RABAT, Morocco — It was a simple gesture of humility on the part of a monarch who claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed and who is heralded in Moroccan newspapers as "His Majesty Hassan II, Commander of the Faithful, The Savior and The Unifier."
At a recent conference of Muslim religious scholars he hosted here, Morocco's King Hassan II, who celebrated his 30th year in power in February, sat reverently on the floor clutching his prayer beads as the invited guests, wise men of Islam from the world around, pronounced on the moral issues of the times.
But the televised "religious court" was also a typically savvy political act by Hassan, 61, scion of the four-century-old Alawite dynasty and one of the great survivors of the African political scene.
Honoring and feting religious leaders is one of the ways the Moroccan leader has managed to avoid a strong challenge from the Islamic fundamentalist movements that plague neighboring governments in the North African Maghreb region and other predominantly Muslim states.
"Did you see the way that he sat on the floor--below the level of the speakers?" asked a senior government official. "It may seem like a tiny detail, but it is one of the reasons fundamentalism is not a big factor here."
Through guile, intelligence and a seemingly unerring ability to know when to bend and when to bear down--human rights critics say "brutalize"--debonair Hassan has escaped assassination attempts, leftist uprisings, attempted coups and economic riots to become the longest-reigning monarch in Africa.
His most recent tightrope act, applauded for its virtuosity by friend and foe alike, came during the Persian Gulf crisis.
Despite Moroccans' largely sympathetic view of Iraq, which they saw as an underdog against the powerful West and its rich Gulf Arab allies, Hassan was the only North African leader, besides Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to send military forces to Saudi Arabia.
The small, largely symbolic detachment of 1,300 troops--assigned to guard a major Saudi refinery--won Hassan the overflowing affection of the United States and its allies, including the oil-rich Gulf states. Officials interviewed here hope it will bring Morocco long-term economic bonuses, as well.
But in several speeches, delivered during the crisis, Hassan also described Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as his "dear Arab brother." He ordered members of the Moroccan royal family to supervise collection of emergency supplies to the suffering Iraqi people. In one particularly ambidextrous speech, the king announced that his "mind" was with the allied coalition and Kuwait but that his "heart" was with Hussein and the people of Iraq.
In a rare show of confidence in his rule, the king also permitted five opposition parties and Muslim fundamentalists to stage a pro-Iraq demonstration in the streets of Rabat, the Moroccan capital and the seat of his throne. An estimated 200,000 demonstrators burned American, Israeli, British and French flags and carried enlarged photos of Hussein. The police kept to the sidelines. The largest rally in recent Moroccan history ended without incident.
After letting anti-war demonstrators blow off steam in Rabat, the king then banned another rally planned by the same groups for Casablanca.
When opposition leaders challenged him about the Moroccan troops in the Gulf, the king said they were not actually part of the allied coalition but were sent to Saudi Arabia as part of a separate agreement he had with King Fahd, one of several members of the Saudi Royal Family who has a vacation palace in Morocco. They would not, he insisted, take part in any attack on Iraqi territory.
As usual, the bridge-playing ruler had finessed all the players, including his partners. "It required some amazing political agility," said an admiring diplomat, "but somehow the king came out of the war stronger than he went in."
It was not the first time King Hassan, has successfully played a delicate, dangerous political game. In 1982, he hosted an Arab summit meeting in Fez where he managed, for the first time, to persuade all the leaders of the Arab world to agree on a peace plan that implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist. The "Fez Plan" also called for the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
Following up on the Fez meeting, the king shocked the Arab world in 1986 by hosting then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. When Syria and other Arab countries protested, the king chided them for not having the "courage" to make either war or peace with Israel.
Hassan became king on Feb. 26, 1961, when his father, Mohammed V, died after what was expected to be a minor operation. The old sultan was beloved by his people for defying the French, who kept Morocco as a colonial protectorate until 1956. Few people gave Prince Hassan, who had a reputation as a playboy smitten by the allures of horse racing and nightclubs, much chance of sticking.