25.08.2015 | Morocco: The Gateway to West Africa?

Compared to its neighbours, in recent years Morocco has made significant economic strides. The country has registered economic growth every year since King Mohammed VI succeeded his father Hassan V, an achievement that many Moroccans are quick to attribute to the sovereign. Casablanca is accessible and bustling with business travellers, as befitting the commercial capital of the most prosperous country in North Africa.

Behind the figures, however, Morocco remains a country of two halves, where the poverty of a large portion of the population rub against ambitions of the elite to fully participate in the global economy.  As one walks through the streets of Casablanca this dichotomous relationship comes into plain view.  Separating the city’s central square from the seashore is Casablanca’s old Medina: a maze of littered alleys, eroded buildings and market pedlars, an emblem of Morocco’s urban poor.  Emerging on the Medina’s northern edge, one immediately faces the lavish and imposing Hassan II Mosque.

The clumsy French colonial idioms le Maroc utile, literally ‘useful Morocco’, and le Maroc inutile, are still used to differentiate the productive parts of the country from its barren hinterlands. Much of the population lives in rural poverty, whereas the coastal cities and those that attract the European tourists, such as Marrakesh, receive abundant investment funds from the state coffers.  A number of glitzy additions to Casablanca’s skyline, including the half-constructed Casablanca Marina and the Wessal Casablanca Port, are part-funded by the state.  Critics of the Palace point out that the King and his associates often encourage the government to co-invest in grand tourism projects, assuming the bulk of the risk, because they have direct financial interests in the developments.  They also point out that the activities of the royal family’s investment company, the Société Nationale d'Investissement, receive preference over foreign investors.  A partial judiciary and an antiquated land registry system create further deterrents.

Despite obvious shortcomings of Morocco’s political system, Mohammed VI has been a resilient ruler in a region plagued by turbulence.  His longevity is largely due to his nimble response to the Arab Spring.  A constitutional reform introduced in the summer of 2011 created the post of Prime Minister and devolved some of the King’s powers to elected government officials.  In practice, however, a network of courtiers and the traditional ruling elite known as the Makhzen continue to control both policy and the economy.  While the Prime Minister appoints a Cabinet of Ministers, a parallel set of unelected officials appointed by the King make sure that the King retains de facto control.

Political stability and comparative prosperity have stoked Morocco’s ambitions of positing itself as a gateway to French-speaking West Africa.  Indeed, a large proportion of passengers flying from London to Casablanca appear to be connecting to destinations further along Africa’s west coast.  In finance too, Morocco has enacted a series of reforms in hope of attracting foreign capital for domestic investment as well as to establish itself as a regional financial hub.  It remains to be seen whether this vision will become a reality; a lot will depend on how Morocco’s internal tensions will be resolved.