The Moorish empire — shrunk through different historical processes to what is known today as Morocco — was the leading power in North Africa and a major player on the international scene for centuries. Its territory once stretched over the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula into France, especially during the reign of the Almoravids dynasty in the 11th century. Its political influence on the world was enormous not only because of its powerful army and control over the sea, but also because of its strategic location at the crossroads between Africa, Europe, America, and Asia.

When America was in an arduous struggle for independence from Britain, Morocco was the first country to recognize the still-contentious independence of the United States by decree of Sultan Mohamed Ben Abdallah in December 1777. Morocco also immediately granted the American ships the permission to “come and traffic freely in [Moroccan ports] in like manner as they formerly did under the English flag.”[1]

Morocco was the first country to recognize the still-contentious independence of the United States by decree of Sultan Mohamed Ben Abdallah in December 1777.

Right after this much-needed recognition came the signature of the Moroccan-American Peace and Friendship Treaty, signaling the beginning of formal diplomatic relations between the two nations.  The treaty was negotiated by Thomas Barclay and the Moroccan authorities and signed by future American Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1786. This historic treaty, which is still in effect even today, was the first between any Arab, African, or Muslim state with the United States, and remains the longest unbroken U.S. treaty with a foreign country.

The 1789 letter George Washington wrote to the emperor of Morocco, Sultan Mohamed III (Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah), subsequent to the signature of the Moroccan-American Peace and Friendship Treaty speaks volumes of Washington’s high regard for the sultan of Morocco, describing him as a “great and magnanimous friend,” and thanking him for his diplomatic efforts and mediation to release American captives in Tunis and Tripoli. George Washington wrote:

“I have also received the Letters which your Imperial Majesty has been so kind as to write, in Favor of the United States, to the Bashaws of Tunis and Tripoli, and I present to you the sincere acknowledgments, and Thanks of the United States, for this important Mark of your Friendship for them [referring to the United States].”

George Washington went on to reassure the emperor of Morocco that, as an act of gratitude and appreciation, he would do his utmost to promote Moroccan-American relations as long as he remained in power: “It gives me pleasure to have this opportunity of assuring your Majesty that, while I remain at the Head of this nation, I shall not cease to promote every measure that may conduce to the friendship and harmony, which so happily subsist between your Empire and them [meaning the United States],” wrote George Washington.

Moroccan-American relations

1789 letter by George Washington

These early exchanges gave the Moroccan-American diplomatic and commercial relations a boost. Morocco allowed the American vessels to sail along the Moroccan coast without any restrictions. Moreover, American warships navigating nearby Moroccan waters were exempt from examination by Moroccan officials. These generous measures conferred by the Moroccan sultan on the newly-independent nation of the United States made a profound impression on Thomas Barclay, who was the main American negotiator of the Moroccan-American Peace and Friendship Treaty.

Barclay confessed that the Sultan of Morocco was “a just man, according to this idea of justice, of great personal courage, liberal to a degree, a lover of his people, stern and rigid in distributing justice.”[2]

Upon the death of Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah in 1790, the Americans feared that his successors would terminate the treaty they so desperately needed to have a trustworthy ally in Barbary.[3] However, neither Sultan Moulay El-Yazid (who ruled only for two years) nor his brother Sultan Moulay Suleiman broke the treaty their father had signed with the Americans despite the fact that Moulay Suleiman instituted a very precautionary policy and terminated eight treaties out of eleven with foreign countries, especially with the European states.  Indeed, he followed his father’s footsteps in his policy with the United States.

As Moulay Suleiman told James Simpson, the American consul to Gibraltar: “We are at peace, tranquility, and friendship with you in the same manner as you were with our father. . . . The Americans, I find, are the Christian nation my father, who is in glory, most esteemed. I am the same with them as my father was, and I trust they will be so with me.”[4]

To concretize his goodwill towards the US, Sultan Moulay Suleiman gifted the site of what is now known as the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies.

To concretize his goodwill towards the United States, Sultan Moulay Suleiman gifted the site of what is now known as the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies (TALIM) to the United States in 1821. This historic landmark is considered the first and oldest American-owned government property on foreign soil. At first, it served as the U.S. consulate in Morocco, but later it became home for the American Legation in Tangier.

This architectural masterpiece with very distinguishable Moorish design was recorded in the National Register of Historic Places on January 8, 1981 and designated as a National Historic Landmark on December 17, 1982. Today it serves as a cultural hub, a research facility for Arabic and American studies, a library, a museum, and an educational center, annually hosting thousands of Moroccan and international visitors.

Moroccan-American relations

A doorway at the American Legation in Tangier, displaying the US and Moroccan flags.

The solid foundations set for the Moroccan-American relations by the American founding fathers and the Moroccan monarchy yielded numerous fruitful bilateral cooperation and consultation in matters of economy, politics, and cultural exchange.

Morocco dispatched ambassadors and diplomats to the United States as early as 1860 (ambassadors Sid-el-Hadj-Idris, Sidi el- Bernoussi, and Abdel- Kader). This exchange of diplomatic missions between the two countries facilitated people’s mobility across the Atlantic and opened other routes and itineraries for non-official visits that allowed people-to-people cross-cultural encounters.

Moroccan acrobats, dancers, performers, and other entertainers became widely popular in American circuses, fairs, and expositions as early as 1847 with the arrival of Hadj Nassar, Viz Ushgayer, and Hadji Omar Netamo and their acrobatic troupes to the American soil.

These cultural ambassadors brought many aspects of the exotic Moorish culture to the American entertainment industry and served as cultural mediators between the two sides of the Atlantic. Lhoussain Simour’s book “Recollecting History Beyond Borders” skillfully engages in the retrieval of the voices of these Moroccan professional entertainers in America by shedding light on their journeys that are cast to oblivion and neglect by official history.

Today, Morocco cherishes the advanced position of a major non-NATO ally in its relations with the United States by decree of the Presidential Determination No. 2004-35 of June 3, 2004. A few days after this major leap in the Moroccan-American relations, the two countries signed a free trade agreement — the first for the U.S. with an African nation — on June 15, 2004, eliminating trade barriers and improving commercial opportunities between the two nations.

Morocco is a military partner to the United States and a host for the largest all-domain military training exercise involving American troops on the African continent.

Morocco is also a military partner to the United States and a host for the largest all-domain military training exercise involving American troops on the African continent, which is known as the African Lion Military Exercise. This joint military training aims at enhancing the interoperability of the partnering nations to combat regional threats such as terrorism, conducting peace operations in conflict zones, maintaining cross-border security, and countering transnational threats.

In a recent development, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over “the entire Western Sahara territory” in his presidential proclamation of December 11. Trump tweeted: “Morocco recognized the United States in 1777. It is thus fitting we recognize their sovereignty over the Western Sahara.”  This much-needed recognition from a superpower on the international stage today would certainly serve Morocco’s position on the issue of the Sahara conflict.

Despite the calls by some pro-POLISARIO voices on President-elect Joe Biden to reverse Trump’s presidential proclamation, many observers think that such a step is very unlikely. The centuries-old, multifaceted, and historically unwavering Morocco-U.S. strategic alliance does not seem to be affected by the changing American administrations which have always considered Morocco a major regional partner on security, trade, and development.



[1] Sherrill Brown Wells, “Long-Time Friends: Early U.S.-Moroccan Relations, 1777-87,” Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 27. US Government Printing Office, Sep. 1987.

[2] Wells, “Long-Time Friends,” D of S Bulletin, Vol. 27, Sep. 1987.

[3] Barbary States are the North African states along the Mediterranean coast mainly Tripolitania, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. These states relied much on state-piracy to exact tributes from European and American ships in the Mediterranean and Atlantic seas.

[4] Wells, “Long-Time Friends,” D of S Bulletin, Vol. 27, Sep. 1987.



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