Trouble in Paradise: Moroccan media pressure King to end friendship with UFC’s Azaitar brothers over crimes

On May 1, 2021, Hespress, the most prominent digital newspaper in Morocco, published an anonymous article in French that listed the lengthy criminal record…

By: Karim Zidan | 2 years ago
Trouble in Paradise: Moroccan media pressure King to end friendship with UFC’s Azaitar brothers over crimes
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

On May 1, 2021, Hespress, the most prominent digital newspaper in Morocco, published an anonymous article in French that listed the lengthy criminal record and convictions of Abu Azaitar, the controversial UFC fighter best known for his friendship with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.

The 3500-word article was translated into Arabic and republished on the site two days later, noting the fighter’s string of convictions that included “theft, extortion, fraud, physical violence, criminal conspiracy, computer fraud, drug trafficking, assault, forgery, and resistance to authority.”

Over the next few months, other local media outlets followed suit, publishing articles exposing the Azaitar’s criminal past while questioning King Mohammed’s longstanding relationship with the fighter and his siblings, fellow UFC fighter Ottman Azaitar, and Omar. Other outlets scrutinized the Azaitar brothers’ ostentatious lifestyles amidst a global pandemic, as well as their business interests with Spain during a dispute over unregulated migration. In June 2021, Barlamane, an outlet that is controlled by the director of communication for Morocco’s Ministry of the Interior Mohamed Khabacchi published a story in Arabic titled “Abu Azaitar continues to master the art of provoking the Moroccan people,” leading some to opine that the current criticism against the Azaitar is likely a coordinated government campaign aimed at pressuring the king to cut ties with the UFC fighter.

Born in Cologne, Germany to parents who immigrated from Morocco, the Azaitar brothers attended the King Fahd Academy, a controversial Islamic school funded by Saudi Arabia and suspected of “attracting Islamists to Germany.” In 2003, the school was investigated for alleged ties to the terrorist network al Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups. That same year, Abu and Omar Azaitar—then known as the “brutal twins” in local media—appeared in juvenile court to face charges of inflicting bodily harm and gang theft.

Then 17 at the time, Abu was accused of brutally attacking a businessman, threatening his life by dousing him in gasoline, and stealing his Ferrari. He was sentenced in June 2004 to two years and three months in prison.

Abu Azaitar was released in 2006, yet his trouble with the law did not end there. He was later accused of violently assaulting his girlfriend at a Christmas market and punching her repeatedly until her ear drum burst.

By 2007, Abu Azaitar had pivoted towards mixed martial arts and began training to make his debut on the local German scene. Meanwhile, he made friends with local rappers and celebrities, and was reportedly associated with criminal clans. However, it was his unlikely friendship with King Mohammed VI that solidified the UFC fighter’s celebrity status.

Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC

The friendship began in 2018, shortly after the king quietly divorced Princess Laila Salma. According to Moroccan media reports, King Mohammed VI was keen to meet with Abu and Ottman because of their achievements in MMA (Abu was the first Moroccan national to sign with the UFC while Ottman had just claimed the Brave FC lightweight title and extended his unbeaten record to 10-0). The brothers became frequent visitors of the king, who took them on vacations and later allowed them to renovate one of the unused palaces in Tangiers into a sports club.

Abu Azaitar has since posted several pictures of himself alongside the Moroccan king. One of them carried the caption: “My beloved King, may Allah take you and your family under his protection and always keep you healthy! What a pleasure and honor to be side by side with our king, who we love so much.”

As the Azaitar brothers’ friendship with the king intensified, they began to take on more official roles within the Moroccan government. In 2018, Abu Azaitar was reportedly made president of the Green March organizing association—a group responsible for the annual celebration commemorating the Nov. 6, 1975, date when 350,000 Moroccans marched into the Sahara to protest Spain’s century-long occupation of the Western Sahara. The celebration usually takes the form of a football gala match featuring international football stars such as Luis Figo, Rivaldo, and Rafael Marquez, and has been criticized as an attempt to “sportswash” Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara and distract from human rights abuses.

In return for their loyalty, King Mohammed remained supportive of the brothers’ endeavours. When Omar Azaitar opened a burger joint in Tangiers in July 2019, the king sent his son, Prince Hassan, to eat there and help promote the restaurant.

The Azaitar brothers’ friendship with King Mohammed VI has also helped further their respective careers. For example, after hearing that Abu Azaitar was having trouble entering the United States due to his criminal past, the king reportedly grew upset and decided to interfere to help the fighter secure his visa, which he eventually succeeded in doing.

Given the Azaitar brothers’ exceptional influence in Morocco, it was only a matter of time before their relationship with the King was scrutinized in local media.

Atlasinfo, a local newspaper owned by a former head of the official Maghreb Arab Press (MAP), the Moroccan state-run news agency founded in 1959, published an article with headline “When Ottman Azaitar sows terror in Rabat.” The article, which was posted shortly after the Hespress exposé, revealed how the brothers have been using their friendship with the king to expand their scope of influence and flaunt rules and regulations in Morocco. For example, Ottman reportedly entered a busy Starbucks in Rabat with a face mask (which is mandatory to wear in public spaces in Morocco), skipped the line-up, and demanded to be served instantly while banging his fist violently on the counter. It was only when a police officer approached him and asked for his identification that Ottman eventually calm down. However, prior to leaving the Starbucks, he was allegedly heard saying: “if I did not love my king and my country, I would have chopped off the hands of the manager of this café.”

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Other more recent articles have analyzed Abu Azaitar’s luxury watch collection, which includes two Richard Mille watches worth more than 400,000 Euro and four Patek Philippe watches ranging from 150,000 to 475,000 Euros. The detailed article, published on Hespress, features sentences such as “Abu Azaitar, who gives the feeling of being happy and proud of so many external signs of wealth, seems to forget that it is the individual and his personality that make the watch, not the other way around.”

It is worth noting that press freedoms have eroded during King Mohammed VI’s reign. The past decade, in particular, has seen a sharp increase in government censorship and the persecution of journalists. However, Moroccan press still enjoy greater press freedoms than their neighbouring Arab countries.

While it remains unclear whether the Azaitars have managed to maintain their relationship with King Mohammed VI, it seems evident that there is an ongoing effort by Moroccan elites, palace officials, and state-run media outlets to drive a wedge between the controversial fighters and Morocco’s monarch. This modern example of palace political intrigue will likely have a significant impact on the brothers’ scope of influence and the celebrity status they developed over the years.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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