A Tale of Four Worlds, by Marina and David Ottaway: Morocco among the Best – Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)

Tunisians commemorate the first anniversary of the demonstration that led to the fall of their president and set in motion the Arab Spring – January 2012 Photo: Amine GHRABI

Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)
October 16, 2019

In a recent conference hosted by the Wilson Center in Washington, Fellows and authors Marina and David Ottaway reviewed their new book, A Tale of Four Worlds, moderated by Washington Post correspondent David Ignatius. When asked “What is the King of Morocco doing right and wrong to advance his commitment to move his country towards an ‘irreversible’ democratic and reformist country?” Marina answered, “The King has the moral authority, the legitimacy, and a long term strategy unlike other countries in the region, but he’s not moving fast enough.”

Her response caught my attention since most of Washington’s think tanks often get the Morocco analysis wrong due to a lack of specific knowledge about the country, or err by applying their expertise in other parts of the region to the case of Morocco. In this regard the Ottaways’ book is refreshing as they have spent years studying Morocco within the context of the larger region.

A Tale of Four Worlds is an analysis of the post Arab Spring era, and divides the analysis of the Middle East into four distinct sub groups: Iraq-Syria; the Gulf monarchies; Egypt; and the Maghreb. In the last chapter, the authors conclude: “the 2011 uprisings were neither revolutions that succeeded nor revolutions that failed. They were not an Arab Spring followed by a glorious summer or a cold winter. What they did was to upend the precarious political systems of many Arab countries and shatter several others. This in turn unleashed an open-ended process of change…?”

The Ottoways present Morocco as having come out of the past decade the best of the countries of the region and conclude, “Morocco was the first and most successful example of a proactive monarch.”

It is widely understood that the king is a “cautious top-down” reformer, as the Ottaways point out, and they explain that one of the reasons for Morocco’s success is that both King Hassan II and Mohammed VI understood early on the importance of coopting the Islamic PJD party.  This paved the way for them becoming the first Islamic-led government in the Arab world.

By the Arab Spring in 2011, the Ottaways detail how King Mohammed VI was deft in his approach and speed to address the needs of Moroccans. In March 2011, he called for a new constitution, which was drafted and passed with 98.5% approval, and 73% of the population voting in the June referendum. In less than a year, he succeeded in quelling Moroccan protesters and strengthening “his reputation as a reformer… No other Arab leader managed to replicate the extent of the Moroccan king’s success.”

Although Morocco’s stability and its democratic success have been written about in the past, this is the first time they are comprehensively compared to other countries in the Middle East, highlighting just how successful they actually have been. The authors assert that four countries have been severely damaged since 2011: Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. They add that Tunisia is moving in the right direction and may be a future success, while in Algeria, there may be hope in the longer term, depending on what the future government does. As for Jordan, it is cautious about change and preoccupied with the turmoil that surrounds it. Finally, the GCC monarchies are stable but face increased challenges regarding “non-citizens”, as well as the Sunni-Shiite divide. They conclude that no other country appears as successful as Morocco, a  clear comparison that has not been offered by the Washington policymaking community until this book.

The authors go on to discuss how the Maghreb is focused more on Europe, the West, and Africa, and becoming less focused on the Arab world, with Morocco leading the way with its own Africa initiative. King Mohammed has an economic diplomacy strategy, and has made more than fifty sub Saharan visits and signed “a thousand bilateral agreements” in the continent. More and more, Morocco is reflecting “a distinctly non-Arab world outlook in its planning for the future.”

The Ottaways state, “As for democracy, it requires much optimism to conclude that Morocco is convincingly moving in that direction.” And in spite of the King’s grand plans (e.g. Morocco is now the largest manufacturer of cars in Africa), economic constraints reflect a reality that the economy is still too dependent on rain-fed agriculture.

They go on to highlight the cooperation between the PJD party and the Palace in moving forward on the economic front, which “sets Morocco apart from many Arab countries, and even its neighbors in the Maghreb.” But they also deliberate on whether the cooperation with the Islamic opposition has a downside, given the fact that there is no real opposition to the Monarch, which allows the king too much room to move slowly on economic, political, and social reforms.

As someone who has studied Morocco closely for the past twenty years and who has reached many of the same conclusions as the Ottaways, it is refreshing to see such an in-depth comparison of the countries of the region. This work should give an enhanced understanding to our nation’s policymakers looking for a model of reform and stability in the region.

America’s foreign policy is too often predicated on oiling the squeaky wheel, i.e. those countries that cause us the most trouble get all the attention. Instead, we should put our energy into a model like Morocco (perhaps along with Tunisia) that is moving in the right direction and deserves our attention and support.

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