U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Morocco on Tuesday to discuss recent shifts in the diplomatic dynamic in the Middle East and North Africa that could upend some of the region’s long-standing disputes.
A day after an unprecedented gathering in Israel’s Negev Desert with the Israeli foreign minister and their counterparts from four Arab nations that have normalized relations with Israel, Blinken held talks with senior Moroccan officials to look at opportunities for expanding those ties.
In Morocco and again in Algeria on Wednesday, Blinken was also exploring options for helping end the neighbors’ festering row over Western Sahara after new developments offered fresh hope but added new complications for a resolution.
In Rabat, he will also see the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to try to ease U.S.-UAE tensions over a possible resurrection of the languishing 2015 Iran nuclear deal and a recent spat over a visit to the Emirates by Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
The meeting between Blinken and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita was their second direct encounter in two days. The pair were together on Monday in the Israeli town of Sde Boker, where they each confirmed their countries’ commitment to supporting a revitalized Middle East with growing ties between Israel and Arab states.
Morocco, along with the UAE and Bahrain, was one of the countries to fully normalize relations with Israel during the Trump administration’s push to negotiate the so-called “Abraham Accords,” in which the U.S. pledged significant support in exchange for such recognition. While technically not an Abraham Accords signatory, Morocco won U.S. recognition for its claim to Western Sahara in return for its agreement with Israel.
In a rare endorsement of a Trump foreign policy initiative, the Biden administration has signaled its full backing for the Abraham Accords and pledged to try to expand and strengthen them. However, while the administration has not revoked Trump’s decision on Western Sahara, it has been largely silent on the matter and U.S. plans to build a consulate in the territory have not advanced since being announced by Trump in 2020.
That has led to questions about whether Washington is fully on board with Moroccan sovereignty over the former Spanish colony.
Just last week, Spain shifted its long-standing position on the territory by backing Morocco’s plan to give Western Sahara more autonomy as long it remains under Moroccan control, calling it “the most serious, realistic and credible” initiative for resolving the decades-long dispute.
Blinken echoed the “serious, realistic and credible” phrase in addressing the Moroccan plan, but stopped short of a full endorsement, saying it represented “one potential approach” to resolving the dispute.
Bourita said the autonomy plan had been praised by many countries, including Spain and the United States, but that others – particularly in Europe – should get on board. “We think it’s time for Europe mainly to get out of this comfort zone where people are supporting a process (and) shift into an outcome-oriented effort.”
The Spanish move was immediately welcomed by Rabat, which reinstated its ambassador to Madrid after a 10-month absence. But it was sharply criticized by Algeria, which supports Western Sahara’s Polisario Front independence movement, and recalled its ambassador to Spain.
In his meetings with the two protagonists, Blinken hoped to explore the potential for compromises on Western Sahara. The vast territory, which Morocco annexed in 1976, is largely barren but rich in phosphates and faces fertile Atlantic Ocean fishing grounds.
The Polisario called Spain’s decision a “grave error” that yields to Morocco’s leverage over the control of migrants crossing into Europe and accuses Madrid of taking sides in a dispute that the Spanish government for decades said could only be settled in a referendum held under UN auspices.