Is Morocco Israel’s next defence Eldorado?

4199

On 17 July, Israel officially recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara. This recognition is another sign of the growing ties between the two countries.

Indeed, in December 2020, at the end of COVID-19 outbreak and just before Joe Biden took office, the Trump administration pulled off a historic coup: the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel on the one hand, and the Arab countries of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco on the other. In exchange for the normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel, Morocco also managed to wrest recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara from Washington.

Since then, Morocco and Israel have engaged in an impressive succession of contracts, notably for the supply of arms. While the North African kingdom is in the midst of modernizing its armed forces, particularly in view of tensions with its Algerian neighbour, Israel finds itself with a highly competitive defence industry in many market segments, such as heavy armour, drones and cyber.

Morocco’s military needs and the proactivity of Israeli arms manufacturers

To demonstrate their respective confidence in this partnership, the two countries also signed a framework agreement in November 2021 to provide guiding principles for cooperation between intelligence services, increased links between the two nations’ industry players, arms procurement and joint military exercises.

Arms sales have since taken off, with industrial exchanges and sales. Moroccan F-16s will be fitted with Israeli technologies, while two Israeli UAVs from BlueBird Aero Systems will be built under license. However, Morocco has been using Israeli UAVs, discreetly, for years, with the purchase from France in 2014 of three second-hand Harfang UAVs for $48 million, built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in cooperation with then EADS. Contracts were signed with the blessing, and assistance, of both states, including visits by the Israeli ministers of industry, foreign affairs and defence, and the organization of two Morocco-Israel economic forums, one in each country.

Since then, contracts have continued to flow in, including anti-missile and anti-drones systems, various types of UAVs and UGVs, cyber security software and more. In 2021 Morocco ordered Harop loitering munitions, and four Gulfstream G550s for electronic warfare; in 2022 it ordered Barak MX missile defence systems for $500 million, Elta radars, Skylock anti-drone systems, 150 Wander-B and ThunderB UAVs from BlueBird, and in 2023 ordered 200 Merkava tanks and possibly rocket launchers.

While the relationship between the two countries dates back to the creation of Israel, the rapprochement in the light of the Abraham Accords has given a real boost to trade relations and industrial partnerships. In fact, the Kingdom could welcome a growing number of Israeli companies and factories to its soil, as the latter could benefit from lower labour costs, while Morocco’s relative stability has long attracted European industry players such as Airbus and Safran.

Israel and Morocco are now looking to enhance their relationship, while seeking to mutually benefit from each country’s strengths. For example, IAI has signed a MoU with the International University of Rabat to establish a joint centre of excellence focusing on aeronautics and artificial intelligence research. Elbit Systems, according to Israel’s liaison office in Rabat, is looking to open two sites in Morocco to get better access to the African market.

On top of that, the geographic and climate context which the two militaries operate are relatively similar in both countries, with deserts dotted with more fertile land. Thus, one of the reasons why Israel was unable to export its excellent Merkava tank series was their weight: in the desert, there are no rivers or bridges to cross, so Israeli tanks are known to be particularly well armoured, and therefore, heavy.

On the cyber front, cooperation between the two countries has been thrown into the spotlight by the scandal surrounding Pegasus, the spyware developed by Israel’s NSO. Indeed, secret services of both countries have had relations for decades with Moroccan intelligence being keen to emulate the Israeli Mossad. Although more discreet, sales of Israeli surveillance software and hardware seem to be on the increase.

The impact of increased arms sales between Israel and Morocco

The easing of relations between Morocco and Israel has, however, rekindled rifts with neighbouring Algeria. The two countries have a stormy history, as they clashed in the Sand War, with Algiers supporting the Polisario Front in its current war with Morocco, and the two countries having severed their diplomatic ties. The fact that Rabat has access to first-class weapons is of particular concern to the military junta in Algeria. Morocco’s frenzy of military purchases could generate major new arms contracts for Algeria, which, if it was to procure its equipment mainly from Russia, could continue now to strengthen its military cooperation with China.

Morocco, on the other hand, seems more inclined to acquire Western equipment, whether from Israel or the USA, although contracts also exist with Beijing, with reports of Wing Loong drones operating in the Kingdom’s skies.

Last but not least, the dynamism of commercial and industrial relations between the two countries in the context of arms contracts is further proof, if it was needed, of the worldwide interest in Israeli defence products. With a hefty national investment, helped by US Foreign Military Financing, Israel’s defence industrial base quickly became structured around the need for innovative, effective products, with export seen as a crucial priority.

The current context of increased international tensions and open conflicts – such as those in Nagorno-Karabakh – is sadly serving as a showcase for the effectiveness of the weapons produced in the country. Morocco did notice this, as have other nations.

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.