Morocco's Missing King

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Jon Alterman: Nicolas Pelham is a correspondent for The Economist and the author of a recent article entitled “The Mystery of Morocco’s Missing King.” It explores King Mohamed VI’s extended and unexplained absences from Morocco over the last five years, as well as the king’s close association with three German-born kickboxing brothers of Moroccan origin who have often flaunted their royal connections. Where has the King been? and what does his behavior tell us about the state of Moroccan politics? Nic, welcome to Babel.

Nicolas Pelham: Jon, it's good to be with you.

Jon Alterman: You wrote a very interesting article in 1843 magazine, a magazine associated with The Economist, called “The Mystery of Morocco's Missing King.” Tell me about Mohammed VI of Morocco. What kind of a king is he? How does the monarchy in Morocco compare to other countries in the Middle East? What's the king's role been, and what's Mohammed VI's role been?

Nicolas Pelham: Morocco likes to say that it's one of the oldest kingdoms in the world. It dates back to the 8th century. In the past, the king was known as the sultan, or the emir, and the kind of leadership you have today is part of a legacy that's over a millennium old. This is different as a lot of kings in the Middle East are fairly recent creations.

The notion of a king is barely 20 years old in Bahrain. Even the Saudis didn't become kings until the 20th century. The Hashemites have been around for a long time, but again, the title of king is new. As a result, Morocco likes to think of itself as having a pedigree and tradition that puts it on par with some of the oldest kingdoms in the world, such as the British monarchy. Internally, this gives the kingdom a weight that other monarchies probably don’t enjoy, and the education system and the media push the notion that the king and the country are one and the same.

Mohammed VI has stepped into these shoes. He's been around for over 20 years, and yet, there's been something very different about him compared to his father, King Hassan II, who very much was a larger-than-life character.

It seems Mohammed VI never really wanted the job; he was pushed into it by his father. He had a difficult childhood with his father and some of that resentment and fear of his father has spilled into resentment and fear of the job that he's been given. From the beginning, he struggled to play the role of king and that has become even more pronounced the longer he's remained on the throne.

Jon Alterman: One of the things that struck me about this king is that I've never met a Moroccan who had a negative thing to say about him, even Moroccans who I would think might have some reason to be critical; they all seem to have both respect and affection for this king. Did you find this as you were reporting this story? Is this something you found different as you've gone through the Middle East and seen the way people talk about their monarchs?

Nicolas Pelham: I did find they're quite protective of him. I think that his failings and absence is pretty well known, and some of his foibles and associations are also well known as they're published in the official press. Tarnishing the image of the monarch is seen as tarnishing the image of the country itself as he does represent the country. Moroccans are nationalistic, and fiercely proud, and they don't want to feel that the image of the king is tarnishing the country’s image worldwide. That said, it's also illegal to say otherwise, and the punishment for questioning the integrity of the king is severe. There is a very heavy state apparatus that will come down on you if they hear that you're insulting the king. There is a huge difference between the popular image of the king, which is kind of relayed largely by the state media, and how he's perceived by his own establishment. There is great concern at the establishment about this pivotal figure and linchpin of the kingdom. It wields immense power. Without him, the state struggles to function. He's just simply absent for much of the year, sometimes over half the year, but you need to have a king who's in his kingdom. In Morocco, the king isn't present.

That makes a lot of Moroccans very worried, and increasingly they articulate that in private. We’ve seen some instances where sentiments are expressed publicly. There is great concern there. Moroccans absolutely want a king, and they want a king that they can love that can do the job, but there is great concern that this king is just not up to the job.

Jon Alterman: So, you talked about the foibles, and the subtitle of your article is, “in 2018 a German kick boxer befriended Mohammed VI. The monarch has rarely been seen since.” That's quite a foible. Tell me about the kickboxer, Abubakr Abu Azaitar. He doesn't have the normal pedigree that people who befriend kings tend to have.

Nicolas Pelham: Abu Azaitar is an incredible character. He is of Moroccan origin; his father migrated from Northern Morocco to Germany. He was a gangster who grew up in a suburb of Cologne, Germany. He was imprisoned several times for stealing Ferraris, involvement in protection rackets, or beating his girlfriend. He did two spells in prison and when he came out, he diverted his energies and his violence into kickboxing. He became a champion kickboxer, won several titles, and started mixing in a kind of inner world as he acquired fame which involved hanging out with rappers, pop stars, and porn stars.

In 2016, he went back to his parent's homeland, and he spent some time in Marrakech. The king really admires, respects, and is thrilled by people who challenge the system. On the one hand, he's at the top of the system, and on the other, he's intrigued by people who come from nothing and climbed their way up. To him, Abu Azaitar and his brothers, who are also kickboxers, typified a story of rags to riches and people who fought against the system and won. That's something King Mohammed could identify with. He didn't enjoy embassy functions or being feted as a king. He never really appeared at official functions, didn't go to coronations or funerals, would fall asleep at international gatherings. He's somebody who would only feel really relaxed when he was in the company of people who rejected the establishment.

In some ways, that's what attracted him most to the Abu Azaitars, and particularly Abubakr, who is this dashing, very well built, handsome man. Abubakr addresses all the unease that Mohammed VI had with his own system, which is known as the Makhzen. In his childhood, he had seen this system as oppressive, controlling, hierarchical, and representative of all things he feared restricted him. He looked at the Abu Azaitars and saw them as liberating and free people to be envied.

Jon Alterman: How does the Makhzen respond to this? How does the establishment, that has been built over hundreds of hundreds of years from its association to the monarchy, deal with a monarch who seems to revel in people who struggle against the establishment?

Nicolas Pelham: Initially, their hope was that Mohammed would come to his senses. They thought they could advise him that this isn't really what a king should be doing and that his country needed him. Without him, decision making is much more complicated. He has to sign off on every decision at cabinet and, as the commander of the faithful, he is the source of religious and political legitimacy. They hoped that at some point, his relationship with Abu Azaitar would dissipate, but it didn't. Instead, Mohammed seems to spend even more time with Abubakr and his twin brother and other brother. He started bringing Abubakr’s extended family into the palace and giving them role functions.

For example, the Western Sahara is critical to Morocco's identity and sense of projection into Africa. Mohammed started having them supervise his takeover of the Western Sahara and gave them access to his royal jet. He would give them cars. These were also not people who were lying beneath the parapet. They would flaunt their wealth and royal privileges on social media, which infuriated a system which has a real sense of decorum and putting the monarchy on a pedestal. These brothers threatened to knock the king off his pedestal and the Makhzen’s establishment of the royal court around the king tried to send messages through official media about the background of these brothers. There are several salacious articles about the brothers, warning that they risk bringing the monarchy into disrepute.

The king just didn't get the message. He gave them ever more power, to the point where they really became his gatekeepers. They're the ones who would keep other members of the family and ministers away. Essentially, he was spending all his time in the company of these three brothers, particularly Abu Azaitar. Almost all his advisors and ministers relied on these brothers to get access to the king, and this became a constitutional crisis in Morocco.

Jon Alterman: This story didn't come out for quite some time. This is also a story that I haven't seen extensively reported anywhere. In fact, your article was a complete revelation to me. I try to follow things that are going on in the Middle East, and yet, it's a remarkably important story that nobody is talking about. Can you begin to explain that? How long have you been working on this story, and why do you think nobody else has been reporting it?

Nicolas Pelham: I stumbled on this story by chance. I tend to go back to Morocco because I was based there for a couple of years at the time of the king's succession. During that time, I saw the difficulty that he had in trying to step into the shoes of his father. He was being held as the king of the poor and there was a real sense that he was going to overcome some of the brutality of his father and address some of the human rights abuses. I didn’t go back for several years until the Arab Spring, which Morocco dealt with quite deftly.

On a recent trip about three years ago, I started hearing concerns from officials that their king was absent. They would ask the questions, "Where is he? What's he doing in Fez? Why is he not coming back here?"

It didn't make much sense to me at the time as to what was keeping him away. I knew that he traveled a lot but this seemed excessive as the heads of state would turn up and Mohammed was not there to receive them. I started hearing from officials about the role that these three brothers were playing in his life. I wasn't sure at the time what to make of them and was surprised that these officials who were very well plugged in and had made a career of being loyal to the king were confiding their concerns of the absence of the monarch.

About two years ago, articles started appearing in the Moroccan press about the background of the Azaitars. The press managed to get a hold of their criminal records from Germany, and astonishingly, press which is totally subservient to the monarchy started publishing tabloid articles about the background of the king's friends.

For reasons I don't really understand, the Spanish press, Ignacio Cembrero particularly, reported on this, but there was next to no follow up. We started writing about it, and the more we delved into it the more there was to report. We became quite concerned because it hadn't surfaced in the English or French language press, and we worried about the consequences of publication. The editorial process was particularly rigorous. Every line in that article has multiple sources and was checked and re-checked.

Jon Alterman: Were you surprised that some of the people who were willing to talk to you?

Nicolas Pelham: I was surprised at how much of an issue it was for officials that I spoke to. It wasn't something that they wanted to shy away from. The country needed a leader, and they wanted their leader back. There are increasing questions in Morocco about what happens to the kingdom if the king remains absent. They're asking questions about whether a regent could perform that role.

There have also been tensions in the past between the king and his establishment, particularly his security establishment. There were times where the security establishment felt very confident that they could do a better job of managing the ship of state. There were these repeated attempts at assassinating Hassan, Mohammed 's father, and so questions are asked about who might try to fill this gap in leadership.

Jon Alterman: Do you think that this is a situation that is right for instability, or does it feel to you like this is something the system will be able to manage?

Nicolas Pelham: You do have a strong system in Morocco. There is a bureaucracy, probably one of the better managed states in the Middle East. There is a hierarchy and a civil service which functions as it should. You also have very strong security establishment who have a grip on the country that they are willing to use. Over many years now, they've become used to a king who spends long periods away, whether it's in West Africa, Gabon, on the beach, or Paris, they've learned how to deal with that.

At the same time, this kind of vacuum of power can't go on forever, and Moroccans do have an affection for a king that is present. It was very striking that when the palace first got wind that this article was about to appear, the king suddenly became very active again in Morocco. It was during Ramadan, and he started appearing at iftars and prayers in a way that Moroccans really hadn't seen for years. They felt that the king was back and that was very reassuring.

The concern is that Morocco does not have oil to prop it up and is exposed to the ebbs and flows of the global economy. Many citizens are also living in poverty and there is a history of very large protests. When all these factors combine and there is a vacuum, tensions are created within the establishment itself between the crown prince and the king's brother and between different arms of the security establishment. There is concern that if the establishment is too focused on its own affairs, it might have less bandwidth to focus on the affairs of state.

Jon Alterman: Your previous blockbuster cover story in the Economist was on Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, arguably a ruler who is ever present in the lives of his people. How was the reporting process different on that story and this story, and how were they the same?

Nicolas Pelham: Mohammed bin Salman dominates people's lives in a similar way to that of a dictator from the '70s and '80s, such as Hafez al-Assad in Syria or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Bin Salman is a totalitarian control freak. He has an ability to master every aspect of what goes on in the kingdom and is ever-present.

In the process of carving out that power, he's essentially rewritten the social contract of the kingdom. He's made many enemies and some of those enemies are now outside the kingdom. They've either flipped their lives, or they have people inside the kingdom who are still prepared to talk. When I was in Saudi Arabia, I was really struck by the extent to which people at every level of society were ready to confide because how concerned they were about the direction the country was taking. I found it surprisingly easy to do that research. There were a lot of people who wanted to share their fears about where the country was going and about their personal contacts with Mohammed bin Salman. It was much harder in Morocco. It took time, but it did eventually open, and we reached a point where an awful lot of people wanted to talk.

I do find that comparison between Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed IV of Morocco fascinating. Morocco has quite a well-functioning system, which has made substantial progress in terms of its infrastructure and population. It seems to be one of the better run states in the Middle East and is doing that all without really having a strong man or present leader. In contrast, Saudi Arabia is a kingdom that seems to be racing ahead in multiple directions and spending fabulous sums of money on projects that might end up being white elephants. There is a danger that the country just tries to accomplish too much and spins out of control. The checks and balances that exist within a system like Morocco because there is this roll call which has multiple security agencies that keeps everyone in check. In Saudi Arabia, everything depends on the whim of one man, and if that one man makes mistakes, there's nothing really to contain the fallout.

Jon Alterman: If you were to look at a single indicator for Morocco over the next three years, what would it be?

Nicolas Pelham: There is a real constitutional crisis going on in Morocco at the moment. People don't know at what point the king is going to hand over the levers of power. It doesn't seem as if this vacuum can go on forever, so when the king is not present who is representing him?

Jon Alterman: Your bet is that the king won't reform; he is on his way to abdication?

Nicolas Pelham: He was very present for Ramadan, more present than he's probably been in a decade. It does seem that this message has gotten through. The brothers who he used to be seen with were nowhere to be seen. It's hard to see how the king is going to sustain that. He just doesn't have a record of involvement for over 20 years. The question is who is going to be stepping into his role and serving that function? The Moroccan establishment is looking very seriously at their leadership now, and trying to find a way to stabilize something which currently feels quite unstable.

Jon Alterman: Nicolas Pelham from The Economist, thanks very much for joining us on Babel.

Nicolas Pelham: It's always a pleasure, thank you, Jon.