By Bryant Harris September 12, 2018
Morocco is realigning its multimillion-dollar influence campaign with Republican-allied lobbyists as it seeks to gain President Donald Trump’s ear on the disputed Western Sahara.
The Moroccan Foreign Ministry ended its 13-year lobbying contract with the Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP) and its army of subcontractors in October, paying them a total of $1.92 million in 2017. MACP Chairman Edward Gabriel, an ambassador to Morocco under President Bill Clinton and an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, retired soon after.
Instead, Rabat hired the newly minted JPC Strategies in January for $75,000 a month. The firm was formed last year by James Christoferson, a former deputy chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
That contract comes with its own bevy of subcontractors, including SGR Government Relations and Lobbying, a firm previously employed by Trump’s short-lived national security adviser Michael Flynn on behalf of Turkish interests. JPC has also hired Iron Bridge Strategies, which briefly worked with former senior Cruz aide Nick Muzin and his Stonington Strategies firm on behalf of Qatar earlier this year.
Morocco, perennially one of the biggest spenders among Middle East countries, had banked that its close ties with the Clintons would engender more US support for its claims over the resource-rich Western Sahara in a Democratic administration. Instead, Rabat has struggled to even get on Trump’s radar.
“Despite historically close bilateral ties, the Trump administration has paid little public attention to Morocco compared to other Arab allies,” the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) points out in a June report on the State Department’s 2019 budget request.
Rabat is also trying to curry favor directly with administration officials.
In January, the Moroccan Embassy hired Third Circle, a firm headed by Richard Smotkin, a longtime friend of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, for $40,000 per month. Smotkin arranged a controversial trip to Morocco last year during which Pruitt pushed US natural gas exports. Pruitt resigned in July among myriad controversies, including his trip to Morocco.
If the State Department’s 2019 budget request is any indication, Morocco’s new lobbyists have their work cut out for them.
Despite bipartisan opposition from Congress, the Trump administration is doubling down on its efforts to slash aid to Morocco, cutting economic aid by half, from $20 million in fiscal year 2017 to $10 million. House and Senate appropriators meanwhile are both holding the line at $20 million in foreign aid spending bills released in June.
Worse, the 2019 budget once more seeks to zero out military aid for Morocco, while investing a paltry $5.9 million in other forms of security assistance. The Senate aid budget by contrast seeks $5 million in military aid and $8.5 million in security assistance, while the more Morocco-friendly House wants $10 million for military aid and $9.5 million for other security assistance.
POMED's budget report even quotes a US official as noting that, absent pushback from career staff at the State Department and US Agency for International Development, “the budget request for Morocco would have been zero” because it’s such a “low priority” for the Trump administration.
As a result, Congress remains a principal target of Moroccan lobbying.
Rabat lost a key lobbyist last year with the departure of MACP subcontractor Western Hemisphere Strategies, led by former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the brother of House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Fla. But the House remains firmly on the Moroccan side of the Western Sahara dispute.
Not so the Senate, which consistently opposes House efforts that Sahrawi advocates see as seeking to undermine the pro-independence Polisario Front and its Algerian patron. The final spending bill for 2018 removed House language calling for “the establishment of registration systems” for World Food Program aid for Sahrawi refugees in Algeria while deleting a Senate provision requiring the administration to consult with the UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO before administering economic aid in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.
Cognizant of the Senate’s skepticism on the Western Sahara issue, Morocco dispatched the Glover Park Group, another JPC subcontractor, to lobby staff on the Senate Appropriations Committee in January.
And in another win for Rabat, the Trump administration in April backed a UN resolution renewing MINURSO’s mandate that was unusually harsh on the Polisario while ignoring allegations against Morocco. The resolution however only renews MINURSO’s mandate for six months instead of the usual year, prompting Algeria and the Polisario to express hope that Morocco will be coaxed back to the negotiating table.
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