There will be more people following Morocco’s 46-year-old King Hassan II this week, if he marches south across the border into Spanish Sahara, than have ever followed any king anywhere. The 350,000 or so Moroccans who are headed for history’s biggest sit-in, unless diplomacy forestalls it, will be armed only with their Korans. Such is the patriotic fervor instilled in them by their pudgy, 5’6″ monarch. “No infidel, however hardened, would give the order to fire,” Hassan has predicted.
Morocco has coveted the Spanish-owned desert, containing valuable phosphates, since it became a nation in 1956. Hassan, who claims descent from the Prophet, has encouraged his 17 million subjects’ appetite for the 103,000 square miles of sand, despite the opposition of Spain and neighboring Algeria.
Hassan is used to living dangerously. On his shaky throne since 1961, he has managed to survive three assassination attempts in the past five years. The most spectacular occurred on his 42nd birthday in 1971, when 1,400 troops attacked his oceanside palace near Rabat, killing 98 party guests. Hassan escaped by locking himself in a bathroom.
Living in jeopardy has not diminished his regal tastes. Once he gave a sumptuous dinner for diplomats, who found gold coins hidden inside the smoked salmon. He has eight palaces, rides Arab-Barb horses, drives Rolls-Royces and Maseratis, flies a Mystère executive jet and indulges his golf mania on floodlit courses designed by Robert Trent Jones and built inside the palace walls. Hassan is such a golf fanatic that his ministers often must pursue him on the fairway to sign state papers. While he signs, a palace flunky appears with a pair of wooden tongs to hold the ever-present cigarette. Being king, Hassan once told an interviewer, “is much more laborious and difficult than you may think.”
When he wants a change in climate, Hassan goes to his hunting lodge which boasts trout streams and oak forests full of wild boar. In all these palatial settings, Hassan is accompanied by his commoner wife, Lalla Latifa, and their five children. The children have Spanish and French governesses, French and English teachers, political tutors and almost every kind of toy available in the world. The heir to the throne is Crown Prince Sidi Mohammed, 12, who wears natty tailored suits, cuts inaugural ribbons and makes pompous speeches in a squeaky voice. In accordance with Muslim tradition, Hassan’s wife is called “Mother of the Royal Children,” not queen. As a “royal prerogative,” Hassan has a harem, but the women can spend weeks without ever seeing him.
His health is known to be less than robust. He suffers from hemorrhoids, sinusitis and smoker’s cough. He is getting thin on top, less so around the middle, and puffy-eyed. The history of assassination attempts is rarely far from his mind. That is one reason he has insisted on an unarmed invasion of the Spanish Sahara—the thought of hot-eyed nationalists running around with weapons is too much for a king threatened with regicide.
The Sahara invasion, which Hassan has been promoting for 18 months, has united all Moroccan factions so completely that even the Communists are with him. The clever Hassan, who speaks Arabic, French and a little English, and earned a law degree from the University of Bordeaux, has apparently brought off a diplomatic triumph.
One danger of the grand scheme is that if anything thwarts the multitude, they may return to Rabat with vengeance in their hearts. The thought has not escaped Hassan. “I have one of those rare jobs,” he says, “where you can never retire.”