The kingdom is using an army of flacks to keep the illusion of peace and stability.
LAAYOUNE, Morocco — The peculiar form of Western Saharan hospitality, at least as practiced by the Moroccan government, is to watch visitors closely. Upon our arrival last winter to Laayoune, the capital of this disputed territory, as part of a delegation of six female journalists, the first gesture was two pairs of headlights behind us as we drove from the airport to our hotel. We’d been invited by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) to travel to Western Sahara to report on this often forgotten story.
Men in dark sunglasses and leather jackets were ready for our arrival at the hotel, posted on the corners across the street. As our group of six journalists and two IWMF staffers traveled around town in the days to come, the men stayed close, on motorbikes and in dark cars. These men, who looked like the security agents ubiquitous around the Middle East, usually pulled around a nearby corner as we rolled to a stop. When we looked their way, they made feeble attempts to duck around a corner or hide behind a car.
This kind of surveillance, we’d been warned, was standard for foreign visitors to Western Sahara. Even tourists report being followed and watched. We knew that journalists — and anyone else who might meet with the local activists who seek independence from Morocco — were subject to special scrutiny and sometimes expelled. Morocco claims Western Sahara as its own and has occupied the territory since 1976, when an indigenous independence movement led by the Algeria-funded Polisario Front began fighting Moroccan troops. Western Sahara is the only territory in Africa still on the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories — places that wait in limbo to be decolonized.
Today Western Sahara is one of the world’s longest-running unresolved conflicts. Despite the ceasefire signed between Morocco and the Western Sahara liberation movement, called the Polisario, in 1991, the territory’s status has to this day never been finally settled. With so many other conflicts today absorbing the international community’s attention, the half-peace in Western Sahara means the issue has been relegated to the sidelines of international diplomacy.
As we experienced firsthand, Morocco does not just rely on anonymous security agents — it also uses press flacks and de facto Washington lobbyists to burnish its image abroad. The day after we arrived, a representative of the Ministry of Communications in Rabat, Mohamed El Bour, showed up to orchestrate our meetings with local officials and focus our attention on Western Sahara’s economic promise rather than its political strife. On our third day in Laayoune, he was joined by a woman in a dark suit, stilettos, and sunglasses.
She introduced herself as Fatima-Zohra Rachidi, also with the Ministry of Communications in Rabat. She was in Laayoune with another delegation and had been asked to join us at the last minute, she said in a flawless American accent. The line "I just happened to be here" was one we would also hear from many Rabat-based officials we encountered in Western Sahara, and one we came to doubt. "Let me know if you need anything," she added breezily.
Fatima remained with us the rest our time in Western Sahara, accompanying us to several of our meetings with officials and groups with close ties to the government. (She and the minders did not accompany us when we met opposition activists.) She was mostly quiet during meetings — but was obviously listening closely, stepping in occasionally to re-translate a salient point about the government’s position into English.
On our final day in the territory, as we sat in the departure lounge of the airport, we were summoned to the VIP lounge, where the Moroccan-appointed provincial governor lectured us about being fair in our coverage. And there was Fatima again: She stood among the local officials who flanked the governor, and, because she was there to help the government communicate, interrupted our translator to clarify a few points of the governor’s monologue. When he was through, we asked for her card — she had no more left, she said, but gave us a Gmail address with which to reach her in Rabat.
We quickly discovered that Fatima was not only a government emissary, but an example of the close ties the kingdom maintains to Washington lobbying shops. After we left Western Sahara, we found Fatima’s picture on the website of the Gabriel Company, a Washington lobbying firm headed by former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco Edward Gabriel. On the Gabriel Company’s website, she goes by the name Fatima-Zohra Kurtz.
The Gabriel Company has had the Moroccan government as a client since 2002, and during that time has been paid more than $3.7 million, according to records filed under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). FARA requires foreign governments and the groups they hire to lobby on their behalf in the United States to file detailed reports of their lobbying activities with the Justice Department.
The Gabriel Company’s fees are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the funds Morocco has lavished on lobbyists to stay on Washington’s good side. Since 2007, the kingdom has employed nine U.S. lobbying firms, according to FARA records. Altogether, since 2007 the kingdom has spent roughly $20 million lobbying policymakers and soliciting sympathetic coverage from journalists in the United States on all issues, including Western Sahara. In 2009, it lobbied members of Congress, the executive branch and journalists more than any other Arab country — more than twice as much as Egypt, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for government accountability and transparency.
Fatima accounted for the difference between what she told us was her surname, and what she goes by with the Gabriel Company, by saying she uses her maiden name, Rachidi, in Morocco and Kurtz, the name of her ex-husband, in the United States.
Whichever name she’s using, her career provides a window into the interlocking network of nonprofits and lobbying firms that are tasked with boosting Morocco’s image in Washington. In addition to what she called a consulting job with the Ministry of Communications and her vice presidency at the Gabriel Company, Fatima also works for other organizations funded by the kingdom. She heads the Moroccan American Cultural Center, which tries to build cultural ties between the United States and Morocco through events and is one of the three organizations under the umbrella of the Moroccan American Center. The Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP), a registered Washington lobbying firm the Moroccan government relies on heavily, is another organization under the same umbrella. And while it’s not listed on the website, a contract filed under FARA revealed that Fatima is also MACP’s senior vice president for operations.
Morocco has paid more money to MACP than any other U.S. firm it has hired to influence lawmakers and journalists. According to filings made under FARA, the kingdom has paid more than $13.8 million to MACP since 2007 to contact journalists, congressmen, and State Department officials to advance Morocco’s interests.
When contacted at the Gabriel Company office on K Street in Washington, Fatima vehemently denied that she has ever been a lobbyist for the two lobbying firms where she’s an executive. She said that from 2003 to 2009, she was registered as a lobbyist with FARA, which requires people engaged in direct lobbying or "quasi political activities" on behalf of a foreign government to disclose the details of those activities. But she said she deregistered in 2009 at the advice of her lawyer, because she "did not participate in lobbying activities." But since U.S. law is vague about what qualifies as "quasi political activities," Fatima seems to operate in a legal gray area where what constitutes lobbying and what doesn’t is hard to pinpoint.
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Since the start of the Arab Spring, Morocco has been keen to project an image of stability in a troubled region. As fellow North African countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have struggled to follow through on the promise of their revolutions, Morocco has pitched itself as a regional player able to offer the kind of security guarantees Europe and the United States are looking for.
According to FARA records, Western Sahara has consistently been a key topic in Morocco’s lobbying of Washington. The kingdom’s lobbyists have framed Morocco’s struggle for control of the territory as another front in America’s war on terror. In April 2013, MACP circulated an editorial by email arguing that the refugee camps in Algeria filled with Western Sahara citizens have "reportedly become a recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda-linked groups," a development that should prompt "active diplomatic action from the United States."
A May 2012 PowerPoint presentation attached to the FARA records submitted by LeClairRyan, another Washington group lobbying for Morocco, warns darkly about the chaos that would follow Morocco’s withdrawal from the territory.
"Morocco can never allow — nor would any other country in its position allow — [Western Sahara] to become an ‘independent state,’ because as such it would be incredibly weak, a failed state from Day One, and a magnet for terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking and other evils," the presentation warns.
Morocco’s millions appear to have been effectively spent, as the United States has never pressured the kingdom to follow through on its pledge to hold a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara. The 2014 appropriations bill recently passed by Congress mandates, for the first time, that some of the foreign aid to Morocco be used in Western Sahara. The bill specifically stipulates that the State Department develop a plan to "resolve the longstanding dispute over the Western Sahara, based on autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty." The MACP cheered this development in a press release.
The lack of public attention on Western Sahara may be one reason its lobbying is so successful: Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco, who wrote a book about the conflict, said that because it is relatively unknown to the public, Moroccan lobbying can have a "disproportionate amount of influence" on attitudes in Washington.
"The reason [the U.S.-Moroccan alliance] hasn’t been challenged, the reason it’s not an issue, is because of the influence the lobby has on Congress," said Zunes.
Of course, the other side lobbies, too. Algeria, a long-time supporter of the Polisario and Western Sahara independence, also retains lobbyists in Washington — but the funds it spends are dwarfed by Rabat. Between 2007 and 2013, Algeria spent roughly $2.4 million lobbying Capitol Hill, according to FARA — or slightly more than 10 percent of the funds Morocco has spent. FARA records show that almost all meetings organized by Algiers-funded lobbyists are about Western Sahara. The Polisario hired Independent Diplomat to represent the group in Washington in 2008, and has paid it $42,433 since 2009.
Several congressional offices declined to talk about their meetings with lobbyists, and others did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.
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So far, Morocco’s image consultants seem to blur their association with U.S. lobbying firms. When we contacted Fatima in April, she said she saw no reason to mention her work at the Gabriel Company, the MACP, or MACC when we first met her because it was unrelated to her work in Western Sahara as a consultant for the Ministry of Communications. And though we found a contract she’d signed on behalf of MACP hiring the lobbying firm Western Hemisphere Strategies, headed by former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, to "positively affect relations between the United States and Morocco," she called her role purely administrative.
Bill Allison, the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to government transparency, says anyone who attempts to shift the U.S. public debate on behalf of a foreign power should register as a lobbyist. "If you’re trying to influence U.S. public opinion, and that would include talking to journalists, you’re supposed to be registered [with FARA]," says Allison. "That includes if you’re in a role presenting the Moroccan government’s views, trying to create a favorable impression. The whole point of FARA is so that you can know who you’re talking to, and there is no ambiguity. " (The Justice Department declined to comment on Fatima’s unregistered status.)
However they get the job done, Morocco’s lobbying efforts still appear capable of influencing American policy. The U.S. mission to the United Nations, for instance, recently proposed adding a human rights mandate to the U.N. mission in Western Sahara — it is, after all, currently the only U.N. peacekeeping force without one. But the United States dropped the proposal after the government of Morocco and its allies lobbied against it — and even canceled an annual joint military exercise for U.S. and Moroccan troops in Morocco. The U.S. then reverted to its longstanding position of posing no serious challenge to Morocco’s position on Western Sahara.
That non-confrontational attitude looks set to continue. On Nov. 22, President Barack Obama received King Mohammed VI in the Oval Office — and used the meeting to hug the kingdom even tighter. In a statement following the meeting, Obama and the king also reaffirmed their commitment to working together "to counter the threat of violent extremism in the region." The White House also praised Morocco’s plan for the Western Sahara, which is widely rejected by Sahrawi activists, as "serious, realistic, and credible."
Meanwhile, as Morocco continues to spend millions on lobbyists and public relations efforts, the decades-long conflicts drags on with no end in sight.