Supporting peaceful change in the MENA region

As all eyes focused on the unrest in Cairo, MSN Arabia, an online American news site, recently gave its international audience an opportunity to indicate which leader they appreciated most in the Arab world. More than a half million people around the world responded. King Mohammed VI of Morocco was recognized for his leadership in the region by more than 64 percent of respondents. Sheikh Khalifa Ben Zaid of the United Arab Emirates came in second with 32 percent.  Every other Arab leader received 2 percent or less of the votes cast.

While the results are not scientific, the survey does give a sense of what people are thinking, which should provide a lesson for U.S. foreign policymakers.  Why is King Mohammed so admired, not just by Moroccans but also internationally and what is Morocco doing to garner such admiration?

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Morocco remains a singular example of a country that has remained calm in the political turbulence of the Middle East and North Africa. The irony is that Morocco receives little attention from U.S. policymakers because it is not in crisis. While Egypt faces disruptive change from the bottom up, Morocco continues to experience calm and significant change from the top down, as well as growing political support, accountability, and participation from the grassroots.

During his nearly 14 years as the country’s leader, King Mohammed VI has moved progressively on reforms while maintaining a balance between stability, security, and change that most Moroccans seem to value highly.  Officials of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) have remarked that Morocco has the most advanced political party and parliamentary system in the Middle East, and many U.S. policymakers acknowledge its leadership in promoting an advanced and active civil society.  For example, the significant advancement of women and their participation in government, industry, and civil society is well-recognized in the Arab world.  The king has declared a war on poverty and economic marginalization and has mobilized resources from around the world in this quest. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission exposed and remunerated victims of past human rights abuses. While much remains to be done in reforming Morocco, this historic U.S. ally remains the best prospect to be a regional model for the 21st century.  

America’s policy in the Middle East reflects a concern with crises and short-term urgent matters, and not enough focus on the need to actively support successful and longer-term nation-building objectives in countries like Morocco that share U.S. values and interests and desire our partnership.  While the U.S. tries to figure out how best to adjust its policies in Egypt, which admittedly will be painstaking and difficult, we ought not to lose sight of countries whose leaders meet three important criteria: they command overwhelming popularity at home and abroad; they are governing justly and progressively; and they desire to build stronger relations with the U.S.  These are leaders and countries that merit full U.S. policy support and program attention.  Most importantly, in the tough neighborhood of North Africa and the Sahel, we cannot afford to neglect the opportunity to garner much-needed support for US priorities from Morocco, a stable, strategic and reliable ally that shares our objectives in the region.

America should be learning some hard lessons in the Middle East and North Africa, in particular that we cannot change countries whose people are not supportive of their leaders and whose institutions are not prepared to change to meet the needs of the people.   We can and should work with countries in the MENA region and elsewhere that welcome America’s partnership and friendship in the pursuit of common interests and values.

Gabriel is the former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, 1997 to 2001, and currently advises the government of Morocco.