Five years ago, an unusual image appeared on Instagram. It showed Mohammed VI, the 54-year-old king of Morocco, sitting on a sofa next to a muscular man in sportswear. “The two men were huddled together and smiling like kids at camp. Moroccans were more used to seeing their king alone, on a gilded throne,” reports the Economist.
The story behind the image was even stranger. Abu Azaitar, the 32-year-old man next to the king, is a veteran of the German prison system as well as a mixed martial arts (mma) champion. Since moving to Morocco in 2018, his Instagram posts have, according to the Economist, sent shivers down the spine of the country’s conservative elite. It’s not just the flashy cars, it’s the strikingly casual tone in which she addresses the monarch: “Our dear King,” she wrote alongside a photo of the two together. “I can’t thank him enough for everything he’s done for us.”
A crisis is brewing in Morocco and the kickboxer is at the heart of it. The country is considered one of the success stories of the Arab world. It has a thriving automobile industry and its medieval bazaars enchant Western tourists. While it has all the charm of the Middle East, it has none of its turmoil. But Morocco’s 37 million citizens face the same problems that have plagued so much of the Arab world over the past decade: insufficient jobs, soaring inflation and oppressive security services.
This has not, so far, led to serious unrest, in part because the king promptly introduced constitutional reforms at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011. But now unrest is on the horizon and the king, insiders say, is gone, as says the Economist in its extensive report.
200 days a year outside the country
For the past four years Azaitar and his two brothers have monopolized the monarch’s attention. The king’s advisers are said to have tried to reduce the influence of the Azaitars, but to no avail. Some officials appear to be complicit in the publication of articles revealing Azhaitar’s criminal past. But the king does not change his attitude.
A former official who spoke to the British magazine estimated that last year the king was out of Morocco on pleasure trips for 200 days. Even when he is in the country he frequents the Azaitar brothers at a private ranch in the Moroccan countryside.
Muhammad made his first public appearance with Azaitar on April 20, 2018, at an event to celebrate their mma achievements. In photos released to the press, the king and the three brothers stand together holding an mma championship belt.
As their friendship deepened, Azaitar began posting pictures of himself with the king. He and his brothers joined the circle of people who accompany the king everywhere. The king, who was somewhat overweight at the time he met the brothers, suffered from asthma and lung problems. The three brothers set up a gym in the palace and he began training. His image and health improved.
The king for his part does not miss an opportunity to show his gratitude. When their mother died, he allowed them to bury her in the grounds of his palace in Tangier. The brothers acquired valuable beachfront properties and showcased their lifestyle on social media. “They use military aircraft, they have a blank check to operate in the palace as they want, they can go to the garage and take the cars they want,” says a person from the palace environment. “It’s so weird.”
In theory, Morocco has a constitutional monarchy. In fact, Muhammad is much more than a person. He has the final say on every important issue and without him, the country’s political factions tend to engage in pointless bickering. The Middle East is littered with the wreckage of regimes that failed to act decisively in moments of crisis. “We are a plane without a pilot,” fumes one former official.
The shy leader
Mohammed is perhaps the most shy of Middle Eastern leaders. Since becoming king in 1999, he has never held a press conference or even given statements to television stations. Avoids international Summits. When he has to give his once-a-year Throne Day public speech, he mixes up his words.
From his demeanor, to the t-shirts and sneakers he wears, everything suggests a desire to be something other than a ruler (although he absolutely enjoys the financial perks the title gives him). “He is not interested in power. All he wants to do is live his life,” says a courtier.
Academics believe the institution of the monarchy helped Morocco avoid the revolutions that swept the Arab world in 2011. Unlike the presidents of neighboring republics, the king could quickly introduce reforms while still representing stability and continuity. The sense of the Moroccan monarchy as something timeless and ancient is instilled early on. Students are taught that their royal house dates back to the eighth century.
The mystique of the monarchy is enhanced by symbols and rituals such as the annual bayah, or oath of allegiance, when the king emerges from his palace gates to be greeted by dignitaries in traditional white costumes, who kiss his hand. When the French colonized Morocco in the late 19th century they strengthened the power of the sultan (who later became king), introducing Throne Day rituals in the 1930s. They turned the sultan’s deputies, or makhzen, into a modern bureaucracy.
Today the makhzen is an extensive state apparatus that includes elected and appointed officials. With a heavy emphasis on elaborate protocols, it has become an institution in its own right as well as an extension of the monarchy (Moroccans also use the term makhzen to convey something like the “deep state”, describing the influence of powerful business and political elites).
The king is at the top of this system. After the Arab Spring, some constitutional changes were introduced that give more powers to elected officials, but the monarch can still rule as an absolute ruler if he wants to. He is head of the armed forces, the highest judiciary and can dismiss parliament by royal decree.
In the shadow of the authoritarian father
Muhammad’s father, Hassan II, exercised full royal authority and was feared for it. “He was nonstop, domineering, omnipresent and incredibly hardworking,” a family friend recalled. An imposing figure who kept a secret harem of 50 concubines, he was never happier than when standing on Arab summits with a cigarette in hand. Hasan punished his enemies. Some he had hanged by their ankles in secret prisons. “Whoever disobeys me disobeys God,” the king once declared in 1994, quoting a saying of the Prophet.
Mohammed grew up in the shadow of his demanding father. His school schedule started at 6 in the morning with Quran reading. There were long hours of lessons. He studied in a college built especially for him within the palace walls. His father wanted Mohamed to feel the pressure of competition, so he filled his son’s school with 12 classmates who had been chosen for their exceptional performance. According to “Le Roi prédateur,” a biography of him published in 2012 by two French journalists, Hassan was once heard ordering courtiers to give his son 20 lashes when he appeared to be falling behind in his studies. (The authors were recently convicted in France of attempting to blackmail the Moroccan government. They are reported to have appealed.)
As a child, Mohammed “never went outside the palace walls and imagined what lay beyond,” a childhood friend tells the Economist. One of his favorite songs was ‘Breakfast in America’, by the English rock band Supertramp. He excelled in languages and did postgraduate studies abroad.
He even did an internship at the European Commission. But Europe’s nightlife seems to have attracted him more than its boardrooms. According to another biography of Mohammed by Ferran Sales Aige, a journalist for El Pais, Hassan’s spies tipped him off that the young prince frequented bars. The king’s displeasure with his son had flared up. “A chromosomal error,” he seems to have remarked wistfully. He sent his son to study law at Nicaea and sent his minister of the interior to watch over him.
Modernizing reforms, but not for long
As the years passed, father and son became estranged. When Hassan died in July 1999, Mohammed wept during the funeral procession. But friends felt a burden had been lifted from him. For a while, it seemed as if he was destined to become an energetic, modernizing king. He was quick to attack the Moroccan elite and its morals. Within months of taking the throne he began firing senior officials, starting with the interior minister who was rumored to have spied on him in Nice. He appointed a Justice and Reconciliation Commission to look into cases of human rights abuses under his father. He reformed the mudawan, the Islamic legal code, enabling women to divorce their husbands.
Mohammed appointed some of his classmates to key positions. But they didn’t seem to share his desire to shake things up. According to a former courtier, the king’s friends expected him to simply follow the conventional path: marry. To their relief he married Salma, a computer engineer who worked for the royal company, ona Group, in 2002. “He had to produce an heir, a crown prince,” says a former Western ambassador. “He did his job.”
So a few years later the excitement died down. He spent more and more time abroad with artists, actors, comedians and rappers. Abuses and a deterioration in his health followed. Then the Azaitars arrived. Late nights were limited, exercise entered his life, but he..just disappeared. The questions and reactions about the time he spends with them are constantly intensifying. But he doesn’t seem willing to give answers.
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