Morocco has sought to expand its influence in Mali through pursuing various kinds of active diplomacy. Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla unveiled the Mohamed VI Perinatal Clinic in Bamako on 12 July 2022, alongside Idriss Asbayen, the Moroccan ambassador to Mali. This has raised questions about why Morocco has become increasingly interested in Mali. Moroccan has focused on various ways of strengthening its involvement in Mali, especially through diplomatic efforts to mediate talks between the Malian government and ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) to lift sanctions on Mali. Moroccan has also engaged in spiritual and religious diplomacy via Sufi orders, in addition to providing medical aid and promoting economic cooperation. Moroccan foreign policy aims to strengthen ties with Mali due to its geographic proximity, natural resources, and because of Morocco’s rivalry with Algeria in diplomatic and political spheres.
Morocco aims to strengthen its political presence in Mali through various methods including:
1. Support from Rabat for political stability in Mali: Morocco is trying to strengthen political ties with the interim government in Mali. King Mohamed VI visited Mali in 2013 and 2014 and Morocco has said that it is prepared to serve as a mediator between the interim government in Mali and ECOWAS to lift sanctions and find solutions to the country’s ongoing political crisis. The Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Bourita has said on multiple occasions that he supports political stability in Mali. The country also has historical ties to the Tuareg and Arab Bedouin tribal groups, and has particular links with some Tuareg and Amazigh leaders, which has enabled it to support peacebuilding in the region.
2. Using religious and spiritual diplomacy: Morocco also has religious ties with Mali, particularly through Sufi orders based in Morocco which have spread to West Africa and contributed to the development of religious connections with these areas. Morocco uses its significant influence within Sufi orders, especially the Qadiriyya and Tijanniya, in its diplomatic efforts. The Zawiya of Sidi Ahmed al-Tijani, the founder of the latter order, is located in Fez. These two orders have a large following in Mauritania, Mali, and Senegal. Morocco also offers scholarships for religious study at Moroccan universities to Malian students. It hopes to expand the reach of the Maliki school, which is the most common school of Islamic jurisprudence in North Africa and the Sahel. This religious and spiritual standing has enabled Morocco to strengthen its presence in Mali.
3. Provision of medical aid: Morocco has supported the efforts of Mali’s interim government to offer medical services to its population. Morocco and Mali signed an agreement to strengthen medical cooperation on 16 May 2022 and Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla, along with the Moroccan ambassador to Mali, Idriss Asbayen, unveiled the Mohamed VI Perinatal Clinic in Bamako on 12 July 2022. The Moroccan ambassador said that the grand opening of the hospital was a testament to the centuries-old cooperation between the two countries.
4. Strengthening bilateral economic relations: Mali ranks third among African countries with regard to Moroccan investment and has the second highest number of scholarship recipients in Moroccan universities and institutions of higher education. Morocco is working to strengthen economic ties with Mali and has opened branches of Moroccan banks in Mali. For example, Attijariwafa Bank acquired more than 50 percent of shares in Mali’s Banque Internationale, while state-owned Maroc Telecom bought up various telecommunications companies in Mali. The OCP Group has also ramped up phosphate mining in eastern Mali. Morocco is trying to bolster its investments in the extraction of natural resources such as gold, uranium, iron ore, and diamonds.
There are a growing number of reasons why Morocco wants to increase its political influence in Mali, and which can be summarized as follows:
1. Strengthening Morocco’s standing in the Sahel region: Morocco is trying to strengthen its standing in the region and is interested in the Sahel in particular because of its geographic proximity and voting bloc in the African Union. This could help support Morocco’s diplomatic efforts across the African continent and at the international level. Morocco’s desire to strengthen its presence in Mali is the result of its desire to bolster its regional standing. It previously made an official request to join ECOWAS on 24 February 2017. Prior to this membership request, Morocco made a successful bid to rejoin the African Union on 30 January 2017, which Rabat considered a major diplomatic victory. Morocco has also offered logistical support to the Group of Five for the Sahel.
These efforts are also driven by Morocco’s rivalry with Algeria in Mali, particularly in light of the latter’s increasing attempts to undermine Moroccan involvement in the Sahel through building new tactical alliances in light of the volatile political and security situation after the French and EU withdrawal from Mali. Since then, Russia’s Wagner Group forces have been involved in counterterrorism operations in Mali. There have been tacit agreements between Algeria and Russia to curtail EU and French influence in Mali given Morocco’s rapprochement with Europe. For this reason, Algeria tried to serve as a mediator to resolve the crisis between the head of the interim government in Mali and ECOWAS.
2. Increasing international recognition of Moroccan claims to the Western Sahara: Morocco has made great strides regarding increasing European and US support for its proposal for the Western Sahara. Morocco is working to bolster international recognition and to gain the support of other countries, especially in Africa. Rabat is trying to strengthen its political presence there and win over countries in the Sahel region to its autonomy proposal, which would keep the Western Sahara under Moroccan control while allowing the Sahara Autonomous Region to become a self-governing territory. Mali’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdoulaye Diop said in October 2021 that the country was committed to finding a just and durable solution under UN supervision to the political conflict fabricated around the issue of the Moroccan Western Sahara.
3. Transnational support for "soft" counterterrorism: Morocco has not been immune to terrorist threats from the Sahel and hosted a meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS on 11 May 2022. Its convoys and business interests were repeatedly targeted by terrorist attacks from groups in northern Mali in September and December last year. Morocco therefore has a keen interest in security developments in the region and their direct consequences for the country. Morocco is also concerned about alliances of convenience among jihadist groups, particularly Al-Qaeda in the Sahel and Sahara, and Ansar Dine, which is also active in Mali, as well as illegal criminal organizations and separatist movements, especially the Polisario Front.
In conclusion, there are many factors have prompted Morocco to strengthen its political influence in Mali, particularly the former’s interest in developing its regional standing and gaining the support of other African countries for its autonomy proposal for the Western Sahara. It does not want Algeria to get the upper hand in Mali, which would allow Algeria to exploit the security vacuum left after the French and EU withdrawal and to expand its influence at Morocco’s expense. Morocco also hopes to coordinate with Mali in counterterrorism efforts, especially since its convoys and commercial interests have been repeatedly targeted by terrorist attacks in northern Mali. It is expected that Moroccan-Algerian rivalry will continue to escalate as each country tries to expand their influence in the region during the near future. This will include redrawing the map of alliances and expanding Moroccan-European cooperation to counter a probable Russian-Algerian alliance in the region.