Morocco is redeveloping its African roots. To the benefit of all concerned.
Morocco’s late King Hassan II famously said that his country ‘a tree with its roots in Africa and its branches in Europe’. Although this may indicate an equilibrium for the Kingdom’s geopolitics between Africa and Europe, it is fair to say that for decades, especially since Morocco left the African Union in 1984, that the EU has been the focal partner. With the granting of a pioneering ‘advanced status’ within the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy framework in 2008, hopes were high that this free trade agreement would set Morocco on the path of economic convergence. Unfortunately, ten years after the agreement, Morocco has not reaped the benefits of this policy. The EU, tangled in a multidimensional and lasting crisis, has leant greater attention to the security aspects of its partnership with Morocco, rather than trade and broader economic implications.
So, without dismissing its reliance on and faith in Europe, the Kingdom of Morocco has returned to its roots, in Africa, not only through a continuous flow of investment, but also a will to continental unions such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The importance of the African continent in King Mohammed VI’s current agenda is a strong indicator of this revamped strategy, and the private sector has been successful in the last decade in supporting this royal vision; Morocco established deep ties in Western Africa and is keen to reinvest in other parts of the continent.
This strategic return first manifested with the expansion of private sectors companies, noticeably finance. Moroccan banks have been present in Africa since 1990, but during the last decade have expanded especially in West Africa where they are nearly outperforming French banks. In 2017, Moroccan banks recorded a total profit of DAM 2.7 billion (approximatively £200 million). Moroccan banks also train and hire local workers, contributing even further to the development of local financial markets.
Following that vision of a common destiny with West Africa, Morocco officially submitted a request to be admitted to ECOWAS. This is not without its challenges, but it is a testament to Morocco’s determination to participate in the economic development of the region and access a potential market of 367 million people.
Contributing to these are also Morocco’s strand of Islam and its influence on West African communities. Founded on the acchaarite doctrine, the malekite rite and Sufism, Moroccan Islam is perceived as open, tolerant and as a stabilising factor for many African countries that are currently struggling with the rise of radical ideologies. This religious ‘soft power’ is strengthened by the training of Imams through the Mohammed VI Institute and a foundation for the benefits of African Islamic scholars.
Migration pressures have accentuated a perception among European countries that Morocco represents the bottleneck for migrants wanting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Despite convergence between the Kingdom and Europe in most areas, Morocco does not completely share this European approach; Morocco has refused to host refugee camps on its soil, for instance. Nevertheless, Morocco has become a host country for many sub-Saharan migrants (more than 80, 000 legal and illegal residents); according to a study by the Policy Centre for the New South – a Morocco-based think-tank – seven out of ten migrants from West Africa do not go further to Europe, but move within the continent. Morocco has adopted a new policy of ‘regularising’ the status of African migrants and promoting their integration into Moroccan society. In many respects, therefore, Morocco’s attitude goes further than the sometime reductive approach of some European countries which views migration as solely a security issue.
To strengthen efforts to develop an African strategy on the mass movement of people, Morocco will host the African Observatory for Migration and Development. Based in Rabat, this African Union institution will enhance regional collaboration. As King Mohammed VI’s initial initiative, the observatory reflects the monarch’s commitment to the continent and has acted as an engine for Morocco’s growing involvement in Africa.
Overall, the diplomatic efforts of Morocco have resulted in more than a hundred cooperation agreements with African countries and the opening of new embassies in Benin, Mozambique, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania in 2016; with missions to Zambia and Djibouti expected to open in the coming year. It also represents an admission that Morocco’s old policy, which consisted of dealing with African countries depending on their position on the Western Sahara conflict, has isolated the Kingdom and did not serve its purpose. Engagement across the board and across the continent is now Morocco’s strategy. And there is no question that this has proven to be of great benefit to the rest of Africa as well.
Youssef Tobi is currently seconded to RUSI and works at the Policy Centre for the New South in Morocco.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.