-day period. Moroccan national staff are advised to closely monitor the developing situation, while those in Germany should also anticipate the potential short-notice implementation of similar retaliatory measures. Elsewhere, it is worth noting that relations could also be tempered amid recent efforts by the Spanish government to instigate a UN-brokered solution. However, no further confirmation or updates on this process have been revealed, meaning tensions could worsen before improving in the short-medium term outlook

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