JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Morocco is applying to join the Economic Community of West African States, the bloc confirmed Tuesday, a move that some analysts see as a continuation of checkbook diplomacy to consolidate the North African kingdom's claim on Western Sahara.
Morocco's application will be considered at the next summit of 15 member states in July, ECOWAS chairman Marcel de Souza said in a statement.
It would be "very surprising if it's accepted," said analyst Liesl Louw-Vaudran of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies. Morocco is not geographically part of West Africa and culturally fits with Arab nations very different from those of sub-Saharan Africa.
The bid to join the West African bloc isn't to pursue trade and investment, Louw-Vaudran said. Morocco "wants to sit at the political table and just realized it doesn't want to be the black sheep of the African continent anymore."
The move comes after Morocco in January rejoined the African Union with 39 nations voting in its favor. The 54-nation pan-African body in 1984 recognized Western Sahara as the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, leading Morocco to storm out. Western Sahara remains an AU member.
Morocco claims Western Sahara as its "southern provinces." A United Nations resolution for decades has called for a referendum to decide its fate.
Oil companies have abandoned exploration there, and European fishing companies have withdrawn fleets because of the tensions. In December, the European Union's Court of Justice ruled that Morocco must exclude products from Western Sahara from its exports to member states.
But Morocco's King Mohammed VI has been traveling around Africa in recent months signing multibillion-dollar deals including with Ghana and Nigeria. Last month he visited Guinea, whose president chairs the West African bloc.
Last week the king spoke by telephone to Nigeria's ailing President Muhammadu Buhari in London. He was just the second leader Buhari is reported to have spoken to this year, after U.S. President Donald Trump.
Morocco is "riding this wave of acceptance and the king's strong bilateral relations and checkbook diplomacy," dividing the continent where many remember the African Union was created in part to get rid of colonization, said Louw-Vaudran.
Morocco is so confident it even is suggesting it host the next African Union summit, she said.