One moment, King Mohammed VI was bending over a hospital bed, kissing the forehead of a boy injured in the powerful earthquake that struck Morocco’s High Atlas region. The next, he had dispensed with his grey checked suit jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves to donate blood at Marrakech’s university hospital — which bears the king’s name.
The images, broadcast on state television, were part of a carefully choreographed trip by the north African state’s ruler to the historic city on Tuesday, three days after Marrakech and remote mountain villages were rocked by the 6.8 magnitude quake.
The intended message was clear: the king was in charge and in full solidarity with his people after more than 2,900 of them were killed. But the visit — his first public appearance since the disaster struck — passed with no public comments, let alone a rousing speech to rally the masses and reassure the thousands of Moroccans who had lost homes and loved ones as the country suffered its deadliest quake in more than 60 years.
It was very much in keeping with the style of a king who has ruled Morocco for almost a quarter of a century — a reserved, retiring monarch who rarely makes off-the-cuff public speeches and avoids events such as Arab summits. Yet his role in the kingdom is vital, particularly at times of national crisis: under Morocco’s constitution, the king exercises near-absolute power and is the ultimate decision maker in economic and political affairs.
It explains why his apparent absence at the time of the earthquake — there were reports he was in France — reignited grumblings among some Moroccans about the amount of time King Mohammed has been spending overseas in recent years. “We really saw the cost of that absenteeism during the earthquake,” says Intissar Fakir, a Moroccan analyst at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “When you have a structure that is so top heavy, all decision making, the initiative, rests in one hand. And to either have that person absent, or slow, or worried about how they appear, at the very least it can create disappointment.”
The quake struck just after 11pm on Friday, and the king was shown on state TV on Saturday chairing an emergency cabinet meeting and instructing the army and other government agencies to respond to the quake. But there was no address to the nation. “It’s his own style,” says a loyalist. “He’s a man of deeds more than a man of words.”
It was, however, not the first time the king’s absences have stirred controversy: rumours have swirled about his friendship with a martial arts fighter, Abu Bakr Azaitar, and his two brothers who were born to a Moroccan immigrant in Germany. Even the muzzled national press has raised questions about their role in the royal court, hinting that members of the establishment are concerned about the brothers’ influence as they visited the king’s palace and accompanied him on trips abroad.
In recent months, the 60-year-old monarch seemed to be taking a more active role at home, inaugurating projects and appearing regularly on state TV. The king is now using the earthquake to show Moroccans “he’s back in business, in control and the machine is working”, says a western analyst. “But there’s also contestation — the fact that people are saying that the king was away, that the emergency response machine is not working as well as it should. Right now I would say the . . . media machine behind the king is probably more audible than the voice of contestation.”
After ascending the throne in 1999 aged 35, King Mohammed quickly sought to portray a different image to his late father, Hassan II, a flamboyant, high-profile Arab statesman, who ruthlessly cracked down on opponents and survived two assassination attempts.
The young king, who gained an international law degree in France and worked as an intern for the then European Commission president Jacques Delors, would be seen driving his car around Rabat. He presented himself as a gentler, hands-on monarch and was often pictured kissing disabled children. One of his first trips as king was to the rebellious northern Rif mountains, long ignored by his father.
In the 24 years since, Morocco has been one of the more stable Arab nations. Its economy has tripled in size to $134bn last year as the government invested heavily in infrastructure. King Mohammed has also assertively pushed Morocco’s claims to the disputed Western Sahara territory, putting it at the heart of his foreign policy.
When popular uprisings rocked the Arab world in 2011, he navigated the turbulence by allowing protesters to take to the streets and implementing some reforms, including handing more powers to Morocco’s weak parliament. Yet the monarchy’s hold over politics has been reinforced in recent years and many independent journalists have been jailed.
The perception, however, is that the king is more interested in business than politics, relying heavily on the “makhzen”, the opaque network of courtiers and royal advisers, to manage the country’s affairs, analysts say. The king is the principal shareholder in al-Mada, a powerful investment holding company that has stakes in many of Morocco’s largest companies and a footprint that stretches across Africa.
In 2015, Forbes magazine ranked the king as Africa’s fifth-richest billionaire, with an estimated net worth of $5.7bn. (The magazine no longer includes him in its rankings.) Few expect the earthquake will cause the king to change his carefully curated, publicity-shy style.
“This is a monarchy that wants to maintain the mystique but also wants to present itself as modern and responsive to the people,” Fakir says. “Sometimes both of those aspects don’t show up at the same time, and we saw a little bit of that during the earthquake. It’s hard to present both of those fronts consistently.”