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Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, President

Renewed tensions drive arms race in the Maghreb

One year after Morocco’s landmark decision to join the Abraham Accords, the quest for supremacy in the Maghreb is heating up quickly. The volatile situation in the Western Sahara and renewed tensions with Algeria are certainly two of the main factors behind Morocco’s decision to upgrade its military capabilities.
Following years of decline in arms import, the 2022 budget presented by the government led by Aziz Akhannouch in late October includes a marked increase (4,77%) in defence spending, as Rabat plans to allocate US$12,8 billion to modernise its defence sector and close the gap with its western neighbour, whose army is ranked amongst the most powerful in Africa.
Interestingly, Morocco’s recent trends in arms procurement is following in the footsteps of the latest normalisation trend, leading Rabat to further consolidate its new partnership with Israel. In this context, the late October visit of the Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz in Rabat, where he met with his counterpart Abdellatif Loudiy, Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and high-ranking officials of the Forces Armées Royales (FAR, the Moroccan army) resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding that laid the groundwork for strengthening the military cooperation. Since then, news about Morocco’s arms procurement from Israel have flourished, including a possible interest in Rabat to purchase the Iron Dome (Barzel Kippat), one of the crown jewels of Israel’s antimissile defence system.
Despite budgetary constraints, the Moroccan market still offers plenty of opportunity to Tel Aviv’s burgeoning military-industrial complex. Immediately after the agreement, the FAR announced the purchase of the Skylock Dome, a counter-drone air defence system developed by Skylock Systems, a subsidiary of the Israeli Avnon Group.
Bolstering air defence capabilities is a priority for Rabat, as shown by the recent reports suggesting ongoing negotiations to buy the Barak 8 (Blessing) long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system jointly developed by the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). Furthermore, the two sides are also working on consolidating their well-known cooperation on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), negotiating a US$22 million deal for Harop loitering munition developed by IAI that could possibly be manufactured in the Alawite kingdom.
Remote warfare certainly represents the new frontier for the arms race in the Maghreb, as indicated not only by recent reports suggesting Algeria’s interest in purchasing Caihong-5 UAVs from China; but also, by the recent drone strikes in Western Sahara, which have greatly contributed to heighten regional tensions.
Morocco’s recent deal with the Turkish company Baykar to add six more Bayraktar TB-2 to its fleet of 13 also shows the diversification strategy adopted by Rabat in arms procurement, which recently came to light with the construction of a new air defence base in Sidi Yahya el-Gharb: alongside the Barak 8 SAM systems and possibly PAC-3 MSE Patriot missiles from Lockheed Martin, the base is likely to host 24 Sky Dragon 50 medium-range SAM bought from China’s North Industries Group Corporation Limited (NORINCO) in 2017, as well as short-range missile defence system VL Mica purchased from MBDA in 2019.

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