For three decades after it left the African Union (AU), Morocco trained its external focus on Europe, ceding influence on pan-African affairs to Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt. But that’s changing. Morocco, which rejoined the AU last year, is now making a bold bid to assume the mantle as the leader of the African Arab and Islamic states in 2018 — riding on a combination of politics, economics and religion — at a time when there’s a regional vacuum to be filled.
Morocco’s application to join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been agreed upon in principle, but the country is also eyeing the rest of the continent. Egypt remains in a state of paralysis following the years-long harsh summer that has followed its Arab Spring, while Libya is in chaos, leaving space for a new titan to emerge. With its growing economy, stable government, proximity to Europe and moderate brand of Islam, Morocco is setting itself up to be that leader — and it’s backing up its plans with hard cash.
This comes from a real sense of belonging to the African continent.
Nadia Lamlili, Jeune Afrique magazine
The country is now investing 85 percent of its foreign spend in Africa — the second-largest investor on the continent behind South Africa. It is exporting its own brand of Islam, Maliki, giving out full scholarships to Islamic scholars from countries such as Mauritania and Mali to come and study in the kingdom. There’s also smart politics at play. King Mohammed VI, the current ruler, has patiently crisscrossed the continent, restrengthening bilateral relations that had suffered with the split from the AU, using a charm offensive rooted in an anti-colonialist discourse that his father — the previous king — rarely tried but that retains wide resonance in the region. That’s a sentiment expected only to soar in light of U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported comments in January, when he described African nations as “shitholes.”
“Unlike his father, Mohammed VI is convinced that Africa can take care of itself,” says Nadia Lamlili of Jeune Afrique, the most widely read pan-African magazine. “He seduced the rest of the continent by advocating inclusive development and excluding the old colonialism. This comes from a real sense of belonging to the African continent.”
For Morocco, the king said in an August 2017 address, “Africa is the future. And the future starts today.” Morocco had left the AU in 1984 because the grouping recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a self-proclaimed state in the Western Sahara, which comes within Morocco’s territory and whose legitimacy Morocco strongly refutes. But under its new approach, the country sees its resumed place at the African table as an opportunity to influence opinion on the SADR from within. With a population of just 30 million, Morocco also desperately needs access to new markets in order to grow. Africa, on its doorstep, offers a tasty opportunity.
Morocco can offer quite a bit to Africa too, suggests Jean AbiNader, senior adviser for economic and commercial affairs at the Moroccan American Center. The country’s decades-long experience in business with Europe, and the close ties its companies enjoy with the banking and transport sectors of West and Central Africa, give Morocco a rare position. “It also has a strong, albeit circumscribed, civil society,” says AbiNader, as well as developed logistics and distributions systems northward, and trade agreements with the EU and the U.S. “I would think that Moroccan entrepreneurs could be the next generation of expatriate business accelerators,” he adds, “following the roads pioneered by the Lebanese in West and Central Africa several generations ago.”
The Moroccan economy has been reforming, and growth has averaged 4 percent in recent years, but those forecasts can change with the weather, literally. Decreased fall rainfall in 2017 has driven down agricultural production, and depressed growth to 2.8 percent in the first quarter of 2018. There are also structural issues, says Crispin Hawes, managing director at Teneo Intelligence. The king and the makhzen (the Moroccan commercial establishment/oligarchy), which derives a lot of its historic influence from relationships at the court, continue to dominate the political system. “While Morocco ticks a lot of boxes in terms of liberal regulatory systems and relative openness, it has its issues too around the concentration of commercial power around the court,” says Hawes.
The country’s service sector is thriving, and its stable banking system is making inroads into the African market, but there is an urgent need to support increased industrialization. The January announcement of 26 car industry projects with giants Renault and Peugeot Citroen, worth a total of $1.45 billion, may help Morocco build its position as an international automotive hub.
Religion too is a key weapon in Morocco’s armor. The kingdom espouses Malikism, a moderate Sunni school. The religious links between Morocco and its African Islamic neighbors are deeply historic, reaching back to the initial spread of Islam through Africa, through conquest but also through centuries of trans-Saharan trade. In recent years, Morocco has made an active push to attract African Muslims to its schools by awarding full scholarships to institutions such as the International Imam Training Center in Rabat — countering, in the process, security threats posed by the spread of more extreme forms of Islam, like Wahhabism, in the region.
“Morocco has mobilized Malikism to project soft power into Francophone and Muslim Africa,” says Michael Barron, a Middle East political risk consultant. “Morocco sees this region as its backyard, and the area where it has a long-term strategy to wield regional power.”
The Moroccan state, at the “highest level,” is dedicated to cashing in on this moment through “economic diplomacy in conjunction with the private sector,” says Fehd Bouab, the former financial director and adviser to the minister at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. The key, he says, is how well Morocco addresses its challenges. “We are at the crossroads to success in our industrialization,” Bouab says. “If we succeed there, then we will become a real tiger.”
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