By Bryant Harris December 12, 2017
America’s oldest ally in North Africa is counting on its lobbying muscle to grab the attention of the new White House occupant.
For years, Morocco has used its multimillion-dollar lobbying operation to sway Congress and administration officials into acquiescing to its occupation of the disputed Western Sahara. Rabat is notably close to Hillary Clinton and donated to her family foundation, generating unwanted headlines during the 2016 presidential campaign.
With Donald Trump’s victory, however, the Cherifian kingdom finds itself in the unusual position of having to fight for US attention.
“The relationship with Morocco does not appear to be a priority for the Trump administration,” the Washington-based nonprofit Project on Middle East Democracy points out in its July 2017 report on the US aid budget. “King Mohamed VI appears to be the only Arab monarchy yet to meet with President Trump, and the US Embassy in Morocco has remained without an ambassador since January 2017.” Trump finally nominated David Fischer, CEO of Michigan's Suburban Collection car dealership group, to the post in late November.
That sense of neglect has carried over to the State Department’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. The proposal slashes aid to Morocco by 58%, from $38.5 million in the current FY to $16 million for FY 2018.
Congress isn’t having it.
House spending legislation that cleared the Appropriations Committee in July calls for keeping assistance to Morocco at current levels, with $20 million for economic and development aid and $18.5 million for military and security assistance. The bill also seeks clarity on Trump’s approach to North Africa and requires the State Department to report on “how diplomatic engagement and assistance will be prioritized for these countries.” The Senate bill, meanwhile, proposes $20 million in economic and development aid with $13.5 million in military and security assistance.
Those relatively tiny aid sums, however, have been supplemented by a pair of Millennium Challenge Corporation grants that have delivered more than $1.1 billion in economic aid since 2007. Morocco has also benefitted from a Free Trade Agreement with the United States for the past 12 years, making it America’s first free-trade partner in Africa and one of only five across the Middle East.
Just as it has for the past couple of years, the House bill also authorizes US aid to Morocco to be spent in the Western Sahara, a de facto recognition of Rabat’s control over what Moroccans call their southern provinces. The bill is accompanied by nonbinding report language stipulating that the dispute over the desert territory should be “based on a formula of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.”
“This congressional effort supports longstanding US policy advocating a solution to the conflict based on autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty,” the Moroccan American Center for Policy, Rabat’s main lobbying arm, asserts in a fact sheet on congressional support for US aid in the Western Sahara. “The use of development assistance in the Western Sahara makes good on President Obama’s and King Mohammed VI’s November 2013 commitment to improve the lives of those living there.”
The report language goes further still by noting that “the committee also encourages the administration to support private sector investment in the Western Sahara.” Both the pro-independence Polisario Front and its Algerian patron oppose Moroccan investment in the phosphate-rich territory as they believe it legitimizes the Moroccan occupation.
However, Senate appropriators have tried to temper some of the House's pro-Morocco language in their version of the bill by requiring the administration to consult with UN peacekeepers in the Western Sahara before spending foreign aid dollars in the disputed territory.
In another setback for Morocco, the House version does not duplicate last year’s language that would have required the secretary of State to press for a UN census of Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf, Algeria. The Polisario counters that Morocco wants to lowball the number of refugees to stave off a perpetually postponed independence referendum for the Western Sahara. The census language was scrapped during negotiations with the Senate and replaced with a provision requiring the secretary of State to consult with UN officials and submit a report “describing steps taken to strengthen monitoring of the delivery of humanitarian assistance provided for refugees in North Africa.”
The Trump administration’s lack of interest in the Moroccan file has worked to Rabat’s advantage on this issue. When Morocco announced in July that it would include the Western Sahara when delineating its maritime borders, the State Department stayed mute. The department in its annual human rights report released in March did however fault Morocco for its imprisonment of activists who deny Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.
The administration — and Congress — have also had little to say about mass anti-poverty protests that have rocked the neglected Rif region in the north for the past few months. Their silence on the subject helps to validate Morocco’s carefully crafted image as a pro-Western island of stability despite lingering accusations of human rights abuses and corruption.
To advocate its position in Washington, Rabat has been relying on the services of the nonprofit Moroccan American Center for Policy since 2004. The center received $2.8 million from Morocco in 2016, lobbying records indicate, with payments to a half-dozen other lobbying and public relations companies bringing the total tab to $3.84 million, up from $3.7 million in 2015.
Those amounts dwarf lobbying by Algeria ($420,000 in 2016) and the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic ($10,000 in 2016), which take an opposite stance on the question of the Western Sahara.
The Moroccan policy center itself subcontracts work to three other firms including Western Hemisphere Strategies, a consultancy started by former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. His brother, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., happens to be one of Rabat’s best friends on the House Appropriations Committee.
Support on Capitol Hill however is much broader and bipartisan, with lawmakers lining up every year to join the Congressional Morocco Caucus. The group’s co-chairmen this year include Reps. Carlos Curbelo; D-Fla.; Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.; Joe Wilson, R-S.C.; and Gerald Connolly, D-Va.
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