The government of Morocco is revamping its US lobbying operations for the second time in four years after another changing of the guard in the White House.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation terminated its $75,000-a-month contract with Republican-owned JPC Strategies on Jan. 17, according to a new lobbying filing. The firm, which does business as Gentium Strategies, was founded by James Christoferson, a former deputy chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
JPC subcontractors FGH Holdings (formerly the Glover Park Group) and Neal Creek, which was founded by former Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) staffer Andrew King, have also deregistered as of last month. King notably accompanied members of the Republican Jewish Coalition on a January 2019 trip to Morocco attended by Elliot Abrams, who would go on to serve as special representative for Iran under Trump.
Two other subcontractors on the account, SGR Government Relations and Iron Bridge, have yet to update their filings.
The lobbying reshuffle follows a familiar pattern.
Morocco first hired JPC in January 2018 shortly after parting ways with Democratic lobbyists following President Donald Trump‘s election. Previously the influence campaign had been led by the Moroccan American Center for Policy and its chairman Ed Gabriel, a former US ambassador to Morocco under President Bill Clinton who advised Hillary Clinton‘s 2016 presidential campaign.
JPC did not respond to a request for comment. The Moroccan Embassy in Washington said it had no comment for the time being.
The lobbying terminations come after Morocco scored a major diplomatic victory in the closing weeks of the Trump administration when the United States recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco normalizing relations with Israel.
Rabat has long lobbied Washington and other foreign capitals to adopt its preferred autonomy plan for the territory, which is rich in phosphates and fishing, in lieu of a long-delayed, UN-backed independence referendum for the native Sahrawis.
In 2015 Moroccan lobbyists convinced 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. The Trump administration in December 2020 took things one step further, promising to encourage economic and social development with Morocco “including in the Western Sahara” and to open a consulate in Dakhla.
The Embassy of Morocco in Washington still has a $40,000-a-month contract with ThirdCircle that remains listed as active. That firm is 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.
And the country’s biggest company, phosphate mining giant OCP, has launched a massive lobbying and public relations campaign to stave off threatened tariffs and rebuild its presence in Washington.
Morocco watchers say Rabat would be ill-advised to consider the matter settled and drop its lobbying entirely.
While President Joe Biden has yet to comment on the Western Sahara matter specifically, his administration is reviewing a number of Middle East policy decisions made in the closing days of the Trump administration. And last week 27 senators signed a bipartisan letter to the president urging him to “reverse” what they called a “misguided” decision by his predecessor.
“The abrupt decision by the previous administration … to officially recognize the Kingdom of Morocco’s illegitimate claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara was short-sighted, undermined decades of consistent US policy, and alienated a significant number of African nations,” states the letter, which was spearheaded by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We respectfully urge you to reverse this misguided decision and recommit the United States to the pursuit of a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara.”
Jean AbiNader, a former director of the Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center in Washington, said Morocco needs to engage with the new administration, calling the deal negotiated under Trump a “non-starter.”
“Morocco,” AbiNader said, “has several choices to make its place on the Biden Administration’s North Africa policy agenda: Find a collaborative approach to a political solution to the Sahara issue through a proactive US stance at the UN Security Council; insist that the US government honor the Trump commitment which, I believe, is a non-starter given the foreign policy experts that drive US policy in the region; or seize the opportunity to come back to the administration with an autonomy plan that the US will welcome as THE solution by giving robust autonomy to the region.”
“Or, of course, the US can kick the can down the road, which it has been doing for decades,” he added. “That’s the least helpful alternative.”