As North Africa’s most politically and economically stable country, and increasingly engaged with its West African neighbours and across the continent, Morocco continues to expand its regional leadership role. While challenges persist, notably the unresolved issue of the status of the Moroccan/Western Sahara, throughout 2017 the kingdom took several key steps to advance its standing in the region.

AFRICAN UNION: Morocco began the year by rejoining the African Union (AU) in January 2017 after a 33-year hiatus. Morocco left the union, then known as the Organisation of African Unity, in 1984 due to disagreement over the status of the Moroccan/ Western Sahara region. The withdrawal left Morocco as the only non-member country on the continent. The reaction to Morocco’s reinstatement across the region was largely supportive; Yousef Al Othaimeen, the secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), expressed hopes that Morocco’s readmission would strengthen Africa’s voice on the international stage, while representatives from Senegal and Egypt highlighted the importance of continental unity. King Mohammed VI was present at the July 2017 AU summit in Addis Ababa, stressing the need for a comprehensive, pragmatic development strategy for the continent.

Despite Morocco’s seat back at the AU table and this talk of unity, the situation that initially prompted the country’s departure from the organisation remains unresolved and any finalised status is unlikely to come in the near future, particularly with the European Court of Justice ruling in December 2016 that the EU does not consider the Moroccan/ Western Sahara as part of Morocco in trade deals.

ECOWAS BID: Morocco also continues to increase its engagement with West Africa, where it has established banking services and manufacturing operations, especially in some of the francophone economies. Morocco demonstrated this growing interest in an aggressive bid to join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional body of 15 West African nations with free trade and movement of people. Despite not sharing a border with other members, Morocco requested to join after its readmission to the AU, punctuating its bid campaign with royal visits and signed investment contracts across the continent.

In June 2017 ECOWAS approved Morocco’s membership application in principle, despite some opposition of certain lobby groups on behalf of the current regional powerhouse, Nigeria, which called for the rejection of the application, citing the unresolved dispute over the Moroccan/Western Sahara and Morocco’s geographical distance. Although it was initially reported that Morocco would attend the subsequent meeting of ECOWAS heads of state, the country was not invited to the 52nd ECOWAS summit held in Togo in December 2017. It is expected that ECOWAS will announce its verdict on Morocco’s membership of the union in 2018.

DIPLOMACY ON THE MOVE: In 2017 King Mohammed VI built on a long list of official visits undertaken in 2016, which included trips to Nigeria, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Madagascar. In early 2017 he visited Ghana for the first time, along with Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Mali in the west, and Zambia further south. The trip demonstrated Morocco’s aspirations to be an engaged economic partner throughout the continent, with local press reporting over 70 new conventions added to economic agreements between the countries.

Morocco’s re-established membership in the AU and potential joining of ECOWAS will further strengthen its political and economic influence across the continent. Of the 54 AU member states, 39 voted in favour of Morocco’s admission, which should help as the country seeks to bolster both diplomatic and economic ties with African nations.