Morocco’s decision to suspend contact with Germany’s embassy in Rabat surprised many in Morocco and elsewhere, prompting a wide array of speculations as to why. With the move coming after the parliament of the state of Bremen had hoisted the flag of Polisario’s self-proclaimed republic, many were quick to point to Western Sahara as the main source of the tension between Morocco and Germany.
But the causes of the rift run deeper. If Western Sahara was the immediate cause, Morocco would take similar measures with numerous countries whose local or national politicians sympathize with and support Polisario’s separatism aspirations.
One case in point is Spain. In a tweet last November, Pablo Iglesias Turrion, Spain’s second deputy prime minister and secretary-general of Unidas Podemos, supported the establishment of an independent Sahrawi state and called on the UN to hold a referendum on self-determination. This begs the question: why did Morocco not retaliate against Spain? If anything, such a move from a deputy prime minister of Spain, Morocco’s largest economic partner, should certainly be more irksome than a mid-level German official raising the Polisario flag.
Moreover, many Spanish officials and politicians promote an ‘anti-Morocco’ discourse on a weekly basis. A notable section of the Spanish civil society has also long offered political and financial support for the Polisario Front. Despite this, Morocco has refrained from admonishing Spain, and was measured in its response to Iglesias’s affront.
But Iglesias is hardly the only high-ranking foreign official to have publicly endorsed Polisario’s “independent state.” In fact, Morocco continuously disregards similar comments and statements from European and Latin American officials and politicians, choosing instead to work behind the scenes to grow support for its territorial integrity.
One reason Morocco suspended its collaboration with the German embassy concerns Transparency International. The Berlin-based NGO receives 63% of its funding from the German government and other Western governments. A recent report it produced on Morocco paints an ominous picture of the country’s public administration.
TI heavily criticizes Morocco’s actions in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming government decisions caused rampant precariousness and further exacerbated poverty and exclusion. Citing no credible sources, it also accuses Morocco of using a mobile application, programmed to monitor the spread of the virus, to spy on Moroccans.
In Rabat, meanwhile, there is a sense that while it preaches objectivity and transparency, the NGO has often looked the other way when Germany has featured in corruption or money-laundering and “dirty money” schemes, or when large German corporations have been implicated in corruption scandals overseas in efforts to obtain lucrative contracts. Such concern over TI’s overt bias and its apparent fixation on Morocco were enough to arouse the country’s wrath.
Corruption is a major obstacle impeding countries such as Morocco from making a decisive leap towards sustained progress and prosperity. Denying or dismissing the prevalence of such a scourge in Morocco would be disingenuous.
However, I believe the timing of the TI report’s release, its content and its persistence in summarily dismissing Morocco’s efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19 caused the country’s defensive response.
Morocco has been commended for its effective COVID-19 response. Transparency International, however, chose to dismiss the country’s success in outperforming many developed nations in securing millions of vaccine doses. More to the point, Rabat’s efficient response to COVID-19 even prompted the German media to – dismayingly – question the secrets behind such success.
Further incensing Rabat was TI’s questionable neglect to mention countries performing far below Morocco on most measures of transparency. More specifically, while it released a damaging report on Morocco, TI did not report on Algeria’s dire socioeconomic situation, wobbling pandemic response and rampant corruption.
Algeria is experiencing an economic and social decline exacerbated by a disastrous handling of the pandemic. Algerian authorities have notably taken advantage of COVID-19 to circumvent the Hirak movement seeking to root out the corrupt military elite that has looted the country’s money for more than six decades. Yet Berlin-based Transparency International specifically targeted Morocco in North Africa.
Financial Action Task Force
Following TI’s report, Morocco was the subject of serious accusations from the Financial Action Task Force. FATF has put Morocco in the “gray list” for money laundering and terrorism funding. Heading this institution is Marcus Pleyer, who represents Germany in the organization.
For many in Morocco, the assessment was an unacceptable attack on the reputation of a country that features among the global leaders in the fight against extremism and money laundering. It weakened foreign investors’ confidence in Morocco, and this could not have come at a more inauspicious time for a country vying to attract investments to revive its economy. As soon as FATF published its report, many questioned its integrity and the accuracy of its findings. Even more disturbing, the report refrained from mentioning several countries – including Germany – notorious for being money laundering havens. For example, Morocco ranked 72nd in Tax Justice Network’s latest Tax Secrecy Index. Meanwhile, the US ranked as the world’s second most secretive jurisdiction, followed by Switzerland (third), Luxembourg (fourth) and Singapore (fifth). Germany ranked 14th and Algeria was 23rd.
Morocco performed significantly better than most Western and MENA countries in terms of tax secrecy. Yet such tax havens did not appear on the FATF report. The reason behind some Western countries’ absence from the “gray list,” despite their grim record on the Tax Secrecy Index, is arguably the fact that most of them are FATF members.
That Morocco has decided to suspend collaboration and communication with the German embassy and its affiliated institutions suggests displeasure with the Transparency International office in Rabat, which is beholden to the Berlin-based office and receives substantial German government funding.
Morocco clearly did not react to a state-level German official’s position regarding the Sahara issue. If this were the case, Morocco would not have suspended activities with German embassy-affiliated institutions. The country would have released a statement that explicitly asserted its position towards its territorial sovereignty, instead of being content with labeling the incident “a deep misunderstanding with Germany on fundamental questions to the Kingdom of Morocco.”
If the incident were only related to the Sahara issue, Morocco would have expressed its dissatisfaction with Germany’s position in December 2020, when the country criticized former US president Donald Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
But the Transparency International and FATF reports were also mere additions to an ongoing distrust between Morocco and Germany. They came out around the same time a convicted terrorist released several videos claiming he was tortured in a Moroccan jail. Germany has denied Morocco’s request to extradite him, given his German nationality.
Morocco was also incensed by its exclusion from the Berlin conference in January 2020 – despite its prominent role in hosting the Libyan dialogue in 2015 and sponsoring the Skhirat Agreement. All of which means the clouds were already gathering between Berlin and Rabat, and FATF’s and TI’s reports were but the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The decision to suspend all collaboration with the German embassy sends a clear message to Germany. With it, Morocco is urging the European country to review its standpoint and policies towards Morocco’s strategic interests, including its territorial integrity.
The author is a political analyst and researcher specializing in Morocco’s foreign policy, currently based in Washington, and the editor-in-chief of Morocco World News, the main English-language news outlet about Morocco and the Maghreb.