Marrakech, Morocco - The recent tour of King Mohamed VI of Morocco of a number of African countries was packed with symbolism. It was a reflection of the kingdom's recent drive to expand its economic and political influence across sub-Saharan Africa, and it showed how Morocco makes use of both historic ties in the region and the kingdom's trump card - the spiritual authority of the Moroccan throne.
"Morocco has strategic depth in West Africa, built on historical, cultural and religious relations," Mohammed Benhammou, president of the Moroccan Centre for Strategic Studies, told Al Jazeera.
"There's a strong religious link through the Tijaniyyah order of Sufism, which has a long presence in the area. The order originated in Fes, which still welcomes many pilgrims from West Africa, so there's a link between the king and residents of those countries."
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For many Muslims across West Africa, influenced by Sufi strands of Islam, the Moroccan monarch is more than just another head of state. He is the Commander of the Faithful (Amir Al Mu’mineen), an Islamic title for a ruler with spiritual as well as political authority. As such, he commands respect: when Malian rebel leader Bilal Ag Acherif visited Marrakech in January, he did not stand directly next to his host, but kissed the king's hand and then took a deferential step back to pray slightly behind him.
Southern Europe is in the doldrums, so Morocco is looking for new markets and also opportunities for its banking sector.
The monarch's religious credentials have played a key role in Morocco's recent push to expand its regional clout. In February, King Mohammad set off on a tour of Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Gabon, his second regional trip in less than five months. He took with him a delegation of advisors and company CEOs who negotiated a raft of agreements covering everything from training imams in Ivory Coast to agriculture and mining projects.
There is sound economic logic to the way Morocco is pushing to expand its commercial ties in the south and east. As France and Spain struggle to recover from the eurozone crisis, Moroccan companies that have traditionally looked north are seeking new opportunities in the fast-growing economies of West Africa.
"Southern Europe is in the doldrums, so Morocco is looking for new markets and also opportunities for its banking sector," Michael Willis, a lecturer on Maghreb politics at Oxford University, told Al Jazeera.
One place the country is looking is in Gabon, a tiny West African nation whose economy has grown at about six percent a year since 2010. In March, Morocco signed a $2.3bn deal to produce fertilizer using Moroccan phosphate and natural gas from Gabon. The deal was followed up by a draft law in the Moroccan parliament that would allow visa-free travel between the two countries.
Countries like Gabon are particularly attractive to Morocco's growing financial sector. In 2013, two Moroccan banks, Attijariwafa Bank and Groupe BCP, ranked among the continent's top 10 biggest financial institutions, and their influence looks set to spread. Another Moroccan bank, Banque Populaire, recently opened a branch in Mali, and some Moroccan banks are now investing in mining projects as distant as the Congo, competing with the five big South African banks that dominate the continent.
"There’s now a Moroccan banking presence in over 40 states," El-Moussaoui El-Ajlaoui, a researcher at the Center for African Studies in Rabat, told Al Jazeera. "Morocco has a strong financial sector and it's working on strategic economic sectors like metals, transport and so on. Moroccan banks can also supply financial coverage for the activities of small- and medium-sized enterprises, the kind which affect sub-Saharan Africans' daily lives."
Judging by the slew of 40 agreements thus far signed in the wake of the king’s latest tour, many West African governments welcome Moroccan investment. But some suspect the kingdom’s diplomatic campaign is more about politics than commerce. Morocco has long been estranged from much of Africa over the Western Sahara conflict; winning friends south of the Sahara could strengthen Rabat's position both on that issue and in its ongoing rivalry with Algeria.
It’s in the interests of the Europeans that there should be stability in the region. They see Morocco as a tool to that end.
Morocco left the Organisation of African Unity, the precursor to the African Union (AU), in 1984 after the grouping admitted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) to its membership. SADR, which was proclaimed in 1976 by the rebel Polisario Front, claims sovereignty over the whole Western Sahara territory, which Morocco sees as an integral part of its own territory. Morocco has since refused to join the AU unless the organisation withdraws or freezes the membership of SADR. It may be that by mending fences with individual African states, Morocco can win support for this goal.
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The Western Sahara is also a key point of contention between Morocco and Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front. But that is not the only aspect of the rivalry: With Egypt engrossed in its own domestic problems and the Libyan state dissolving into chaos, the role of top regional power in North Africa is up for grabs. Morocco and Algeria are key contenders, which may be why the Moroccan press saw the king’s invitation to Bilal Ag Acherif to pray with him - just days after the collapse of Algerian attempts to mediate an agreement between rival factions in Mali - as a diplomatic coup.
"Morocco wants to squeeze Algeria out of regional politics. Algeria presented itself as a state the West can deal with on terrorism and so on. But Morocco wants to play that role," Willis said.
There are signs Morocco is gaining on its rival. Last year, Morocco hosted several big regional security conferences, with participants from across the world. It dominates the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), a regional grouping. This year it plans to host another major security summit with 28 African states in attendance. And crucially, it has the backing of European states.
"France now wants to employ Morocco as an economic and security actor in the region," said El-Ajlaoui. "It's in the interests of the Europeans that there should be stability in the region. They see Morocco as a tool to that end."
But for the Moroccan government, at least publicly, Morocco’s new role to the south has little to do with Europe. Rabat presents its efforts as an attempt to strengthen already deep ties that date back well before European colonialism.
Vish Sakthivel, a Maghreb specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said while the king's religious status can play a role, it has its limits. "It's symbolic, and symbolism only goes so far. Thus while it's an innovative diplomatic tool, how well it actually will work is yet to be seen," she told Al Jazeera.
But Morocco has one more card to play: its African identity. Throughout his recent tour, the king took pains to present Rabat’s outreach campaign as a model for south-south cooperation. As he told a business conference in Cote D’Ivoire in February: "Africa is a huge continent with its vital forces, its resources and potentialities. It must take charge of itself; it is no longer a continent colonised. This is why Africa should trust Africa."
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