Is Morocco an oasis of peace and stability in the restless region?

The Europeans associate the Kingdom of Morocco with high-end tourism on one hand and migrations from Africa to the European continent on the other hand.  

Among the African states Morocco is nearest to Europe. The sea distance between Morocco and Gibraltar is 14.3 km or 7.7 nautical miles. Due to its strategic position in North Africa where it overlooks the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the west Morocco was historically the crossroads of civilisations and a bridge between Europe and Africa.  It is this proximity that gives Morocco its economic and geopolitical potential.

Moroccan strategy of reforms, modernisation and social development has changed the country into an oasis of peace and stability in the otherwise restless region wrecked by violence and regional conflicts. That is why Morocco represents a reliable partner for Europe and the USA whose aim is to achieve a strong presence in North Africa and the Middle East.

Despite many difficulties the visionary and objective approach taken by Moroccan King Mohammed VI twenty years ago enabled the country to improve the its political, economic and social situation. His reforms enjoy the support from most Moroccan citizens and political actors in as well as from the international community.

King Mohammed VI - 21 years of reign

Upon his enthronement on 30 July 1999 King Mohammed VI gave a speech in which he promised the Moroccans that he would fight poverty and corruption, create new jobs and improve human rights. From his father King Hassan II he inherited the kingdom which had 28 million citizens in 1999 (today the number has reached almost 37 million). The country was then facing major social and economic challenges, including the lack of basic necessities among the rural population and a high rate of poverty, while GDP was heavily dependent on agriculture.  The unemployment rate was almost 14 %, and it was twice as high among the young population. Moreover, his father's four decades of reign were marked by political repression and violation of human rights. King Mohammed VI launched a thorough reform of the political system. In 2004 he established a commission to investigate human rights violations committed during his father's reign. The new constitution was supported by record 98.49% voters at the referendum which marked a high turnout despite the opposition's calls to boycott it.

The new constitution introduced the following changes: 

  • the King is to appoint the prime minister from the largest party elected to the parliament; 
  • numerous king's constitutional powers are shifted to the prime minister, including the right to dissolve the parliament;
  • the parliament is competent for granting amnesty, which was previously a privilege of the monarch;
  • Berber became the second official language alongside Arabic.

King Mohammed VI inherited the difficult legacy from his father Hassan II. His first task was to legalise the freedom of expression and to implement legislative reforms The Equity and Reconciliation Commission rehabilitated the victims of human rights abuses and enabled their compensation. The 2004 amendments of family law significantly improved women's rights.  Moroccan media also experienced their golden age, as the independent press houses were able to tackle the most sensitive issues, even those directly related to the royal family, which had been a taboo until then. 

Avoiding the negative consequences of the Arab Spring

Morocco is one of the very few Middle East countries that managed to avoid the negative consequences of anarchy caused by the so called Arab Spring in 2011, and it only suffered minimal damage. It adopted a new constitution, improved the freedom of expression, experienced a flourishing of social networks and released Islamist prisoners. The Advisory Council on Human Rights was transformed into the National Human Rights Council. An increase in political debates was noted in the public media without restrictions being imposed by the repressive apparatus.  

The reforms started to show results in education and in improving the position of women, while poverty started to decrease. In 1999 one third of primary-school-age children did not go to school. After a series of reforms, 97% of primary-school-age children, with a large share of girls among them, are now included in the education process. 

In 2004 the monarchy reformed the family law, granting women the right to divorce, to the single parent status and to custody of a child, while increasing marriageable age to 18. Poverty has also been reduced significantly. Thus in 1999 about 16% of inhabitants and 30% of the rural population lived on the brink of poverty, while today this rate is 4% and 19% respectively.

Regardless of the high rate of poverty in rural areas, those areas are today almost 100% covered by electricity supply while in 1999 this share represented only 18%.

In an effort to ensure security of electricity supply Morocco launched a large-scale project of renewable energy development with the aim to reduce its dependency on oil and gas imports on one hand and to alleviate the negative effects of climate changes on the other hand. One of the outcomes was the construction of the Noor Power Plant (Ouarzazate Solar Power Station – OSPS) near the city of Ouarzazate. It is the largest solar power complex of this kind in the world, which could gradually enable Morocco to become an exporter of electricity to Europe and Africa.

Successful regional cooperation – comprehensive reforms

At the regional level the Kingdom of Morocco serves as an example of fighting terrorism and extremism. Four years after King Mohammed VI took the throne, Morocco was shaken by the bloodiest terrorist attack in its history.

On 16 May 2003, 12 suicide bombers attacked the largest city in the country and its economic capital Casablanca with three million inhabitants. 23 civilians were killed in attacks at various Jewish and tourist locations in the city.  

Following the attack, the monarch who is constitutionally the Amir Al-Mu'minin, or Commander of the Faithful, thereby also the main religious authority in the state, launched the process of introducing comprehensive reforms such as subordinating mosques and Islamic schools to strict state supervision and eliminating extremist content from the curriculum of religious education. He promoted the true teachings of Islam which emphasise moderation, and established an academy to train Imams and students of Islamic studies from North and West Africa and increasingly also from Europe.

However, those reforms did not protect the Kingdom of Morocco from internal extremism, which was evident from the number of Moroccans (about 2000) who joined the Islamic State (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq between 2012 and 2016. Nevertheless, with security measures and religious reforms Morocco eventually managed to reduce the threat of extremism better than most other states in the region.

Interreligious dialogue

During his historical visit to Morocco in March 2019 Pope Francis delivered a speech before thousands of worshippers and King Mohammed VI, in which he called for the freedom of conscience and religious freedom to enable each individual to live according to his or her religious beliefs. Together with King Mohammed VI the Pope visited the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines and Morchidates (Religious Preachers). 

During a meeting with migrants at the diocesan Caritas centre in Rabat Pope Francis delivered a historical speech in which he stressed that every person has the right to migrate and suggested four words for the countries that host migrants: welcomingprotecting, promoting, and integrating.

It should be noted that in recent years, due to migration flows from Africa, Morocco has turned from a transit state into the receiving state and the state of residence. It should be noted that Morocco lays at the crossroads for many migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa on their way to Europe.

Thanks to the new immigration policy promoted by King Mohammed VI since 2013, Moroccan authorities have (according to data from the ministry of interior) granted status to several thousands of illegal immigrants, a vast majority of whom come from Africa. The number is expected to increase further in the future.

Economy during the reign of King Mohammed VI

The 21 years of King Mohammed VI reign have brought many important economic achievements. GDP has increased from 42 billion dollar in 1999 to 123 billion dollar in 2019. The rate of economic growth, which remains the hostage of climate change impact on agriculture, was on average between 3 and 4% annually, whereby the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently announced that economic prospects will improve in the medium run. According to the World Bank (WB) Morocco ranks second in the Middle East region after United Arab Emirates in terms of ease of doing business. 

According to data from IMF the growth rate is expected to increase in Morocco from  2.4% in 2019 to  3.7% in 2020 and even to 4% in 2021.

King Mohammed VI – showing a shift away from his father's economic policy – started to invest in the long neglected north of Morocco. One of the results of this move is that the port of Tanger-Med in Tangier has become the largest port in the Mediterranean and the whole of Africa. Tangier is located at the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. The city has been rapidly developing and modernising with the construction of new tourist facilities on the coast and new business centres, an airport terminal and a football stadium in the city centre. 

Morocco has managed to benefit from the above policies by strengthening its position in some sectors and moving forward at the regional and global level. In the space technology sector it is the third African country with three satellites following Egypt and South Africa. In the maritime transport sector it has climbed to the first place in the African continent and the 45th place in the world thanks to the Tanger Mediterranean Port project. In the field of road transport it ranks the second in Africa with over 1,400 kilometres of highways. It has built the first high-speed rail line – the first of its kind in the African continent. Not to forget the above mentioned largest solar power plant in the world (Noor Power Plant in Ouarzazate).

These fascinating economic figures have set Morocco as a role model for other African states, where it aims to increase its presence after having re-joined the African Union in 2017. The Kingdom of Morocco expressed a strong desire to join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which it has largely succeeded after having gained the first place on the list of investors into African states. Most of the credit for this goes to its successful soft diplomacy.

Moroccan foreign policy has become pragmatic and realistic. With the new and modified soft diplomacy (in the economic, religious, security, cultural and other fields) the Kingdom of Morocco has revised its foreign policy and strengthened friendships with its traditional friends such as the USA, France, Spain and the EU. 

King Mohammed VI – a modern monarch for the 21st century 

Analysts have noted that with Mohammed VI the Kingdom of Morocco has seen a huge transformation thanks to his initiatives, projects and plans that tackle all aspects of life. The King's speeches have become a sort of a channel for direct communication with the Moroccans through which he presents his priorities, aims and the desired changes to be achieved for the country's benefit. 

The royal court has become the locomotive of change in all fields: from the economic and social to political, diplomatic and religious. The government has become more flexible and less bureaucratic, and the government ministers are successful in implementing the King's plans and instructions, each within their respective area of competence and with strong parliamentary supervision, as is the case in any strong parliamentary democracy.

The young King started his ambitious reforms gradually, by adopting a series of new laws and amendments to liberalise and open the economy, restructure the financial system, strengthen the management and the rule of law and ensure the respect of fundamental human rights.

IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, who visited Rabat on 20 February 2020, said that Morocco was the source of stability and commended its vision to achieve an inclusive and sustainable growth that would bring benefits to all its citizens, especially for the youth and women. In her opinion Morocco is the leading state in the region and in the whole African continent. It has implemented demanding reforms for the benefit of the national economy and its citizens. She also stressed that Morocco is an important player for Africa, representing a bridge between Europe and the Arab world as well as the rest of the African continent.

Relations between Morocco and the EU

Over years Morocco and the European Union have developed strong and deep bonds. Cooperation started in 1970s with numerous bilateral agreements concluded for trade and export of Moroccan agricultural products to Europe. Relations between Community (EEC) and Morocco began in 1969 with the signing of the trade agreement, and were extended in 1976 with the cooperation agreement. Those relations were further strengthened with the partnership agreement signed in 1996 in the framework of the MEDA Programme, the main financial instrument of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. In 2008 Morocco was the first state in the region to be granted advanced status or privileged partnership, thus being a pioneer in European neighbourhood policy. Advanced status enables it to participate in many areas of EU's cooperation opportunities although it is not a full EU member state.

With privileged partnership Morocco has gained the right to participate in all areas of EU's actions and especially in its legislative, executive and regulative structures. Morocco is not a European country, but it still enjoys a privileged partnership status that has not been granted to any other non-European state. Nevertheless, advanced status does not grant it full membership in EU institutions – this has not been granted even to some European states such as Turkey.

Morocco's advanced status with the EU encompasses several levels. Politically it introduces a political and strategic dialogue which gives Morocco the right to join EU treaties provided it made a significant progress in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression, democracy and the rule of law.

In the economic field advanced status enables Morocco's gradual and full access to the EU's internal market including the duty-free trade in goods and services and areas such as transport, communication and energy. Cooperation in the area of transport was regulated in the agreement that covered infrastructure, maritime shipping, the future Mediterranean maritime strategy, air and road traffic as well as road traffic safety and logistics.

With advanced status Morocco has gained enormous market and investment opportunities with cost-free access to the European market, not to mention the benefits it gains from the European infrastructure and development as well as from the scientific and technical cooperation  in the field of research and training, where it should encourage partnerships and technological relations between research institutions and companies.

In the framework of its neighbourhood policy the EU has entered into various forms of partnerships with many countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan, but Morocco is the only country with a privileged status and with established mechanisms for economic convergence and improved trade relations, inclusive development programmes and strengthened security cooperation to help fight terrorism and limit illegal migrations on the Mediterranean route from Africa to Europe.

Morocco's privileged partnership with the EU relates to strategic areas such as common security, joint solving of conflicts, good governance, consulting and the use of European expertise and experience in the fields of employment, education, health, social protection, research and development, environment and sustainable development.

Ljubljana/Rabat, 28 April 2020

(C) 2004 IFIMES                                                                      
[1] IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN since 2018.