The front door of the palace opens, and out comes King Mohammed VI with a feline bounce in his step. After quick introductions and a handshake, he smiles and gets to the point. "Shall we go?" he asks in slightly accented English. The interview, it seems, will have to wait. He's wearing a metallic gray muscle shirt, navy running shorts, white socks and a pair of emerald Nikes. The thin crescent of a new moon is hanging over the medieval city of Marrakech. Morocco's 36-year-old monarch is ready to jog.
The King leaps behind the wheel of his black custom-crafted Carlsson Mercedes. Since becoming head of state a year ago, he explains as he steers into traffic through the huge gate in the palace's high, ocher-colored rampart, he has gone on living the regular life he tried to live as Crown Prince. "People are not shocked at all when they see me driving my own car," he says. "I have always driven myself. I can't imagine not doing it. I haven't changed anything, except I moved into a bigger office."
As we cruise the streets, the King stops for red lights, giving a shy wave whenever pedestrians or other motorists excitedly spot him. He pulls out a pack of Marlboros and jokes, his brown eyes devilishly twinkling, "I guess I shouldn't smoke before jogging, eh?" Outside the city, we stop on a country lane as an unmarked security car that has been following us at a discreet distance pulls up. Then we are off for the five-mile run, the King slowing his pace and shortening his circuit in kindness to an older, nonjogging journalist. "I don't even like running that much," he says, gabbing as he glides along. "But it's good for stress." Listening to my huffing, he adds, "You know, it's important to inhale and exhale."
King. Commander of the Faithful (he's a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad). Most Eligible Bachelor. Music Lover. Fitness Buff. Here is Mohammed VI, this week making a state visit to Washington aimed at renewing warm ties that date to 1777, when Morocco was among the first nations to recognize the United States of America.
When Mohammed VI succeeded his father, foreign diplomats were not alone in wondering what to expect. During Hassan II's reign, people quipped about Prince One Step--meaning the boy who stood a pace behind his father, rarely speaking, quietly learning statecraft. In the past year he has turned in a stunning performance. His subjects have watched in amazement as he boldly axed his father's powerful old cronies, freed political prisoners and plunged like a pop star into crowds of adoring Moroccans.
One thing the King has not done is speak to the press, foreign or Moroccan--until last week, when he agreed to let TIME follow him on his peripatetic journeys and do the first interview of his reign. During the jog and more formal talks at a peacock-colored palace in Agadir and during a flight back to Rabat, he came off as confident yet modest, part regal, part ordinary guy. Combining a common touch with strategic vision, he may be the most impressive of the new generation coming to power in the Middle East. Moroccans are calling him M6 for short, and King of the Poor--good omens, considering the immense task he faces of finding jobs for those in a poor country where almost three-quarters of the population is even younger than he is.