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A Special Partnership

What is NATO's strategy with Morocco?

12 April 2024

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO (herein referred to as the organization or the alliance) Secretary General, stated in his annual report that the organization looks to continue counter-terrorism discussions with Morocco, one of its most important partners, particularly in the Maghreb and North Africa regions. In 2023, the alliance held meetings on terrorism with many of its members, including Morocco, Qatar, Iraq, Kuwait, and Colombia.

Specific Motives

Talks about the current collaboration between NATO and Morocco raised questions about the former’s motives particularly as other countries from the same region such as Algeria were not included.  This exceptionalism can be explained as follows:

1. Morocco’s geostrategic location: 

The North African kingdom is the closest country to Europe via the Strait of Gibraltar, overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, and is also linked to the West African region— which is of strategic importance to European countries and the United States. This urges NATO to deepen its security collaboration with Morocco due to its closeness to areas of rising terrorist activity in the Sahel and Sahara. Morocco is also seen as a key gateway for illegal immigration to Western countries. 

2. Morocco’s experience in combating terrorism: 

Morocco has significant security and intelligence experience in the field of counter-terrorism, given its "preemptive strikes" strategy. The latter has largely succeeded in recent years in neutralizing terrorist organizations' capabilities and preventing them from carrying out operations within the kingdom. This strategy has thus been successful in safeguarding Morocco's national security, prompting NATO to strengthen its relations with the country as well as in combating illegal immigration flows to European countries.

3. Morocco’s political weight: 

Morocco has recently achieved diplomatic success by establishing bilateral relations with a number of countries, particularly European ones. Moroccan foreign policy has received international recognition of its sovereignty over the disputed Sahara area, particularly from major powers such as the United States and Spain. This is in addition to the qualitative shift in the French stance in recent years, as well as its success in changing the views of many African countries on the subject. This highlights Morocco's potential to influence these countries, which can be leveraged to advance NATO's interests in Africa in the coming years. 

4. An “African NATO”:

Morocco has already contributed to the organization's successful implementation of its vision. For example, Morocco established the basis of an alliance that includes the African countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean, "an African NATO," in 2022. This was in alignment with the NATO's directions to expand its membership to include new countries, especially African ones. The "African NATO" would carry out the NATO's goals, particularly in limiting rising Russian influence in the African continent at the expense of Western interests. 

Restoring the Role

NATO's annual report highlights the continuous discussions with Morocco as a crucial partner in the fight against terrorism. The organization intends to achieve a series of major goals, the most important of which are as follows:

1. Developing the security alliance with Morocco: 

NATO has been pursuing a policy of building security partnerships that support its core missions, particularly in countering terrorism on the African continent. Given the region's chaotic security landscape, NATO leaders have recognized the importance of developing existing security partnerships further to confront common security challenges. NATO has partnerships with 35 countries and many international organizations, which it relies on for various types of support such as partnership training, education centers, or financial contributions in its trust funds. 

This explains Morocco's participation in various NATO-led joint military exercises in 2023, including STEADFAST JACKAL 23 held in Spain and Norway in December. Morocco also took part in the "Sea Guardian 2023" exercises in the western Mediterranean and near the Strait of Gibraltar as part of the joint operation FOCOPS 23-6, which included the "Moulay Ismail" frigate of the "Sigma 9813" class. The Moroccan Armed Forces also participated in military education courses organized by the NATO. These courses aim to develop professional military education institutions in many countries as part of efforts to improve the capabilities of officers not assigned to the Moroccan Armed Forces. 

2. Facing the growing Russian role: 

Talk of increasing NATO's cooperation with Morocco comes amid rising security tensions in the Sahel-Sahara region, which is experiencing a rapid rise in Russian influence. During the last three years, Moscow has succeeded in extending its influence and strengthening its role in Sahel-Saharan countries, which continue to face increasing political and security unrest. Russian influence, particularly Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, has resulted in a significant decline in Western influence in that region. This has prompted NATO to consider the importance of containing Morocco and strengthening its existing partnership to prevent Russian influence, while also attempting to strengthen its own role in the Sahel-Sahara region. NATO may gain from Morocco's Atlantic Initiative, which aims to simplify access to the Atlantic Ocean. This was proposed by Moroccan King Mohammed VI and welcomed by Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, who declared their willingness to work with Morocco to maximize political and economic benefits.  

While Morocco stands to gain greater influence in those countries, the NATO can use its connection with the kingdom, a distinguished partner of Mauritania, to create an effective, loyal bloc in the Sahel, Sahara, and West Africa regions. One that will also fill the security vacuum left by France following its withdrawal from the region. 

3. Addressing growing terrorism threats: 

NATO seeks to improve its security collaboration with Morocco to enhance military and security capabilities in confronting the growing threat of terrorism in Africa. The organization has implemented several mechanisms including: The action program for defending against terrorism; a terrorist intelligence cell at NATO headquarters; technological research on counter-terrorism efforts; and the use of modern technology to combat cyber terrorist attacks and protect infrastructure. European security involvement in the Sahel and Sahara region has waned in recent years, particularly in light of the region's military coups. This emphasizes the significance of increasing security cooperation with Morocco to secure NATO's southern frontiers. This could be achieved through NATO support for the "African NATO" project, which includes nations overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with an emphasis on Morocco and Mauritania among the members. 

4. Securing energy supply: 

NATO leaders seek to strengthen their members' relations with Morocco, not only on a security level, but also to ensure access to energy supplies. This is particularly true given the impact of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis on European countries' natural gas supplies. Strengthening the current alliance with Morocco ensures NATO members' access to natural gas via the gas transportation project from Nigeria to Morocco. However, security concerns as well as huge financial costs are among some of the major obstacles to its implementation. This is what motivates NATO to achieve regional stability: To ensure the project’s implementation and reap its potential advantages. 

Rabat’s Opportunities

This reconciliation between NATO and Morocco achieves several goals for the latter, which are noted below:

1. Increasing Morocco's military capabilities: 

The security and military partnership with NATO includes developing the Moroccan armed forces' capabilities— particularly in terms of military confrontations and special operations in the field of counter-terrorism. This is achieved through participation in joint military maneuvers and officer training courses, including the use of weapons and modern military technology. Morocco and NATO have an established alliance that involves the use of light and small weapons. Also, Morocco is set to host the “African Lion 2024” exercise in its updated edition, which is set for May. This would boost Morocco's military capabilities while confirming the strength of Moroccan-American military cooperation and links with NATO. 

2. Contributing to maintaining Morocco’s national security: 

This is due to Morocco's use of its alliance with NATO to tackle possible security challenges, particularly given the tensions in political and security relations with Algeria. Morocco may use its ties with NATO to send a message of deterrence to Algeria, which has severed diplomatic ties with the kingdom Morocco after accusing it of disturbing its stability. Morocco may also leverage its proximity to the organization against the Polisario Front, which Algeria supports militarily and materially.

3. Strengthening Morocco’s political status: 

NATO regards Morocco as an important partner outside the alliance in the Maghreb and North Africa region. Morocco is leveraging this relationship to strengthen its political and security positions, as well as its overall influence on the African continent. The kingdom also stands to expand its influence, based on NATO's reliance on it as a key partner in attaining peace and security on the African continent. All these factors also contribute to enabling Morocco to pursue its economic strategy, as well as extending its influence into African nations,  which it can assist in achieving economic development. 

NATO's ongoing conversations with Rabat on counter-terrorism, as a significant partner in the Maghreb and North Africa region, confirms Morocco's importance in this sphere while also indicating NATO's desire to increase its security presence on the African continent. This increases the likelihood that NATO may intervene directly in some of the crises that have arisen, in an attempt to secure the alliance's interests on the one hand, while also confronting expanding Russian and Chinese influence in Africa on the other.