RABAT, Morocco -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Tuesday for the expansion of new, major diplomatic shifts in the Middle East and North Africa that have upended the conventional wisdom about some of the region’s longest-standing disputes.
Visiting Morocco just a day after an unprecedented gathering in Israel’s Negev Desert with the Israeli foreign minister and his counterparts from four Arab nations that have normalized relations with Israel, Blinken met senior Moroccan officials to discuss opportunities for expanding those ties.
Then, in talks with the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates at his private residence in the Moroccan capital, Blinken spoke of great opportunities and challenges in the region and beyond.
The UAE recently angered the U.S. by hosting Syrian leader Bashar Assad and has expressed unease with the Biden administration's attempts to revive the languishing Iran nuclear deal.
In Morocco ahead of a visit to Algeria on Wednesday, Blinken was exploring options for helping end the neighbors’ festering dispute over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara after new developments.
The meeting between Blinken and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita was their second direct encounter in two days. The pair were together on Monday in the Israeli town of Sde Boker, where they each confirmed their countries’ commitment to supporting a revitalized Middle East with growing ties between Israel and Arab states.
Morocco, along with the UAE and Bahrain, was one of the countries to fully normalize relations with Israel during the Trump administration's push to negotiate the so-called "Abraham Accords," in which the U.S. pledged significant support in exchange for such recognition. While technically not an Abraham Accords signatory, Morocco won U.S. recognition for its claim to Western Sahara in return for its agreement with Israel.
In a rare endorsement of a Trump foreign policy initiative, the Biden administration has signaled its full backing for the Abraham Accords and pledged to try to expand and strengthen them. However, while the administration has not revoked Trump's decision on Western Sahara, it has been largely silent on the matter. U.S. plans to build a consulate in the territory have not advanced since being announced by Trump in 2020.
That has led to questions about whether Washington is fully on board with Moroccan sovereignty over the former Spanish colony.
Just last week, Spain shifted its long-standing position on the territory by backing Morocco's plan to give Western Sahara more autonomy as long it remains under Moroccan control, calling it "the most serious, realistic and credible” initiative for resolving the decades-long dispute.
Blinken echoed the “serious, realistic and credible” phrase in addressing the Moroccan plan, but stopped short of a full endorsement, saying it represented “one potential approach" to resolving the dispute.
Bourita said the autonomy plan had been praised by many countries, including Spain and the United States, but that others — particularly in Europe — should get on board.
“We think it’s time for Europe mainly to get out of this comfort zone where people are supporting a process (and) shift into an outcome-oriented effort,” he said.
The Spanish move was immediately welcomed by Rabat, which reinstated its ambassador to Madrid after a 10-month absence. But it was sharply criticized by Algeria, which supports Western Sahara's Polisario Front independence movement, and recalled its ambassador to Spain.
In his meetings with the two protagonists, Blinken hoped to explore the potential for compromises on Western Sahara. The vast territory, which Morocco annexed in 1976, is largely barren but rich in phosphates and faces fertile Atlantic Ocean fishing grounds.
The Polisario called Spain's decision a “grave error” that grew out of Morocco’s leverage over the control of migrants crossing into Europe. It accuses Madrid of taking sides in a dispute that the Spanish government for decades said could only be settled in a referendum held under U.N. auspices.
Later Tuesday, Blinken met Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to try to ease U.S.-UAE tensions over a possible resurrection of the Iran nuclear deal, the recent spat over Assad's visit to the Emirates and Emirati concerns about rocket attacks against it by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Blinken spoke appreciatively of the UAE's leadership and courage in normalizing its relations with Israel and noted that the Emirati foreign minister had delivered strong remarks about normalizing Arab-Israeli relations at the Negev Desert meeting in Israel.
“At the same time, we have real challenges to confront together in the region and beyond," Blinken told Sheikh Mohammed, most of whose brief comments were inaudible.
Blinken said the U.S. is “determined to do everything we can to help you defend yourselves" against attacks by the Houthis, who have recently stepped up rocket strikes on both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. He pledged to consult with the Emiratis on the Iran nuclear negotiations and also in dealing with the effects on global energy and food security caused by Russia's war on Ukraine.