The changing regional landscape in North Africa is forcing the USA to change its posture in the Mediterranean Sea, in order to face the multiple challenges coming from a region in flux. While the awaited presidential elections in November 2020 will give an essential indication, recent developments suggest that Washington is already navigating uncharted waters in the Strait of Gibraltar.
On the 8th of July the US embassy in Madrid denied it was considering moving its military from the Rota naval base in Spain to Morocco. The embassy said that it did not receive any offer from Rabat to move to the Ksar Saghir naval base and that reports suggesting that the incoming expiration of the current military agreement between Madrid and Washington are incorrect. The note from the embassy followed detailed reports on Spanish newspapers (echoed by the Moroccan media) saying that the agreement, which is due to be renegotiated, will come to an end in 2021.
Located in the province of Cádiz, NAVSTA (Naval Station) Rota has been jointly used by Spain and the USA since 1953, following a Defence and Cooperation agreement between Madrid and Washington renewed in 1988. Considering that the base plays a crucial in providing logistic support to both the US 6th Fleet and NATO (being part of the Ballistic Missile Defence – BMD programme), it seems unlikely that Washington would consider a relocation of its forces. Negotiations to expand the base and increase the US military presence have always been uneasy though. In this context, the reports seem instrumental in pressuring Spain to give in to US demands and enhancing competition between Madrid and Rabat, whose dispute on the Ceuta and Melilla enclaves, claimed by Morocco, always represents a source of friction.
At the same time, the gradual dismantling of the Western military cooperation mechanisms (highlighted by the recent US decision to withdraw 11.900 troops from Germany) suggest that the Ksar Saghir option remains a distinct possibility, should the current US administration be confirmed in November.
Relations between Rabat and Washington continue to be excellent, especially in the military domain. In April, the US Congress was notified the sale of 10 AGM-84L Harpoon Block II air-to-sea missiles to Rabat, including support equipment, personnel training and technical assistance. The sale of the missiles, worth $62 million, followed the sale of 24 AH-64E Apache helicopters (with an option for 12 more) approved by the US State Department in November 2019. It is worth noting that, according to the latest Trends in International Arms Transfer published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) between 2015 and 2019 the US represented 91% of the arms imports of Morocco, followed by France (8,9%) and the UK (0,3%).
Facing a more assertive Turkey and Russia’s increasing foothold in the region, Washington has no other option than relying on strong partners such as Morocco or cultivate relations with Tunisia, to which the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has recently offered support and military training. Even in case the rumoured relocation from Rota would not take place, Rabat and Tunis will continue to represent the two main pillars upon which the next US administration can hammer out a new strategy for a region frequently overlooked in recent years.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region