The Earthquake, Morocco's King and the MMA fighters
King Mohammed VI's frequent absences from the throne, coupled with his relationship with an MMA fighter with a criminal past has become a source of controversy within Morocco's establishment.
When a powerful earthquake struck the High Atlas Mountains just outside the Moroccan city of Marrakesh on Friday night, King Mohammed VI was Paris, where the monarch was prone to spending his prolonged absences from the throne.
For the first few hours after the catastrophe, the entire country seemed to hesitate. Under the country’s constitution the king exercises near-absolute power and is the ultimate decision maker in economic and political affairs. Few wanted to overshadow the king during such a crucial moment.
Yet as public criticism mounted over the speed and efficiency of Morocco’s earthquake response, the government finally issued its first public statement on Monday, claiming that the disaster had been promptly addressed and that rescue efforts are on the way. King Mohammed VI also issued a number of instructions in response to the earthquake during a working session over the weekend, which included establishing a ministerial committee to oversee the reconstruction effort.
As of Monday, at least 2,862 people have been killed in the Moroccan earthquake and 2,562 have been injured. Roadblocks caused by collapsing mountainous areas are slowing down the flow of humanitarian aid, with some villages still waiting for rescue almost three days after the earthquake. Meanwhile, the government remains tight-lipped about their rescue efforts.
Much of the criticism about the government’s tepid response to the crisis has been directed at the king, who frequently spends months on end outside of the palace in places like Gabon and France. His absences have come as the country faced high inflation, stagnating economic growth, drought, and, most recently, a devastating earthquake unlike anything the country has seen in the last century.
In addition to the king's frequent absences, his affiliation with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter Abu Bakr Azaitar (known as Abu Azaitar) and his brothers has become a source of controversy within Morocco's establishment. The fighters serve as the monarch’s personal trainers and his apparent confidants on trips abroad, despite their well-documented criminal past.
The three Azaitar brothers—Abu, Ottoman and Omar—were born to Moroccan immigrants on the outskirts of Cologne, Germany, where they attended a controversial Islamic school funded by Saudi Arabia and suspected of “attracting Islamists to Germany.” In 2003, the school was investigated for alleged ties to the terrorist network al Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups. That same year, Abu and Omar Azaitar—then known as the “brutal twins” in local media—appeared in juvenile court to face charges of inflicting bodily harm and gang theft.
Abu, who was 17 at the time, was accused of dousing a businessman in gasoline before stealing his Ferrari. He was sentenced in June 2004 to two years and three months in prison. He was released in 2006 but his issues with the law did not end there.
Shortly following his release, Azaitar was accused of violently assaulting his girlfriend at a Christmas market and punching her repeatedly until her ear drum burst.
By 2007, Abu Azaitar had pivoted towards mixed martial arts and began training to make his debut on the local German scene. Meanwhile, he made friends with local rappers and celebrities, and was reportedly associated with criminal clans. However, it was his unlikely friendship with King Mohammed VI that solidified the UFC fighter’s celebrity status.
The friendship began in 2018, shortly after the king quietly divorced Princess Laila Salma. According to Moroccan media reports, King Mohammed VI was keen to meet with Abu and Ottman because of their achievements in MMA (Abu was the first Moroccan national to sign with the UFC while Ottman had just claimed the Brave FC lightweight title and extended his unbeaten record to 10-0). The brothers became frequent visitors of the king, who took them on vacations and later allowed them to renovate one of the unused palaces in Tangiers into a sports club.
As the Azaitar brothers’ friendship with the king intensified, they began to take on more official roles within the Moroccan government. In 2018, Abu Azaitar was reportedly made president of the Green March organizing association—a group responsible for the annual celebration commemorating the Nov. 6, 1975, date when 350,000 Moroccans marched into the Sahara to protest Spain’s century-long occupation of the Western Sahara. The celebration usually takes the form of a football gala match featuring international football stars such as Luis Figo, Rivaldo, and Rafael Marquez, and has been criticized as an attempt to “sportswash” Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara and distract from human rights abuses.
In return for their loyalty, King Mohammed remained supportive of the brothers’ endeavours. When Omar Azaitar opened a burger joint in Tangiers in July 2019, the king sent his son, Prince Hassan, to eat there and help promote the restaurant.
The Azaitar brothers’ friendship with King Mohammed VI has also helped further their respective careers. For example, after hearing that Abu Azaitar was having trouble entering the United States due to his criminal past, the king reportedly grew upset and decided to interfere to help the fighter secure his visa, which he eventually succeeded in doing.
Over time, the Azaitar brothers’ influence continued to grow. When their mother died, the king allowed them to bury her in the palace grounds in Tangiers. He helped them acquire valuable real estate and gave them access to his substantial resources. “They use military jets, they have carte blanche to function in the palace as they want, they can o to the garage and pick up the cars they want,” a royal insider told The Economist. “It’s so bizarre.”
This newfound influence angered the makhzen, a state apparatus and extension of the monarchy comprised of elected and appointed officials—the leading business and political elites. However, they were powerless to stop the king, who reportedly took the fighters to parties in Seychelles and hung out with them on the Qatari emir’s yacht. They have even become the king’s gatekeepers, deciding who gets an audience with the king.
Hespress, a digital newspaper in Morocco, 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?”
While the king has returned to the throne and appears to be steering the country through its current calamity, it remains unclear how long he will be able to maintain his laissez-faire approach to governance. In the meantime, Morocco’s elite continues to grow anxious about the monarch’s absences, his apparent lack of interest in governing the country, and his continued relationship with the Azaitars—the latter of which remains a prominent topic of conversation throughout the country.
Following the earthquake, the Azaitar siblings have taken to social media, expressing condolences and offering messages of support. They have also shared Instagram Live videos documenting their volunteer work. Omar Azaitar further disclosed that their burger restaurant, Royal Burgers, will contribute its earnings to aid in the rescue operations. However, their efforts are unlikely to distract from their strange relationship with King Mohammed VI.
"To celebrate the monarch's recent 60th birthday, Ottoman Azaitar, set to participate in UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi next month, conveyed his wishes with a message on Instagram, hailing the king as the 'greatest in the world,' saying, “Our majesty, we Love you for ever and ever.”
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