Portraits of leaders past and present are ubiquitous in Turkey, Spain and Morocco. Monocle paints a picture of their popularity – and peers beneath the surface to learn the history of their peculiar reign.
Among the butchers who are dicing slippery liver or steaming sheep’s heads in preparation for weekday lunch in the medina of Fes, one picture seems to enjoy particular popularity: a group of men, all dressed in traditional white Djellabas, inspecting a skinned lamb, slaughtered in celebration of the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha. In the picture, which seems at first sight to resemble a mobile-phone snap of the local butcher’s guild, is none other than Morocco’s head of state: King Mohammed VI. “This was four years ago,” says one of the butchers proudly. “He even shook my hand when he came to visit.”
Even though Fes, one of Morocco’s oldest cities, ceased being the capital of the kingdom in 1925, images of the king can be found all over town. On the walls of workshops, bakeries and cafés are portraits – sometimes even collages – of a seemingly casual king mingling with his subjects. But despite a slightly amateurish air, all of the photographs have been released by the palace. “People like to have a picture of the king that connects him to their lives,” says the owner of a shop that sells bespoke prints of the king. “Fruit vendors choose a picture of him inspecting a fruit stall, café owners like to buy a picture of the king sipping tea.”
King Mohammed VI is part of an Alawite dynasty that has been ruling the country for the past four centuries. Yet in a marked contrast to his father Hassan II, who oversaw an era known as the “years of lead”, Mohammed VI has promoted a softer image since his ascension to the throne in 1999: he has been dubbed “King of the Poor”. While images from Hassan II’s era depict a monarch who appears cold and distant, these days the king looks more human. In Fes another popular image of Mohammed VI is a portrait of him, again dressed casually, holding his newborn heir Prince Moulay Ismail. In pictures with his wife, a Fes-born curly-haired redhead who became the first commoner to marry into the royal family, he is even seen wearing denim jeans.
The more formal Mohammed VI found in train stations, airports, post offices and government buildings is less stern and aloof than portraits of kings in Europe. The king wears a fairly simple-looking dark suit and a tie; no crown, no medals, no bling. This careful, down-to-earth branding is at odds with the king’s personal wealth, a sum that is reported to have grown by a factor of five since he assumed the throne. In many of the casual, state-produced pictures the king looks more composed and down to earth than in paparazzi snaps that have been published in the foreign press. They depict a more flashy and extravagant lifestyle with jet-skis, yachts and celebrities. Recent reports in the Greek press suggested that the royal family managed to blow €5m on a seven-day vacation on a Greek island.
Even so, accusations of the monarch’s financial profligacy in a country still marked by rural poverty and high youth unemployment are made mostly in private. Open criticism, even the faintest kind, is hard to come by in Morocco. “The king works for all of us,” says 63-year-old Abdelhay, who sells official portraits of him. “We all love Mohammed VI.” That may be because the king, who claims descent from the Prophet Mohammed, is also the country’s religious leader, making him almost infallible. While in the past the constitution stated that “the king’s person is inviolable and sacred”, the new 2011 constitution still describes him as “inviolable”, making any criticism of the king illegal.
In a local café packed with middle-aged men watching horse-racing on TV while sipping mint tea, Mohammed VI is credited for guaranteeing continuity, stability and unifying Morocco’s different ethnic groups and regions. “He is like a father to us,” says one of the waiters pointing at the king’s portrait next to the coffee machine. “Other countries in the Arab world have or are still experiencing civil war but here we live in peace. That’s because of our king.” One of his clients, however, has a more sarcastic take. “As long as you don’t touch politics or the royal household,” he says, “you are free as a bird in Morocco.”