Editorials

What the Appointment of Rex Tillerson Means for Morocco

Samir Bennis

New York - Contrary to the expectations of American and international observers, US President-elect, Donald Trump, appointed Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.

According to insider reports in American media, the appointment was made based on a recommendation from former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. While the appointment of Rex Tillerson has been applauded by a number of Republican heavyweights, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, many senators, including Republicans, have lined up to express their disapproval of this appointment. The argument used by opponents of this appointment is that Tillerson purportedly lacks diplomatic and political experience and has close personal ties to Vladimir Putin, whom he has known for decades.

As for Morocco, this appointment may increase the uncertainty and ambiguity about the US administration’s foreign policy towards Morocco, especially regarding the Western Sahara.

Taking into account the background of the newly appointed Secretary of State and the field in which he has worked throughout his career, one could say that this appointment could have adverse ramifications not in favor of Morocco.

Because of his long career in the field of oil as the chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corporation, the world's sixth largest company by revenue, the new Secretary of State, if confirmed, will presumably  work to ensure the interests of major US companies throughout the world. This will likely play in favor of Algeria, which will seize the opportunity to offer generous contracts to ExxonMobil in return for a cosier relationship with Washington and more support for Algeria’s foreign policy.

Under the chairmanship of Tillerson, the US oil giant has worked for many years, especially since 2010, to obtain contracts for the exploitation of the Algerian shale gas. Now with his appointment as Secretary of State, Algeria may move quickly to use its powerful lobby in the state of Texas in order strengthen its ties with the new US administration.

Nevertheless, there is another factor that may play in favor of Morocco, namely the long-term relations between the new Secretary of State and the political and business environments related to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Thanks to these countries’ long time dealings with Tillerson -- as well as participation of Exxon Mobil in large-scale projects with these countries, they may play a positive role in support of Morocco’s position regarding the Western Sahara. The three countries may prove instrumental in convincing Tillerson not to take any positions that could undermine the US’ positive neutrality regarding the Western Sahara.

On the other hand, regardless of the importance that oil interests may play in influencing the new US administration, Morocco has important cards, which if used appropriately, could make it immune to any change of mood of US decision makers. Among Morocco’s most important cards is its leading role in recent years in the fight against terrorism and extremism and its prominent role in spreading the tolerant values of Islam.

It is no secret that Morocco has played an important role in the US policy to fight terrorism since the terrorist attacks on the US of September 11, 2001. That significant role is arguably what prompted former US President George W. Bush to consider Morocco one of America’s non-NATO major allies and to lobby for the signing of a free trade agreement between the two countries. In exchange for Morocco’s support of the US war on terror during the Bush era, the U.S. was the only country that clearly supported the Autonomy Plan presented by Morocco in 2007 to find a mutually acceptable political solution to the Western Sahara dispute.

In recent years, Morocco has accumulated enough of a track record on combatting extremism and terrorism to have become one of the leading players worldwide in the war against terrorism. Evidence of that is the fact that Morocco has managed to prevent the occurrence of any attacks on its territory over the past six years, at a time when neighbouring countries have been subjected to terrorist attacks on a regular basis.

Morocco’s acclaimed expertise in the field has enabled it to thwart a number of terrorist attacks in several European countries such as France and Spain, as well as to assist the French authorities to locate the whereabouts of the mastermind of the terrorist attacks that shook Paris on November 13, 2015.

Morocco has not only been successful in effectively foiling terrorist plans of the so-called Islamic state, but it has emerged as a shining example in promoting tolerance and spreading the genuine values of Islam, through the training of imams in several African and European countries. The success of the Moroccan experience has been manifest in the requests of many countries such as France, Spain, Senegal, Gabon, and Mali to the Moroccan authorities to help them train their imams and religious leaders.

Given the fact that the fight against Islamic terrorism and the so-called Islamic state is one of the top priorities of the President-Elect, Morocco should use all of these cards that are not available to Algeria, nor to any other country in the region, to inform and influence the agenda of US foreign policy.

International relations in North Africa, the Middle East and other regions of the world will enter a new phase after Donald Trump takes office. Thus, Morocco should redouble its efforts to market itself as the indispensable and most reliable ally for the US in its long-term strategy to defeat ISIS and fight terrorism.

 Moroccans should no longer settle for empty compliments about Morocco being “the first nation to recognize the United States of America,” and take them as a guarantee that the US will remain friendly towards Morocco. The new American administration, like its predecessors, will work to serve US national interests in a pragmatic way notwithstanding such complimentary rhetoric, and will deal with each country on a traditional quid pro quo basis..

Therefore, Moroccan officials should demonstrate clearly to the new American administration that Morocco is an essential key to maintaining stability in the region and preserving US interests and the interests of its European allies. American decision-makers should be made aware that any geopolitical imbalance in the region is likely to harm the US interests and may throw the region into an unknown and unstable future.

Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis

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