Blinken in Morocco for security talks, to meet UAE leader

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

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) shakes hands with Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (R) during their meting in the capital Rabat on March 29, 2022.Picture: Jacquelyn Martin / POOL / AFP

RABAT - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was visiting Morocco on Tuesday to discuss regional security and meet the United Arab Emirates de facto leader Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

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

"We know this pain is keenly felt in the Middle East and North Africa, where most countries import at least half of their wheat," State Department Acting Assistant Secretary Yael Lempert said before the trip.

Blinken flew in late Monday from Israel where he had joined top diplomats from the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain and Egypt for a meeting that underlined a seismic shift since 2020 in relations between Arab countries and the Jewish state.

On Tuesday he started talks with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita ahead of a meeting with Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch, with the Western Sahara dispute and security cooperation on the agenda -- including the fight against the Islamic State group and Al Qaeda in the Sahel.

The same subjects will loom large in meetings the following day with Morocco's regional rival Algeria.

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 criticising Russia, recently sent its top diplomat to Moscow, and hosted the Russia-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Blinken and Prince Mohammed are set to discuss efforts to revive the 2015 landmark Iran nuclear deal, which aimed to limit Iran's nuclear development in exchange for loosening sanctions -- an agreement dropped by former US president Donald Trump in 2018.

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

Blinken will also meet a group of Moroccan women involved in science and technology.

WESTERN SAHARA

In Morocco, Blinken is set to discuss 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 recognised 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.

Morocco has urged the US to take a step further and open a consulate there, like the UAE -- a move to which the Biden administration has not committed.

The State Department said in a report Monday that it supports a Moroccan autonomy plan and the work of recently appointed UN envoy Staffan de Mistura.

The UN 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 criticise Moscow.

They include Morocco, which has declined to condemn Russia at the United Nations, 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."