A new president takes the helm in Mali today, and Moroccan king Muhammad VI is in the Malian capital Bamako as an honored guest, to congratulate him personally as well as lay out plans to build on a relationship the king has been nurturing. Ahead of his visit, civilian doctors and medical units of Morocco's Royal Armed Forces have been dispatched to Bamako to set up a field hospital to boost the impoverished city's limited medical capacity -- and in the Moroccan capital Rabat, a new public discussion has been focused on how Moroccans can help Malians boost civil society, political participation, and sustainable economic development. (Here's a video of the king's arrival and reception.)
At a time of turmoil and terrorism in the African Sahel, the kingdom's focus on Mali is hardly coincidental. Nor could the timing be less poignant: Earlier this week, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIM) -- a group whose affiliates managed to occupy a portion of northern Mali the size of France last year -- released a video calling for attacks on Moroccan civilian targets.
The king and his supporters are doing their part to fight terrorism in a distinctively Moroccan fashion. And at a time of great American reluctance to intervene in distant crises, it behooves the United States to learn more about the kingdom's efforts and tap into them.
By way of context, since February 2005 the Moroccan king has visited more than ten countries below the Sahara, from Gambia and the Republic of Congo to Guinea and Niger, as part of a strategy to enhance Morocco's role as a supporter of political, economic, and cultural development on the continent, as well as help broker regional security. The development efforts have yielded a new electrical infrastructure that powers 550 villages along the Senegal river and a new system for the manufacture and distribution drugs for malaria, diarrheal diseases, and cholera in Africa's poorest countries. These official visits by the king have never been a matter of fanfare: They are always accompanied by no-nonsense delegations in the human development realm, as well as economic specialists, proponents of political reform -- and, to be sure, senior security and intelligence personnel. This bouquet of human resources is arranged in accordance with a unique vision for fighting political violence: In public statements across the continent, the king has repeatedly stated that state-of-the-art military operations, intelligence work, and policing must be combined with anti-poverty measures, a cultural strategy to counter extremist trends, and political reforms that fight corruption and foster opportunity.
This approach, which has won the king credibility and a sizable following below the Sahara, is part and parcel of the hard-nosed counterterrorist stance that saw Morocco at the forefront of pressing the UN Security Council to authorize an African military force to intervene in Mali last year. And with the king's meeting today with newly-sworn-in Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, these efforts come full circle: Keita's contacts with the Moroccan political class run deep. To the Malians who voted him into office, he has committed to reforming the country's governance, strengthening the rule of law, and fighting corruption -- while also building an indigenous military capacity to eventually hold Mali's borders without the need for foreign troops.
Keita has clearly signaled, both publicly in Mali and through protracted contact with Rabat, that he sees the Moroccan leadership as playing a mentoring role in his efforts. Most dramatically, he did so today in the course of his inaugural speech. With 26 heads of state in the audience, he began his talk by singling out the Moroccan king and his people for appreciation. He said that the Moroccan monarch is not just a head of state but also a symbol of tolerance. As "Amir al-Mu'mineen" -- the country's highest religious authority and an arbiter of Islamic teaching, he has provided a model for other multi-religious countries, the president said in substance. Mali, in which tension sometimes flares between Muslims and Christians, is well served by drawing lessons from the Moroccan model. Keita spoke a few words in Arabic -- not the dominant language in his country -- as a special gesture. In response, the king delivered a speech of his own, committing his country "to provide support to Malian development programs, particularly in terms of staff training, basic infrastructure, and health ... to promote communal relations, promote trade and investment between our two countries, and in doing so, promote the use and transfer of skills and capital."
Viewed from Rabat, this partnership is one of over a dozen alliances with strategically vital states below the Sahara that stand in need of support. Morocco occupies an important middle space between the advanced democracies of the West on the one hand and the developing world's beleaguered transitioning states on the other. The king's proactive decision to use this standing as a catalyst for change in Africa is a win-win-win -- for Moroccan regional aspirations, the continent's aspirations for growth, and global security concerns focused on the Sahel in particular, especially troubling to Western capitals.
As the United States grapples with a triage of crises calling urgently for American attention -- from Damascus and Cairo to Mali and the broader Sahel -- the question of the hour is how Washington can continue to advance reform, progress, and security in the developing world given limited resources and a waning public appetite for foreign intervention. The Moroccan example offers the beginnings of an answer: A pro-American kingdom offering inspiration and service to a war-ravaged continent can also be a bridge between that continent and the many Americans who care about its future.
Ahmed Charai is the publisher of L'Observateur du Maroc and other newspapers and the owner of Morocco's largest private radio network Med radio. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the Board of Directors of The Atlantic Council of United States and the Board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is also member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.