Analysis

Morocco's 'Virtual King' Runs His Country on Social Media. But Where's the Queen?

In recent months Mohammed VI has spent only 20 days in his kingdom, not the greatest strategy when your country has finally succumbed to Arab Spring-like protests

King Mohammed VI of Morocco at a summit in France in December 2017.
Ludovic Marin / AFP

Mohammed VI, the king of Morocco, has more than 3.6 million Facebook followers. The king enjoys sharing photographs and comments showing where he stays and whom he meets. He seems especially to enjoy taking selfies with anything that moves. Here he’s in a Tanzania souvenir shop wearing shorts, sneakers and an ethnic print shirt, there he’s seen with a rock band dressed in designer loose-fitting sharwal pants.

But not everyone approves of the way the king spends his time. In the past four months he has spent a total of 20 days in his kingdom, a mere 16 percent of the time he’s supposed to be working. This is a dramatic drop from last year’s 45 percent, still not up to snuff. Granted, he spent part of the time in the hospital in France, where he underwent surgery for an abnormal heart rhythm. But the rest of the time was described by official sources as a “post-surgery recovery period.”

The king’s critics in Morocco wondered why the king didn’t rely on Moroccan surgeons and preferred to recover, or vacation, in France rather than in the kingdom, which is overflowing with resort sites and palaces suitable even for the Saudi king, who vacations there.

Some noted that on March 16 and 23, the king said he intended to return to Morocco and both times he put it off. When he returned on April 16 he had a tight schedule that included a visit to central Africa, followed by what was listed as “flew to an unknown destination.” In other words, he took another vacation.

The “unknown destination” the king is very fond of is the giant castle in the village of Betz in Oise, France, which his father, the late King Hassan, bought in 1972. The fully modernized estate is maintained by a huge staff paid by Morocco’s taxpayers.

Moroccan taxes also finance a Morocco vacation for 15 children from the Betz area, whom the king invites every year to visit his country. The French newspaper Le Point says the youngsters are put up in luxury hotels, enjoy sports activities such as water skiing and camel riding, and receive 500 euros in pocket money each.

“Do the king’s frequent absences indicate that he’s tired of being king or plans to retire from the throne?” asked the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar in an extensive report on Mohammed’s activities, or lack thereof. The king, of course, has no intention to give up the throne, not to mention that the crown prince, his son, is only 15.

Those were the days

Mohammed is one of three young leaders who emerged in the Middle East at about the same time. He and Jordan’s King Abdullah came to power in 1999, followed a year later by Syrian President Bashar Assad. The three are almost the same age; Mohammed was born in 1963, Abdullah a year before and Assad in 1965.

Michelle Obama and Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco in Marrakech in 2016.
Youssef Boudlal / Reuters

Their coronation generated a sense of an impending change in the region, even a little euphoria. This was a generation of young modern leaders, computer-savvy internet users and foreign-language speakers married to beauties who themselves became part of the royal or presidential display.

But in a few years – a few months in the Syrian case – it turned out that they were all ensconced in their royal and presidential courts. Of the three, Mohammed was seen as the “virtual king,” as his critics call him, who runs his country via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

But this description is far from accurate. The king is involved in every development in his country and in fact is in charge of two cabinets. One was approved by the elected parliament, as befitting any constitutional monarchy, and another serves as a sort of shadow cabinet consisting of friends and experts who have more influence than the formal cabinet.

The king has the final word, but he prefers in public to keep a distance so he can hold the cabinet responsible when things get dicey. When demonstrations broke out last summer in the Rif region, he pointed a finger at the cabinet and his prime minister, Saadeddine Othmani. The demonstrations ended with hundreds of people arrested, and the leaders of the Hirak resistance movement are awaiting trial. But the public’s anger didn’t subside and the rebellion is now taking a new form.

For several weeks a consumer boycott has been imposed on three large companies – dairy producer Centrale Laitiere, mineral water maker Sidi Ali and fuel company Afriquia. Moroccans are protesting the companies’ high prices, and the boycott has turned into a civic movement demanding improvements in the standard of living.

The government first responded with indifference and scorn, continued with attempts to delegitimize the boycotters and finally set up a committee to look into the complaints. But the protest movement hasn’t subsided and the boycott has badly hit not only the companies but also farmers including dairy producers.

The French company Danone, which controls Centrale Laitiere, announced a 30 percent reduction in milk purchases and is expected to fire dozens of workers. Meanwhile, the government still hasn’t reached an agreement with the unions on wages, which haven’t been raised since 2011.

This photo released Monday, April 9, 2018 on the official twitter page of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, shows Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, left, takes a selfie with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, and Morocco's King Mohammed VI, center, in the King George V Hotel, in Paris, France.
The official twitter page of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri via AP

Factory inaugurations aplenty

The king has kept silent so far; he’s letting the government handle the crisis. At best he may agree to some of the demands. He may fire a few ministers, a trick Jordan’s Abdullah often plays. At worst he may crush the rebellion by force.

The separation between the palace and the public is growing and the people feel that the king, who was extremely popular at the beginning of his reign, is showing indifference to the social gaps. The loyal media continues to release photographs of factory inaugurations the king attends in the few days he stays in the kingdom, while social media, the critics’ main stage, raises questions about the way the king is running the country.

The public is also busy with a no less fascinating question: the king’s divorce from his wife Lalla Salma. The 40-year-old queen hasn’t been seen in public since December and hasn’t appeared even in the family photographs released from the French hospital in March.

Salma, who has a master’s degree in computer science, married Mohammed in 2002 in a grand ceremony and made history by becoming the first wife of a Moroccan ruler to be photographed. She also made the king announce he would take no other wife but her.

The palace has so far refused to confirm the couple’s separation or where the queen is staying and whether she’ll keep her royal title and remain their children’s guardian. This secrecy, in contrast to the marriage’s publicity, is seen as another sign of the king’s contempt for the public, as if the couple’s situation were a private business no one had a right to know about.

Despite the criticism at home, Mohammed is popular among Western leaders and has close ties with them, especially in France and the United States. He has undeclared ties with Israel too and occasionally mediates regional disputes. At the same time, Morocco, which survived the Arab Spring intact under the king’s management, has been signaling in the past year that its calm and stability may be undermined without the king’s active involvement.