Rabat, Morocco – Morocco’s king has embarked on a whirlwind of public activities, which observers say aim to “restore the authority” of the monarchy, as international media have questioned his prolonged absences from the country.
Royal watchers say King Mohammed VI spent about 200 days outside the North African country in 2022, mostly in France and Gabon.
In March, he returned from another, three-months-long stay in Gabon as a guest of his friend President Ali Bongo, coming home on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
He has not left Morocco since, but his lengthy absences in recent times have raised questions among some Moroccan commentators and in the international media.
British news weekly The Economist published a report entitled “The mystery of Morocco’s missing king” in April, which detailed his close ties with a trio of German-Moroccan brothers, two of whom are mixed martial arts stars, and how are known for their extravagant lifestyles.
Over the past two months, since coming back to Morocco, the 59-year-old king has engaged in a flurry of public appearances.
They have ranged from attending religious sermons during Ramadan, meeting with charities and addressing the issue of water shortages to presiding over the council of ministers and appointing new senior officials.
The king has also been seen inaugurating construction sites, a medical centre in Casablanca, a new university hospital in Tangier and a vocational training institute near Rabat.
The objective is “to restore the authority of monarchical power, which depends less on the regular functioning of institutions than on the physical presence of the king”, said Omar Brousky, an academic and journalist from the Orient XXI website.
– ‘The king is here’ –
Some commentators have speculated that sections of the king’s staff share questions about the Mohammed VI’s absences but the royal palace has offered no official comment.
Others like the Maroc Diplomatique website blame “malicious minds” and “peddling from the foreign press” for seeking to “interfere in the private life of the sovereign”.
“Today, they become disillusioned and realise the obvious: the king is here, back, he reigns and, if we can say so, also governs,” the newspaper’s Hassan Alaoui wrote in a column.
In May, Mohammed VI attended the presentation of a prototype of the first all Moroccan-made car at the royal palace in Rabat, with observers noting he appeared to have lost weight.
The king’s health has been a source of speculation since 2018 when he underwent heart surgery in Paris. In 2021, he underwent a second round of surgery in Rabat and last February flu forced him to postpone a planned visit to Senegal.
Along with the monarch’s appearance and activities, discussion has also been focused on his entourage — specifically the three German-Moroccan brothers, Abubakr, Ottman and Omar Azaitar.
Media abroad and in Morocco have pointed to Abubakr’s past convictions and prison time in Germany on charges including assault, their larger-than-life lifestyle and their reportedly close access to the royal court.
– ‘Displays of wealth’ –
The Hespress news website, considered close to governing institutions, said that the brothers’ “well documented criminal curriculum” is “obscenely deployed in overt displays of wealth” in an attempt to associate themselves with the monarchy for business and marketing purposes.
Since May 2021, the website has published a series of articles critical of the brothers’ “shenanigans” and their relationship with the sovereign “at a time when Morocco is on the brink of a social crisis, caused mainly by the high cost of living”.
Morocco, where the Covid pandemic impacted the vital tourism sector, has also struggled with high inflation and a punishing drought.
The poverty rates rose in 2022 to levels last seen two years earlier, according to official figures, despite what is judged the economy’s overall resilience.
The royal household has remained silent on the repeated criticism of the controversial Azaitar siblings.
“The king is again vigorously exercising his intense activities after rumours peddled by Morocco’s adversaries about his health and the performance of his constitutional functions”, said the Arabic-language weekly Al-Ayam.
Mohammed VI has reigned since July 1999, when he succeeded his father Hassan II. The king will turn 60 on August 21.
His son, Crown Prince Moulay Hassan, 20, has been prepared since birth to ascend the throne. A student at the Polytechnic University of Rabat, he has often accompanied his father during official duties.