The royal ceremonies in the kingdom of Morocco, U.S. troubleshooter extraordinaire Vernon A. Walters is overheard telling a group of fellow guests at the annual Fe te du Trone, are just as impressive as in England -- "but without the punctuality."
The carefully phrased remark of the U.S. ambassador-designate to the United Nations deserves to be considered for the George P. Shultz award as diplomatic understatement of the year.
Royal feast days in Morocco are staged to inspire awe and respect for one of the world's few remaining absolute monarchs -- King Hassan II, who traces his lineage back to the prophet Mohammed. The events also take place when the king is ready to attend them.
Complete with a cast of hundreds of ministers and royal officials and tens of thousands of loyal subjects, they are more evocative of the court rituals of Louis XIV, the French "Sun King," than England's constitutional House of Windsor.
"God is the greatest. May He preserve our Lord and Master. Long live the Commander of the Faithful," chant some 2,000 specially invited guests clad in white djellabas and yellow sandals as Hassan appears on the balcony of the courtyard of his palace in Marrakech, one of seven sumptuously appointed royal residences dotted around the realm. When the king descends to their level, the courtiers fall back to make way for him, bowing low to kiss his hand.
At another spot in Marrakech, near the fabled Mamounia hotel, there is cannon fire and shooting -- not another attempted coup d'e'tat but a "fantasia," or mock cavalry charge, staged in towns and villages all over the kingdom during this week of feasting. Mounted on white horses, turbaned Berber tribesmen from the Atlas mountains gallop toward a crowd of spectators, reining in to a sudden halt at the last moment as they fire their rifles into the air.
The celebrations are paid for by a special "head tax" of about $2 -- roughly equivalent to a day's wages -- imposed on every family in the country. In a police state like Morocco, citizens are left with little choice but to show enthusiasm for the monarchy. Flags, banners and portraits of the king hang from practically every lamppost in the realm.
Inside the hotel, Crown Prince Sidi Mohammed is hosting a modest luncheon for 1,000 people in honor of the Fe te du Trone. A royal orchestra plays haunting Moroccan folk tunes and waiters scurry among tables laden with national dishes like pigeon pie, lobster, barbecued lamb and chicken stew, as well as pa te's and cheeses flown in from France.
Outside, in one corner of the Mamounia's extensive gardens, tourists concentrate on acquiring a tan by the swimming pool, apparently oblivious to the partying and feasting that is going on around them.
In a country in which royal whims have the force of law, the idea that the sovereign should be constrained by anything as mundane as a timetable is almost a contradiction in terms. There is an entire stratum of society -- made up of Moroccan functionaries, foreign dignitaries and journalists -- for whom waiting on the king represents a major time-consuming activity.
This week's festivities -- a two-day feast of allegiance to the Moroccan throne -- were a case in point. For weeks, the official word was that the king would use the occasion to make his first formal visit to the disputed territory of the western Sahara, where Morocco has been waging a costly guerrilla war for the past 10 years with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front. But the ceremonies were switched at the last moment from the Saharan capital of El Ayun to Marrakech without any official explanation.
The king is still expected to go to the western Sahara -- but nobody outside his immediate circle knows precisely when he will leave or how he will travel. Most of the Moroccan government and a large contingent of reporters are camped out in the best hotels in this southern tourist oasis, waiting for the royal caravan to move off.
Officials invariably preface answers to questions about royal arrangements with the Arabic phrase "Inch'alla," which literally means "God willing," but was described by one longtime foreign resident here as "the Moroccan equivalent of 'manana' -- but without quite the same sense of urgency."
King Hassan II is a firm defender of the monarchic principle -- even in those parts of the world where kings and queens have long since fallen victim to revolution or coup d'e'tat. The son and daughter of the late King Farouk of Egypt are regular visitors to Morocco -- as is the family of the late shah of Iran.
This year the guest of honor -- sharing front-row seats with Walters and U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick -- was King Simeon of Bulgaria, whose family was driven out of the country by the communists (aided and abetted by the Red Army) more than four decades ago. Deprived of his throne at the age of 10 and now an international businessman living in Spain, Simeon describes himself as "a bit of a back-seat driver" as far as the art of ruling a country is concerned.
Apart from his royal blood and impeccable manners, Simeon's main claim to distinction is his perfect mastery of eight languages -- including his native Bulgarian, French, Spanish, English and Russian. His linguistic skills rival, perhaps even outshine, those of Walters, providing a topic of multilingual conversation for both of them.
"It's marvelous," the king said, switching into Russian. "Whenever we meet, he says 'Strasvuitye, Vashe Velichantsvo' Good day, your majesty and I call him 'Gospodin General' Mr. General ."
The high-powered American delegation to this year's fete took the breath away from French diplomats and journalists who have traditionally looked upon Morocco as within their "sphere of influence." The kingdom was a French protectorate for over four decades and only became fully independent in 1956.
As a special sign of the king's favor, Kirkpatrick was invested Sunday with the Grand Order of the Alaouite dynasty, which has been ruling Morocco since the middle of the 17th century. It was said to be the first time that such a high award had been conferred upon a woman.
In fact, Hassan has a good reason for singling out Americans for special attention. There was a sharp reaction in Washington last year when he signed a "treaty of union" with Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi, and the king is eager to repair relations with the Reagan administration, which supplies him with weapons and funds for his war against the Polisario Front.
Part of the king's strategy this year was to hire a Washington-based public relations firm, Gray and Co., to lobby U.S. politicians and assist American journalists in their contacts with Moroccan officials. The Gray delegation to the Fe te du Trone resembled the embassy of a minor European potentate -- led by the company's distinguished-looking chairman assisted by earnest young men clutching briefcases full of flattering press releases about the kingdom.
In this part of the world, however, the ways of "Inch'alla" are considerably stronger than such western notions as public relations. For example, in America, an appointment denotes a fixed time and place for a meeting. To senior Moroccan officials, taking their cue from the king, it is a vague statement of intent to meet on some future occasion, should no other significant event intervene.
U.S. officials said the presence of so many high-level representatives in Morocco at one time -- U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Z. Wick was also here last week to open a new cultural bureau in Marrakech -- was simply a "coincidence." Kirkpatrick was paying farewell calls; Walters has known the king since he gave him a ride on the back of his tank when Morocco was liberated by the U.S. Army in World War II.
Walters, who faces Senate confirmation hearings, was not willing to talk to reporters. He recalled a recent conversation he had with a newsman who, after failing to extract any useful information, asked in despair how much he weighed. "That's classified information," replied the bulky ambassador, adding: "This administration needs heavyweights -- and I'm certainly a heavyweight."
Such repartee failed to satisfy suspicious Frenchmen who observed Walters bending the ear of the 20-year-old crown prince over lunch. One French reporter took the matter up with a senior Moroccan official, Moulay Ahmed Alaoui, at a news briefing.
"Yes, the hotels are full of American guests," Alaoui agreed. "But the shops are full of French goods."