Blinken in Morocco for security talks, meeting with UAE leader

1. Morocco Blinken
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks in the Medina area of Rabat, Morocco, on March 29, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
RABAT — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was visiting Morocco on Tuesday to discuss regional security and meet the UAE’s leader Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. اضافة اعلان

The trip comes in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which along with sanctions against Moscow has sent wheat and fuel prices soaring in a serious blow to import-dependent North African countries.

Speaking to journalists in Rabat, Blinken said the US recognized the “disaster” the supply crunch had caused.

“We’re discussing concrete steps we can take ... to help reduce the impact, particularly on the most vulnerable populations,” he said.

Blinken also said he was “encouraging partners to speak out against Russian aggression” and said he doubted Russia’s “seriousness” in talks with Ukraine held in Turkey.

Washington’s top diplomat flew into Rabat late Monday from Israel where he had met his counterparts from the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, and Egypt, underlining a seismic shift since 2020 in relations between Arab countries and the Israel.

On Tuesday, he met Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita for discussions including the Western Sahara dispute and security cooperation.

The same subjects will loom large in meetings the following day with Morocco’s regional rival Algeria, after months of deteriorating relations between Rabat and Algiers.

Tensions with UAE

Blinken will also meet Tuesday evening with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed — often dubbed “MBZ” — at the Emirati leader’s Moroccan residence, a meeting that comes as Washington warily watches longtime ally the UAE diverging from many of its policies.

The UAE has refrained from criticizing Russia, even sending its top diplomat to Moscow, and recently hosted Russia-backed Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Blinken and Prince Mohammed are set to discuss efforts to revive the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which aimed to limit Iran’s nuclear development in exchange for loosening sanctions — a multilateral agreement which former US president Donald Trump unilaterally walked out on in 2018.

The US diplomat said it was “an opportunity to have a truly strategic conversation about the full range of issues”.

Their meeting also comes amid an escalation in cross-border missile and drone attacks by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels against the UAE and Saudi Arabia, allies in a grinding war that has laid waste to impoverished Yemen with no end in sight.

Western Sahara

In Morocco, Blinken also discussed the Western Sahara, a phosphate-rich former Spanish colony with a vast Atlantic coastline home to rich fisheries.

Morocco controls 80 percent of it including a key highway towards West Africa, while the rest — a desert area bordering Mauritania and Algeria — is run by the Polisario Front independence movement.

Trump in 2020 recognized the region as sovereign Moroccan territory in a break with decades of US policy, after Rabat agreed to re-establish relations with Israel under the so-called Abraham Accords.

President Joe Biden’s administration has been tight-lipped on how it will follow up on the move, which came just weeks after the Polisario declared a 1991 ceasefire null and void, sparking fears that the long-frozen conflict could flare up again.

Bourita on Tuesday called on European states to follow Spain in backing a Moroccan plan for autonomy there under Rabat’s sovereignty.

“We think it’s time for Europe ... to get out of this comfort zone where people are just supporting a process that doesn’t mean supporting a solution,” he said.

“There is a consensus that the solution should be within Moroccan sovereignty and the Moroccan plan of autonomy.”

Blinken said Washington continues “to view Morocco’s autonomy plan as serious, credible and realistic.”

The State Department said in a report Monday that it supports the plan and the work of Staffan de Mistura, envoy of the UN — which sees the territory as a “non-self-governing territory”.

Blinken’s visit to Rabat also comes as the US seeks stronger support for Ukraine from a region where many countries have been reticent to criticize Moscow.

They include Morocco, which has declined to condemn Russia at the UN, frustrating both Washington and European capitals.

The Emirates are a long-standing US ally but “MBZ” has steered a more assertive foreign policy course, forging closer ties with China and intervening in the Libya conflict on the side also backed by Kremlin-linked mercenaries.

Asked about Washington’s ties with the UAE, a senior US official responded drily that the two sides will talk about “the next phase in the relationship and how we can take it forward.”

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