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Vol 65 No 2

Published 18th January 2024


Royalty shows signs of stress

The King’s private life is causing alarm as questions about the succession increase alongside fears over drought and ‘normalisation’ with Israel

Deep discomfort in and out of the Palace is abroad over a resurgence of reports about King Mohammed VI's (M6) friendship with three Moroccan-German Mixed Martial Arts fighters with controversial reputations. For seven years now, M6 has apparently been content for ex-convict Abubakr Abu Azaitar to post numerous photos of himself with the King on his Instagram page, attracting prurient comment in influential foreign media and – more alarmingly in the Moroccan context – recently in domestic outlets.

Commentators claim the former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter Abubakr and his twin Omar Azaitar exert a 'Rasputin-like' influence over the King, destabilising the monarchy and outraging its conservative supporters.

Yet M6 appears as happy to be pictured with the flashy Azaitars as much as in a business-suit driving forward-looking policies, or as the jellaba-clad Al Amir al Muminin (the Commander of the Faithful), the Sherifian title that aligns the Moroccan monarchy with the Prophet Mohammed (AC Vol 60 No 25, Activist King vs the activists).

With scant regard for what traditionalists would call decorum, M6 travels with the Azaitars, including to the United Arab Emirates, where he has close relations with its President, Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahayan (MBZ). Abubakr Abu Azaitar flaunts pictures with M6, along with his own family's bling and jetset lifestyle, on Instagram at www.instagram.com/abuazaitar.

Rulers like M6 and MBZ may seem to rule with impunity but are usually highly sensitive to negative public opinion – either crushing it or responding sympathetically – seeking to balance autocracy with modern, efficient government, and technology- and leisure-driven economies to maintain power.

But M6's indifference to the Azaitars' image seems to be a blind spot. Moroccans complain – usually sotto voce – as the Azaitars commandeer the Palace's luxury motorcade and police escort (which then halts the traffic) to drive down to Marrakech's hot spots. Even the staunchest loyalists privately display their angst.

Divisions within the usually highly opaque royal palace emerged when the mainstream barlamane.com/fr website identified the Azaitars as 'notorious crooks' – Abubakr has been jailed several times in Germany. The family responded by launching three defamation suits against a defiant Barlamane, which hit back on 11 January with a detailed article on Omar Azaitar's business dealings.

Barlamane publisher Mohammed Khabachi is no muckraker but a former director of the state news agency Maghreb Arabe Presse (MAP) whose political connections go up to M6's political advisor and friend from childhood Fouad Ali al Hima, and the head of the domestic intelligence service, the Direction Général de Surveillance du Térritoire (DGST), Abdellatif Hammouchi.

That such staunch allies and defenders of the throne might be worried enough about the Azaitars to countenance such revelations being made public speaks volumes about the 60-year-old monarch.

The position of Morocco's other top securocrat, Direction Générale des Études et de la Documentation (DGED) head Mohammed Yassine Mansouri, is unknown, but he is a close royal advisor and may be in a power struggle with Hammouchi.

A mood of disquiet
Another contributor to the current general disquiet is the chronic drought, now in its fifth year, and the conflict in Palestine, which has brought tens of thousands onto the streets – if not the 300,000 reports said to have demonstrated in Rabat – to sympathise with Gazans and protest against M6's diplomatic recognition of Israel, one of the few 'normalisation' initiatives to have survived. 

Islamist groups like the unrecognised Al adl wal Ihsane have tried, without much luck, to exploit the crisis (Vol 64 No 21, Box: From the Polisario to Palestine and back). And speculation that former Parti de la justice et du développement (PJD) premier Abdelilah Benkirane could use the crisis to make a political comeback is overstated, sources told Africa Confidential.

The regime is exposed to danger from popular anger at Israel's actions in Gaza and its continued adherence to the December 2020 Abraham Accords. To sweeten that deal, President Donald Trump recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara. Mainstream Moroccan politicians believe this should be enough to allow the kingdom to weather the public fury over Palestine (AC Vol 65 No 1, Turbulence above and below the surface).

As for the drought, the majority of the population may now live in urban and peri-urban communities, but distress on the farm stresses Moroccans like little else thanks to the rural roots of most of them. Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch's government has moved quickly to invest its resources in major new pipelines to bring water from dams in the wetter north southwards.

Like father like son 
M6's very long absences from Morocco leaving only a technocrat government in charge add to the general malaise and power vacuum and beg questions about the eventual succession of Crown Prince Moulay el Hassan bin Mohammed al Alaoui, who turns 21 on 8 May.

Schooled for the succession by his father in much the way M6 was schooled by his, the Crown Prince has a public image honed in royal engagements since his childhood. He is edging closer to an age where becoming King Hassan III can be imagined. When he was under 16 it was understood that M6's younger brother Prince Moulay Rachid would hold the reins of government under Article 21 of the constitution. A legally mature Moulay el Hassan would rule alone, albeit with influence from his uncle, who is widely seen as a playboy and a political lightweight lacking in popularity. His mother, Salma Bennani, remains an influence, despite her divorce from M6 (AC Vol 60 No 17, Divorce Moroccan-style).

How Hima, Mansouri and other M6-era royal advisors would fare under Hassan III is unclear. When M6 became King at the age of 35 he stamped his authority by very publicly sacking his father's powerful interior minister Driss Basri early on, and quietly retired other of his father's close aides (AC Vol 40 No 23, Broom sweeps Basri & Vol 39 No 9, Blair-ites in the desert).

The heir apparent may have a carefully manicured public image, but he is known for his hot temper – possibly even more than his father's trademark 'colères royales', which became an instrument of government. One Rabat source called him 'a good study' in learning the Alawite family business.

Moulay el Hassan attended the Royal College alongside a class of carefully selected contemporaries and obtained his baccalaureate in 2020. It is not yet known whether he will continue his apprenticeship for power abroad. His grandfather sent M6 to Brussels for a stage (internship) with the late European Commission chief Jacques Delors.

Primogeniture is a very recent innovation in the Alawite dynasty, the historical criterion for succession rather being seniority, but no one doubts Crown Prince Hassan will become monarch. The question is when, in what circumstances and then how King Hassan III can ensure the monarchy survives its current challenges in a kingdom that has been loyal but has the potential to explode.

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