In 1900 the world consisted of 70 sovereign nations, a fraction of the number that exist today. The UK and the Sultanate of Morocco, however, occupy a special position in that they existed as independent nations in 1900 and earlier. In 1213, backed into a diplomatic corner, King John of England dispatched an embassy to Moroccan Sultan, Mohamed Ennassir, proposing an alliance; over 800 years later the two Kingdoms endure and maintain excellent relations.
As a scholar of diplomacy, a bilateral relationship of such longevity between countries separated by geography, religion, language and ethnicity is striking. In a political exercise of the old proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” frequent wars with Spain or France brought England and Morocco together throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the early modern era.
For relations to have been established between the Plantagenet King John — whose own brother Richard I famously went on a Crusade — and a Muslim sultan is truly remarkable. This was an age when Muslims were, in the words of Pope Urban II, “a despised and base race, who worship demons.” Having been excommunicated from the Church following a quarrel with Pope Innocent III, his barons in revolt and the French threatening invasion, the king sent envoys to the Moroccan sultan requesting military assistance. In an extraordinary turn of events, some historians claim that the king even offered to convert to Islam in the event that support was offered and war was declared against France.
These early exchanges culminated in the establishment of formal alliances and frequent diplomatic missions with the emergence of a new outward-looking England during the Elizabethan era. As the king of Spain amassed a great Armada to invade England in 1588, Queen Elizabeth I sent an envoy to Sultan Ahmad Al-Mansour requesting a military alliance and special privileges for English traders. In complete disregard of a papal ban on trading with Muslims, strong economic ties developed as the English sold armor, ammunition, timber and metal in exchange for Moroccan sugar and molasses. The union was detrimental to Spain and a leading Spanish clergyman of the period referred to it as a further “evil devised by that woman (Elizabeth I).”
The striking figure of Abd El-Ouahed ben Messaoud, immortalized in an oil painting of the era, came to personify not only the confidence of the Moroccan sultanate overseas but also the importance of the bilateral relationship with England. A private secretary to Sultan Ahmad Al-Mansour, he was sent to the Court of St. James to strengthen the relationship between the two countries. The robed and perfumed personage of the emissary made some impression upon the court and its celebrated playwright, a certain William Shakespeare. Othello, the brooding Moorish protagonist of the Shakespearean tragedy bearing the same name, is believed to have been inspired directly by Abd El-Ouahed ben Messaoud. It is said that Shakespeare witnessed the procession of his delegation and was stuck by the character of the envoy, described by his Elizabethan contemporaries as conducting himself with extreme “gravity...in the fashion of the season” as he wooed onlookers riding his Arabian thoroughbreds through Hyde Park.
The strong relationship between the UK and Morocco is rooted in history. The close ties would only have been possible because of the broadly tolerant and entrepreneurial policies of both countries. In an age characterized by religious animosity, such stories of historical cross-cultural understanding are immeasurably important.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Relations developed as political union at home made the British more proactive overseas and Morocco, under strong leadership, took on a distinct identity as a regional trading hub. Toward the end of the 17th century, an interest in the Orient and the Arab word reflected itself in new library collections at Oxford and Cambridge as well as in other academic institutions. The Royal Society, established in 1660 as a learned society for the advancement of sciences, reflected the close relationship between the two Kingdoms. Two of only three Arab fellows appointed to the society were actually ambassadors of Morocco, Mohammed bin Haddu (1682) and Mohammed bin Ali Abgali (1726).
Relations were not always cordial. Mohammed bin Haddu’s ambassadorship was followed by a period of shifting alliances. Between 1661 and 1684, the English occupied the port of Tangier, which was granted to King Charles II as a dowry for his marriage to Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza. Interestingly the Coldstream Guards, the oldest infantry regiment in the British Army, saw their first international action in Tangier (the port’s name is still proudly stitched on their regimental colors). Forced out of the colony by Sultan Moulay Ismail, relations entered a new phase as the specter of French and Spanish expansionism led to both sides seeking to strengthen their alliance.
As the thin red line of British imperialism spread over the world, interaction between the two Kingdoms increased. Plagued by domestic instability and foreign threats to their sovereignty, successive Moroccan sultans hired foreign advisers to oversee reforms to the military and administration. Occupying positions of extreme trust and considerable influence, several British advisers played a key role in the history of modern Morocco. Gen. Sir Harry Aubrey de Maclean, otherwise known as Kaid Maclean, was hired as a military instructor and famously rose to prominence as Commander of the Sharifian Army under Sultan Moulay Hassan and Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz. In a position of unparalleled influence, Maclean was key to putting down successive tribal insurrections and was an important figure during the transfer of power between the two sultans. The Times published a profile of him in 1901, in which its correspondent noted that, however exotic Morocco might be, the presence of the “ubiquitous Scotsman” was reassuring and noted that Maclean was central to implementing the Sultan’s modernizing agenda. Sent to King Edward VII on his accession, Maclean became a crucial go-between during a high point in relations as Britain sought to keep French and Spanish colonial interests at bay.
The bilateral relationship between the two Kingdoms has persisted into modern times. With both countries sending some of their best diplomats as representatives, the importance of maintaining close ties is clear. Importantly, the close ties would only have been possible because of the broadly tolerant and entrepreneurial policies of both Kingdoms. In an age characterized by religious animosity, such stories of historical cross-cultural understanding are immeasurably important.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.