Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah M.A. ’97 walked into the CoHo, glanced around, smiled and said, “Well, this is a cozy place.”
Wearing jeans and a plain black sweater, he blended into the crowd of Stanford students and visitors, none of whom knew they were in the presence of a prince.
Being a prince “can be more of a nuisance than anything else. People scrutinize you and have preconceived notions like…does he wear a turban?” he joked.
Ben Abdallah, whose full name is Prince Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui, is third in line to the throne of the Kingdom of Morocco and first cousin to the current King, Mohammed VI. Nicknamed the “Red Prince,” he is well known for favoring democratic reforms in Morocco and the Arab world. He does not, however, appreciate the title, stating in an interview with the French journal Le Debat that it was given to him by the same “information handlers” who nicknamed King Mohammed VI “King of the Poor.”
His unorthodox views in the conservative kingdom led to his expulsion from palace grounds by his cousin, who ascended the throne in 1999 after the death of his father and Ben Abdallah’s uncle, Hassan II.
Morocco’s Al-Alaoui dynasty has been in power for four centuries and traces its lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed. The monarchy does not tolerate criticism.
“The authorities use the restrictive press law and an array of financial and other, more subtle mechanisms to punish critical journalists, particularly those who focus on the king, his family or Islam,” states the Freedom House 2011 Country Report on Morocco.
“The monarchy is a cultural and historical symbol,” Ben Abdallah said. “This is why Moroccans are aware of its crucial role in society and push for reform instead of overthrowing the regime…but there is a deep sense of frustration and impatience.”
His decision to publicly state his controversial views in 1995 was not taken lightly.
“I thought profoundly about who I was and what my country was,” he said. “It was not easy. There were high costs, and one of them was being ostracized and even vilified.”
Nevertheless, Ben Abdallah remains an outspoken political maverick, unwavering in his support for controversial publications and journalists as well as groups like the February 20th Youth Movement.
Raised in the Moroccan capital Rabat’s Royal Palace complex, Ben Abdallah attended the Rabat American School and graduated from Princeton with a bachelor’s degree in politics in 1985. After pursuing several entrepreneurial and humanitarian endeavors, he came to Stanford in 1995 to pursue a master’s degree in political science.
“Deepening my experience and my knowledge one way or another has never been interrupted in my life no matter where I go,” Ben Abdallah said.
In his witty, yet diplomatic, manner, Ben Abdallah compared Stanford and Princeton.
“Princeton is like an orchestra where you cannot play out of note but produce great music,” he said. “Stanford is like one big rock band where everyone is encouraged to make their own sound.”
After leaving the Farm, Ben Abdallah stayed in close contact with Larry Diamond, director of the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL).
In 2007, Ben Abdallah left his home in Princeton, where he had been living since 2002, and returned to Stanford as a CDDRL visiting scholar.
At CDDRL, he has been deeply involved in the Arab Reform and Democracy Program doing research, mentoring students, giving talks and developing the program.
“My goal is to enrich myself and my community as well as foster general understanding of the region,” he said.
Although Ben Abdallah originally intended to stay at CDDRL for two years, he eventually decided to remain longer and is now a consulting professor. This means he regularly commutes back to Princeton, where his wife, Malika, and their two daughters live.
One of Ben Abdallah’s initial research projects at CDDRL was investigating the idea that the Arab world is incompatible with democracy, which he swiftly rejected as a false concept.
“There was an underlying thesis that there was something about Arabs that makes them accept authoritarianism, and I wanted to unbundle it,” he said. “I wanted to say, look, authoritarianism is here, but this is why it’s here. The factors are not cultural.”
The Arab Spring may have surprised the Western world, but not Ben Abdallah.
“I always felt that something was around the corner,” he said. “I knew that the status quo was untenable, and that in a few of these places something would have to give way.”
What surprised him was the movement’s place of origin, Tunisia, which had a strong security apparatus. He also did not envision the movement’s diffusion and transformation into what he called an “awakening.”
Despite the optimism in the movement, he said that the future of the region is uncertain. Setbacks, reversals and failures are all likely to happen as each country faces its own particular demons, he said, but he believes the trend towards democracy is irreversible.
“This is a new generation with new values,” he said. “Fear has receded, and societies will not remain idle.”
He also downplayed fears over the rise of Islamist parties throughout the region and in his native Morocco, where the Justice and Development Party, a moderate Islamist party, recently won parliamentary elections.
“This does not mean we will see the rise of theocracies,” he said. “People are not going to resist secular authoritarianism to fall into religious despotism.”
Although Ben Abdallah has vigorously championed reform in Morocco for the last two decades, he attempts to keep his expectations realistic.
“It took hundreds of years for the West to get things on track,” he said. “It will be a messy and laborious process for Morocco, but we’ll eventually get it right.”
Ben Abdallah’s work at Stanford and in politics is not the end of his pursuits. He also runs his own foundation, the Moulay Hicham Foundation for Social Science Research on North Africa and the Middle East, founded Princeton’s Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia and owns Al-Tayyar Energy, a renewable energy company that processes agricultural waste in Thailand.
“I barely have free time; I am juggling,” he said. “Every time I think I cannot handle more, someone else throws me another ball to juggle.”
Although his professional and family lives are rooted in the United States now, Ben Abdallah still keeps close ties with Morocco and returns often.
“I miss the community feel,” he said. “I miss my nephews and my friends. I miss walking on the streets hearing the call to prayer and smelling the odors of spices, so now and then I need to go back home.”