Africa, Middle East, New in Lobbying, Regional conflicts

Trump’s move on Western Sahara follows years-long lobbying push by Morocco

The Donald Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara today marks the culmination of a years-long, multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign by the North African kingdom.

The US becomes the first country to recognize Rabat’s claims on the disputed territory in exchange for Morocco normalizing relations with Israel following similar moves by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. The decision creates new pressure on the United Nations to adopt Morocco’s autonomy plan for the region in lieu of a long-delayed independence referendum for the native Sahrawis.

“The United States believes that an independent Sahrawi State is not a realistic option for resolving the conflict and that genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution,” President Trump said in a proclamation. “We urge the parties to engage in discussions without delay, using Morocco’s autonomy plan as the only framework to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution.”

Morocco has spent about $1.5 million a year lobbying in recent years — down from about twice that under the Barack Obama administration — to get to this point.

The country seized control of the territory in 1975 when its colonial master Spain pulled out. Moroccan forces fought a war with the pro-independence Polisario Front until 1991, when the UN brokered a cease-fire with the promise of a referendum on independence.

With progress on the referendum stalled, Morocco has spent the past 14 years lobbying Congress and various administrations to get behind its autonomy plan, which it first unveiled in 2006.

“Since that time they have moved slowly but surely to gain international recognition for that concept,” said Ed Gabriel, a former US ambassador to Morocco under President Bill Clinton who led Morocco’s lobbying efforts as executive director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy in Washington until late 2017. “And today was a major move and success for them.”

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Map by Julia Byrne / Foreign Lobby Report

The kingdom claims that the 100,000-square-mile, sparsely populated territory of desert flatlands would become a breeding ground for terrorists if left to administer itself. While poor, the territory is home to teeming fishing waters and large reserves of phosphate, a key ingredient in fertilizer.

“By both the Trump administration and Morocco this was seen as a major regional stability question, both in terms of Arab country relations with Israel and in stabilizing North Africa,” Gabriel said. “That has long been Morocco’s lobbying position. With the advent of the normalization agreements though it created space for Morocco to look more widely beyond their own concerns at home and look across the region about how they could contribute.”

Proponents of the referendum argue that it’s Morocco that’s driving instability with its actions. Last month, the Polisario declared that war was back on after the Moroccan army launched an operation against Sahrawi activists in a UN-patrolled buffer zone.

In 2015, Rabat successfully lobbied Congress to begin requiring that part of the US assistance package for Morocco be spent on programs in the Western Sahara, offering de facto recognition of its claims on the territory. Trump today took one step further, promising to encourage economic and social development with Morocco “including in the Western Sahara” and to open a consulate in Dakhla.

With the advent of the Trump administration, Morocco recalibrated its lobbying approach. It ended its relationship with Gabriel, who had been a adviser to Hillary Clinton‘s 2016 presidential campaign, and replaced the MACP with firms closer to Republicans.

These include JPC Strategies, which was launched in 2017 by James Christoferson, a former deputy chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). JPC in turn has hired a bevy of firms including SGR Government Relations and Lobbying; Iron Bridge Strategies; Neale Creek; and the Glover Park Group (the latter has since been hired directly by the Moroccan government). Separately the Embassy of Morocco in Washington has hired ThirdCircle, a firm headed by Richard Smotkin, a longtime friend of Scott Pruitt who arranged a controversial trip to Morocco for the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator during which Pruitt pushed US natural gas exports. 

In January 2019, Neale Creek founder Andrew King — who at the time also a managing director with the Glover Park Group — accompanied members of the Republican Jewish Coalition on a trip to Morocco. They were accompanied by Elliot Abrams, a longtime advocate of having the US recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara dating back to his time at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

Asked about the aim of the RJC’s visit to Rabat, Abrams wrote off suggestions that the group was working to facilitate prospective diplomatic overtures between Morocco and Israel. “My only comment is that I have many friends in Morocco, especially in the Jewish community, and was happy to see them again,” Abrams told this reporter at the time.

But news outlets in Washington are now confirming that the talks that led to normalization with Israel began around that time. The talks have intensified in recent months, Axios reports, as Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and special envoy Avi Berkowitz negotiated directly with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

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“The lobbying set the groundwork for it but the real breakthrough was the Trump administration, whether it was Jared [Kushner] or [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo or whoever, who have been visiting [King Mohammed VI] pretty regularly,” said Jean AbiNader, a former Morocco lobbyist with the MACP. “What it represents is a very smart king who figured out that if he waits for [President-elect Joe] Biden it might not happen.”

Despite today’s historic win, Moroccan lobbying is likely to continue as Rabat presses Washington to line up other countries behind Morocco’s claims.

“There’s no question that Moroccan lobbying on the Western Sahara has been intense in Washington for many years,” said William Lawrence, a former State Department diplomat specializing on North Africa who is now a professor at American University’s School of International Service. “And this is a major success of that effort. But it’s not the end of that effort, because Morocco won’t be done lobbying until the whole world recognizes its [claims of] sovereignty.”