What Ivanka Trump’s Visit Means for Morocco

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Rabat  – Ivanka Trump, the daughter of, and advisor to, US President Donald Trump, has been on a three-day trip to Morocco since Wednesday, November 6. The visit seeks to promote the rights of Moroccan women through the effective implementation of a bill adopted by the Moroccan Parliament in July on the promotion of the property rights of women in rural areas. The trip has been making headlines in Moroccan media and is being widely commented on in social media, especially Twitter and Facebook.

Does Ivanka’s trip benefit Morocco?

Amid the snarky comments and shallow discussion of the visit, there has been a conspicuous absence of any comments on or attempts to discern, the political connotation of the visit. What does it mean for Morocco’s image and the advancement of its strategic interests? Regardless of the merit of Ivanka’s trip to Morocco and whether it will help Moroccan women in rural areas improve their economic and social status, the debate should revolve around what diplomatic and political gains Morocco as a country will achieve from the highly publicized visit.

To understand the political connotation of Ivanka’s trip to Morocco, one should place it in the broader context of US-Morocco relations over the past three years. When President Trump assumed power in January 2017, many in Morocco feared that the relations between the two might be adversely affected. This fear was driven by two factors: First, Trump was not a traditional Republican with whom Morocco had been acquainted. Though Trump won the election under the banner of the Republican party, he was an outsider who had never taken office and is known for being unpredictable and transactional.

The second reason was the fact that in 2015, ahead of the 2016 presidential elections, there were allegations that Morocco donated $12 million to the Clinton Global Initiative summit, provided that Hillary Clinton attend the foundation’s fundraiser in Morocco. Though Clinton did not eventually attend the meeting in Marrakech, the Trump presidential campaign used the allegations against her and accused of her of “pay for play” in favor of Morocco. President Trump himself, as well as his son Donald Trump, Jr. and their followers, used the allegations to attack Hillary Clinton and question her legitimacy to become president. Though the allegations were disproven, and there was no evidence of quid pro quo between Morocco and Hillary Clinton, there was a growing fear among Moroccans that Trump’s vindictive tendency would cause him to adopt an unfriendly foreign policy towards Morocco.

That fear was compounded by the absence of a US ambassador to Morocco since Trump came to office and 16 months later, by the appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser to President Trump. The absence of a high-level American interlocutor in Rabat and the presence of John Bolton at the highest level of the Trump administration did not bode well for Morocco, especially regarding the Western Sahara conflict.

Moroccan achievements in Washington

Notwithstanding the obstacles that Morocco has had to face over the past three years, its diplomacy has shown resilience and navigated the murky and agitated waters of the Trump administration. The major evidence to that is the Western Sahara conflict. Despite John Bolton’s presence within the Trump administration and its attempts to put pressure on Morocco by putting the question of a referendum on self-determination on the front burner, Rabat not only neutralized him but made political gains it had not made in the past.

Whereas the U.S. delegation in the Security Council pushed last year and earlier this year for shortening the extension of the mandate of the UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) from one year to six months, the U.S. has, last month, rescinded this position in favor of going back to the full-year mandate, which is a sign that the position of the U.S. is softening towards Morocco’s position vis-à-vis the Sahara issue. During Bolton’s tenure, the United Nations Security Council adopted two resolutions (Resolutions 2440 and 2468), in which Algeria is mentioned for the first time as a party in relation to the conflict on the same level as Morocco. The UN also inaugurated the Geneva roundtables with Algeria’s and Mauritania’s participation.

The achievements could not have been possible without US support and without the presence, within the Trump administration, of influential figures who have the ears of the president and could work as a counterweight to Bolton. With the benefit of hindsight, one can argue that Morocco has successfully neutralized “the Bolton effect” on the Western Sahara conflict by approaching Trump’s ultimate inner circle, mainly his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. It is an open secret in Washington that President Trump relies on what he describes as his “guts,” as well as his family when making policy decisions, and he has a tendency to go past the traditional interagency process.

Morocco has arguably understood that for its message to get across to the White House and get its attention, it has to court his inner circle, meaning Ivanka and Jared Kushner. That Kushner has made two trips to Morocco, one official in May, and another unofficial, followed by Ivanka’s trip, is telling where Morocco has concentrated diplomatic efforts over the past two years. By ingratiating itself with the president’s inner circle and trusted advisors, Morocco has succeeded in getting the ears of the president himself, thus securing US support for its vital strategic interests, chief of which is the Western Sahara conflict. Even the timing of Ivanka’s trip is evocative. She began her visit to Morocco on November 6 while the country was celebrating the anniversary of the Green March, an indicator of President Trump’s and his inner circle’s sentiment about Western Sahara.

It is highly likely that Jared Kushner’s and Ivanka Trump’s visits to Morocco may pave the way for a visit by Trump to Morocco or King Mohammed VI to Washington.

The value of an Ivanka tweet

Besides the political and diplomatic gains Morocco has achieved, it is also poised to make gains in terms of image and messaging to a global audience. What many Moroccans miss when dismissing a visit such as Ivanka’s or questioning her keenness to help advance Moroccan women’s rights is that her very presence in Morocco, her wearing of Moroccan clothes, etc., sends a message to the millions of Americans who follow her on social media and hundreds  of millions throughout the world that a centuries-old country is open, welcoming, and forward-looking.

The impact of only one tweet from her could surpass the efforts, if any, made by the Moroccan Ministry of Tourism, to market Morocco as a welcoming and safe tourist country.

People who have worked in public relations and lobbying in Washington know well the amount of money other countries pay to celebrities to attend mere events, such as a reception, and tweet about them.

In some instances, a celebrity or an influential figure such as Ivanka is paid millions of dollars just to participate in an event or make a trip to other Arab countries and tweet about them with the main purpose of improving their image for a global audience.

The debate in Morocco should not revolve around Trump’s personality and the merits of the policies he has made over the past three years. This is a debate that concerns the American people, and it is up to them to reelect their president or not in 2020.

What should matter for Morocco and the Moroccan people is to what extent Morocco should benefit from his tenure to push for a final political solution to the Western Sahara conflict? Despite the political turmoil President Trump has been facing since the Ukraine scandal came to light, it is unlikely that the Democrats will succeed in removing him from office, since the Senate, which has the ultimate say in the impeachment process, is under the control of the Republicans. Given the thick skin of President Trump and the absence of a charismatic Democrat contender for the 2020 presidential elections, it is highly likely that Trump will win reelection.

Despite the heated debate surrounding the Ukraine controversy, his reelection chances will hinge on the health of the US economy. And in the event Trump is reelected, Morocco, by cozying up to his inner circle, will have the ears of the American president, thus securing Washington’s support for its strategic interests.

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