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When King Mohammed VI of Morocco returned to a busy schedule of public appearances in the spring, many in the royal court probably breathed a sigh of relief.
The monarch’s prolonged absences abroad in the past year and his friendship with a flamboyant martial arts fighter and his two brothers had set tongues wagging and upset senior courtiers, concerned about the image of the monarchy in a country riven by inequality but where the sovereign is seen as a foundation of stability.
“Since his return we’ve seen him almost daily on television,” said Omar Brouksy, a Moroccan political scientist and commentator. “He’s been inaugurating this and launching that and exercising his authority.”
The king’s presence matters in Morocco: under its constitution the monarch exercises near-absolute power and is the ultimate decision maker in economic and political affairs. “This is not a Scandinavian king,” said Brouksy. “He’s the one who chairs the council of ministers.”
Moroccan observers say the monarch spent extensive periods — sometimes months on end — in France and Gabon in 2022 and earlier this year. His absences have come as the country faces a series of challenges, including high inflation, drought and anaemic growth.
But what appears to have particularly worried Morocco’s establishment is his association with Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Abu Bakr Azaitar and his brothers, who became frequent visitors to the royal palace and accompanied the monarch abroad as personal trainers.
The brothers, who were reportedly introduced to the ruler in 2018 ahead of Abu Bakr’s UFC debut, “were everywhere and acted like they owned the place”, said a person close to the court. “They used to speak very rudely to everyone. They were very arrogant and even used to try and control access to the king.”
The north African kingdom is one of the most stable in the Arab world but is marked by wide economic and social inequality. In the monarch’s 24 years on the throne, billions of dollars have been poured into infrastructure such as affordable housing and extending electricity to villages. The country has also built successful export industries, including automobiles and textiles.
But improvements in health, education and judicial reform have lagged behind.
Since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Morocco has also been battered by high inflation, which sat at 7.1 per cent in June, while increasingly frequent droughts have hit agricultural output and economic growth. Gross domestic product grew 1.1 per cent in 2022, compared with 7.9 per cent the year before, according to the African Development Bank.
“The governing system is one of the more effective in the Middle East,” said a European analyst. “But it’s also very vertically integrated. It’s undeniable that [the king’s] absence has an impact on decision making.”
The Azaitar siblings were born to a Moroccan immigrant in Germany and raised on the outskirts of Cologne, where Abu Bakr acquired a criminal record. He was jailed aged 17 after being tried on charges of attacking a businessman, dousing him in gasoline and taking his Ferrari.
A report in the Economist in April that detailed the ruler’s friendship with the Azaitars sparked “an earthquake among the elite” in Morocco, according to an observer in the country. But while local media panned the story as superficial and populist, they noted that the Moroccan press had already published stories about the Azaitars.
In a country where independent journalists have been jailed, Moroccan media have savaged the brothers and questioned their apparent access to the palace.
Hespress, a digital newspaper, has described the Azaitars as “timebombs” ready to “explode in the face of Moroccans” and asked: “What is the role of the Azaitars in the political and social arena in Morocco? To what dead-end tunnel are they dragging Morocco?”
The fiercely critical coverage reflects disquiet within ruling elites about the king’s association with the Azaitars, analysts say.
“The fact those articles have been published in Morocco means powerful elites are unhappy with the state of affairs,” said Haizam Amirah-Fernández, senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute think-tank in Madrid. “They would be concerned over the impact on the country’s stability and also about their own position in relation to the ruler.”
Moroccan media have questioned how the siblings mustered the means to launch businesses in prime locations in Morocco. They have also lambasted them for an ostentatious lifestyle flaunted on social media, their irreverent use of royal symbols on items such as bathrobes, and the names of their fast food outlets, Royal Burger and Royal Donut. The entrance to the latter is adorned with a large, colourful, plastic armchair topped by a crown that is reminiscent of a throne.
“The images are clear enough and a simple exercise in semiology can tell us the story these rogues want to promote,” Hespress wrote last year.
The Azaitar brothers did not respond to Financial Times requests for comment.
The king’s return and his increased visibility probably reflected “domestic pressure, particularly from inside the palace”, said the European analyst.
Now he is back, the Azaitar siblings appeared to be keeping a low profile. But, said the Moroccan observer: “It’s hard to tell if they are completely off the scene.”