Earlier this summer, there was an unusual story out of Morocco. On May 1, the government severed political ties with Iran and recalled its ambassador. That’s not the unusual part; Morocco and Iran have longstanding animosity, and the government in Rabat cut diplomatic ties in 2009 (they were reinstated in 2014) and accused Iran of spreading Shiism in the country. The unusual part is that Rabat said it had evidence that Iran was using Hezbollah to support the Polisario Front, the separatist group that has been fighting for Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco since the 1970s. Hezbollah, it said, was giving Polisario military training and weapons – undermining Morocco’s interests and constituting “an attack on the country’s territorial integrity,” in the words of Rabat. Given developments in U.S.-Iran relations, domestic Iranian affairs and Iran’s relationship with proxy groups, what was once a garden variety diplomatic tiff is now much more interesting.
The United Nations brokered a cease-fire between Morocco and Polisario in 1991. It reduced hostilities but failed to establish a permanent peace. Morocco administers most of the country, including nearly all of the Atlantic coastline. The U.N. position is that the independence of Western Sahara – or rather, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, as the Sahrawi people who resist Moroccan control prefer to call it – should be recognized. Morocco sees things differently. A new round of U.N.-led talks is supposed to take place sometime before 2019. The United States, the European Union and Russia also generally support these talks, and each has its own vision of what it would like the talks to produce.
The diplomatic spat puts the United States, hypersensitive to any inkling that Iran’s influence abroad is growing, in an interesting position. In late July, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Karem met with Morocco’s minister of national defense to reinforce bilateral military and security cooperation. According to local newspaper Assabah, which is owned by a media company that is owned by the Moroccan king, the U.S. sees Morocco as the western tip in a strategic alliance with Sunni nations to contain Shiite Iran. Morocco has shown its support for Washington’s anti-Iran efforts by backing U.S. sanctions and warning local financial institutions and businesses not to engage in trade with Iran. Diplomatic sources told Assabah that this anti-Iran bloc would also include the Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt, giving it a reach beyond the Middle East and into North Africa. (It’s worth noting that the U.S. also has other security concerns in North Africa, like checking the size and strength of the Islamic State and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.)
If this is indeed the U.S. strategy, it’s a logical one. But it also may be problematic, because recent developments in Morocco have put that country’s stability in doubt, and instability would make Morocco a weaker, less reliable partner.
On Monday, the country’s ministerial council, which is chaired by the king, approved a draft law reinstating mandatory military service (for both men and women), which had been ended in 2006. The stated reason for the change was restoring “the spirit of patriotism in young people.”
The unstated reason is that it gives the country’s young people something to do. Youth unemployment in Morocco is around 18 percent, according to the World Bank. This isn’t startling high by global standards – nearby Tunisia’s figure is twice as high, for example – but Morocco is one of Africa’s most stable countries. The demographic segment counted in youth unemployment – those aged 15 to 24 – makes up 18 percent of Morocco’s population. The unemployment rate among university graduates has doubled in the past five years and now stands at 22 percent, according to the government. Moreover, the Moroccan High Commission of Planning said higher education does not translate to better chances for employment: About 52 percent of the actively employed people in the country lack a degree, compared with 34 percent of employees who do hold one. With low faith in their job prospects after graduation, students have begun to drop out at a higher rate. According to a recent study by the Economic and Social Council in Morocco, most youths who do work are in the informal labor market and earn low wages. The council also says that Morocco’s economic growth – which at about 3 percent annually is already not particularly high – does not benefit the youth populations. It reports high rates of idle behavior. About three-quarters of Morocco’s youths lack health insurance.
Unemployment is never good from an economic perspective, but from a security and political perspective, youth unemployment is especially troubling. Disgruntled youths in Morocco have started leading protests and marches in economically marginalized areas, such as Rif and Jerada. Protests erupted last year in Rif and have reoccurred several times this year.
The Economic and Social Council in Morocco study also noted that there is a strong tendency among contemporary youth toward greater religiosity. In the past, Morocco has been known for its rather secular and pro-Western society, even going so far as to ban the manufacture and sale of burqas in early 2017. But anti-West sentiment and religious zeal are both on the rise, which is raising concerns in Rabat and elsewhere about the potential for religious extremism to take hold.
And it’s not just an abstract fear. During protests in Rabat in July that included about 30,000 people, youths mixed with an estimated 6,000-8,000 members of the banned Islamist movement al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Spirituality), which seeks to establish a Sufi Islamist state in mostly Sunni Morocco. On Wednesday, in honor of the Eid al-Adha religious holiday, the king pardoned some political prisoners linked to protest movements. This may have been an attempt to quell social unrest and regain some popular support.
In addition to reinstating military conscription, there’s a consensus within Morocco’s government on the need for economic reform, especially to promote education, vocational training and general job development. The economy minister was recently replaced, at the prime minister’s behest. The king also announced a comprehensive review of public mechanisms and programs for youth employment and training that is scheduled to begin this year. It will include work between the government and private sector to form programs to address drop-outs and provide training to former students.
Several big players want something from Morocco right now. Its Mediterranean access and reputation as an island of stability gives it strategic value. Iran senses an opportunity to support destabilization in the region and distract the United States. The U.S. sees an ally that can help contain Iran. The EU wants a partner in the effort to stem the flow of migration from North Africa. Russia, which has strong ties with neighboring Algeria (supporters of Western Sahara), has lofty dreams of increasing its naval presence and logistical support in the Mediterranean. But the whole picture gets much more complicated if Morocco can’t sate its restless youths and develops an extremism problem.