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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 March 2006, 15:28 GMT
The most powerful man in Morocco
By John Laurenson
BBC News

The Moroccan royal family is one of the most ancient and most powerful in the world. It also commands extraordinary loyalty from its subjects.

King Mohammed VI
Morocco's dynasty can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad

I had been round at Moulay's house for at least 15 seconds.

It was, therefore, high time for tea.

I remained sitting on a mat on the red earth floor while the master of the house, as tradition requires, went off to make the sweet, minty national drink.

We were high in the scrubby, green hills of the Middle Atlas.

When we stopped the car, the only sounds were of birds and children.

I waited for the tea. A fly buzzed in from the afternoon sun.

A couple of uncles who had also dropped in nodded benignly from the other side of the room.

I hazarded a bit of small talk.

"One of your brothers?" I asked, pointing to a photo of a rather introspective looking chap with a sweaty face on top of the television.

"The King!" they replied.

Of course it was!

I may have only just got off the plane but I had already seen a good few portraits of Mohammed VI, latest in an uninterrupted line of Moroccan monarchs stretching back to the 1600s.

Many faces

King Mohammed VI
Under the constitution the king can dissolve parliament and dismiss or appoint the prime minister

When Moulay turned up with the tea I asked him about the portrait on the telly.

"We love him," he said.

Over the following days and on ensuing trips to Morocco, the young, shy face of Mohammed VI would become very familiar indeed.

In fact most Moroccans probably spend more time with this face than anyone they actually know.

He looks down from billboards in the street and hangs in little frames from taxi rear-view mirrors.

Cafes show him drinking tea; butchers, slitting the throat of a sheep for the festival of Eid.

Fez-sellers have a photo of him in a fez.

Traditional outfitters show him shrouded in a hooded djellabah.

Western-style tailors have him dressed like Cary Grant.

Royal duties

In the capital, Rabat, king, courtiers and servants occupy a city within the city.

There is a royal palace in every town of any size in the country.

In Casablanca, which is surrounded by some of the most miserable shanty towns in Africa, there are three.

On newsstands, the King is all over the newspapers and magazines.

Map of Morocco

Not for the reasons that the princely family of Monaco or their royal imitators in Britain get in the papers but because, in Morocco, royalty is power.

According to the constitution adopted in 1996, the king appoints the prime minister and his cabinet and sits in on all their meetings.

MPs are not allowed to criticise the monarchy or the king himself.

The king appoints the judges and presides over the High Council of Magistrates.

He is the head of the armed forces and "commander of the faithful".

And that is just on paper.

Kissing culture

Until very recently at least, the king's unofficial powers were fearsome.

During Mohammed's father's 38-year reign, thousands of political opponents disappeared or "were disappeared", to use the chilling phrase of the time, into secret desert prisons. And secret desert graves.

Not surprisingly, Hassan II commanded "hiba", the Arabic word for fear and respect of the patriarch.

But his more constitutionally-minded and modernising son does, too.

The most radical get almost to the shoulder before planting their kiss

Up in the hills, when a son comes into a room where his father is sitting, he goes down on one knee and kisses the hand his father has casually left dangling.

This is how all Moroccans approach the King, although there is some interesting leeway as to where exactly you place your lips.

Some kiss his feet. Most, his hand.

Others allow their lips to hover, up the royal arm.

The most radical get almost to the shoulder before planting their kiss. But this sort of familiarity is rare.

Rules of reference

The usual deference is well-expressed in the big circulation French-language daily Le Matin, the paper where news means what the King visited, inspected or inaugurated yesterday.

And it is never just "the King", always "His Majesty the King, Mohammed VI, may God help him in his task..."

The King's instructions, orientations, appreciations and approval are systematically described as High instructions, High orientations, etc. etc. And it's High with a capital H

As I was about to fly home from Marrakech at the end of this last trip, I found myself driving along a splendid new avenue - long, wide and full of roses - where there were company headquarters and luxury hotels.

As I waited for some traffic lights to change, I noticed the street name.

Most countries wait for their leaders to die before naming streets after them, but the King is a young man.

Moroccans cannot wait that long.

There it was in black and white, in Latin script and Arabic: Avenue Mohammed VI.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 11 March, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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