Rabat – Morocco’s star in Africa is rising; but can it overcome economic stumbling blocks and European skepticism to become the regional leader it aspires to be?
Much of the Western Sahara controversy that is used by Morocco’s enemies to attack its national sovereignty is based in old policies, which predate the ongoing peace process and recent investments into the region, as well as the economic shortcomings resulting from underdeveloped infrastructure outside the main cities, and lack of foreign investment into the far ends of the country.
Sahrawi protesters and much of the mostly Amazigh population in the South of the country end up between the rock and the hard place – on the one hand, there is the legitimate interest in attracting further attention to the portions of the country that still require greater investment; on the other hand, self-interested separatist activists with an agenda utilize economic grievances to hijack reform movements towards destabilizing the country. Interestingly, however, with Morocco taking assertive steps to improve the situation not only within its own borders but across the continent, the same critics attack these overdue economic measures.
One example of such a Catch 22 is the building of the Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline, which was met with the condemnation of 40 African and European countries on the basis of environmental concerns. Morocco, however, has also built a massive solar power plant in the Sahara. A diverse economy should reasonably rely on a variety of energy supplies in order to function properly; working with no fossil fuel energy whatsoever is an unreasonable expectation, particularly since many of the government officials from the 40 dissenting states regularly use fossil fuel in the course of travel for business. The gas pipeline project would stretch across West Africa, and possibly extend into Europe.
It is the continuation of the West African Pipeline (GOA), and is supposed to promote the integrated North West African Zone, help all the countries involved achieve energy independence, support the badly needed electrification projects, and achieve economic and industrial development goals. The project would empower the partnering countries, and it would also address the energy needs of some of their disenfranchised populations. One of the main complaints about South Morocco and Western Sahara is the supposed lack of access to power. Developing further energy projects would surely address those shortages.
So why are so many countries complaining? Interestingly enough, these countries do not actually want a stable, prosperous, secure, and well integrated Morocco. A perpetual state of conflict and dissent serves their interests significantly more than an African competitor which could attract away investors, and put pressure on stagnant European markets.
Europe Does not want a stable and competitive Morocco
For that instance, supporting Polisario, and encouraging protests, rather than working with the Moroccan government to speed up infrastructure development in the needier regions, or send in private investors to address the shortcomings, is the preferred strategy. Alleged humanitarian support and keeping “human rights violations” in the news likewise feeds into the European “human rights industrial complex”, whereby countries which have long since ceded entrepreneurship elsewhere, need to employ their decreasing young people. Government jobs and human rights NGOs focused on “safe” and manageable conflicts are a good way to channel energy that would otherwise cause internal pressure on the public officials. In other words, these European critics of Morocco’s approach to development, no matter which way it goes, are actually projecting their own internal issues – and their own way of handling them. For the same reason, the self-empowerment of the African countries is a threat to Europeans. If Nigeria and other West African countries become energy independent and improve the lives of their populations, what will be the rallying point for the European concerned NGOs?
Nevertheless, Morocco is on the path of strengthening its bilateral and multilateral relationships in Africa, and growing its economy. In the most recent sign of its growing respect and importance in the region, the Congolese president invited King Mohammed VI to participate in the Blue Funds Conference, which will take place in April, and focus on utilizing resources to preserve the ecology of the Congo Basin. Morocco has been playing a central role in this project, ever since its launch during the UN-sponsored climate change conference in March 2017. Furthermore, Rabat will host the African Union’s second ordinary meeting of the Specialized Technical Committee on Urban Development, Local Government, and Decentralization.
The aims of the committee – to decentralize governance and to empower local communities – are laudable and should be seen as a sign of progress in an otherwise heavily bureaucratic high level organization, which features diverse interests and frictions. That the future of resolving various African countries is in involving increasingly local resources and activists, who can tackle various issues without the red tape and lack of local knowledge from the federal governments has become an increasingly widespread realization among the activists themselves in a number of African countries; the fact that their governments finally understand that point gives reasons for optimism about the future.
Empowering local communities in South Morocco and Western Sahara is surely an important and fascinating theme; it presents many opportunities for entrepreneurial thinking, positive outreach, early investment, and exploration of various ideas. Yet, instead of getting involved in that discussion in constructive ways and asking informative questions, which could help bring about faster and better results, Morocco’s critics prefer to focus on criticism. Rather than working with Moroccan government to come up with a plan for alternative skills training for poor mining towns, where the coal mines are no longer a reliable source of income, while Morocco is undergoing currency reforms, the same critics add fuel to the fire of the protesters, who, on occasions, turn violent, creating the appearance of destabilization inside a country, which is a vital intelligence partner to many of the same European Union members.
Quite interestingly, major human rights organizations, such as Amnesty, decry Moroccan mass arrests of these protesters, journalists, and others, while failing to ask a simple question as to how previously peaceful protests turned violent. Indeed, countries undergoing difficult economic transitions, aimed at improving the internal situation, should be lent support by the international community, rather than antagonized and cornered. There is no question that Morocco and European states will have a different approach to handling mass social movements, particularly, when the country is undergoing massive changes on various fronts and where it is working to tackle bureaucratic corruption in addition to social and economic issues.
Europe should support Morocco’s march towards progress
The question is – are the European states and organizations interested in Morocco’s prosperity and success through the inevitable growth pangs, or will insist on ignoring all the positive achievements Morocco is undergoing to focus exclusively on the protests and the Western Sahara issues? If one reads European coverage of Morocco, none of the progress appears to take the central page, even when well deserved. Balanced coverage would require the acknowledgment of important steps in breaking through the water-related issues, such as Morocco’s recent participation in the World Water Forum in Brazil. The goal of the forum is to challenge conventional thinking and to resolve ongoing issues through learning sessions, debates, and interactive workshops.
Morocco participated in the “Water Planet” exhibit, which, among other things highlighted the country’s success in water management. Little is said about the upcoming UK-Morocco Trade and Investment Forum, which indeed, looks towards bringing in investments, focusing on Morocco’s convenient location. Just as importantly, the 24th Annual Mediterranean Film Festival, taking place in Tetouan this year, will address the issues of censorship and artistic freedom – the issues just as central to European discussions and governance as they are to Africa and Morocco. This important cultural event may disappear behind the raging headlines on the political issues of the day, yet it represents a major step forward in Morocco’s economic, cultural, and political development.
Not only is the country becoming increasingly attractive to creative pursuits, which, of course stimulates the local scene and the economy, but it is modernizing and liberalizing culturally at a rate that should be widely discussed and acknowledged. It is easy enough to endlessly dwell on the failings in various arenas, but when Morocco steps up its game in discussing important issues that should be of interest to everyone – including the human rights of artistic expression – that should receive as much of a positive scrutiny as all the negative attention devoted to its problems. Just as importantly, the deliberate and systematic introduction of such discussions into popular discourse represents an important and well thought-out political step by the country’s government, which is bringing the country on par with its European and American counterparts.
Morocco benefits from its complex identity as an African, Mediterranean state, with a complex heritage of ethnic and religious identities, and strong connections to Europe and the Middle East, as well. It is looking to integrate into Africa, and lead the continent towards overcoming security, political, economic, and social problems, while simultaneously improving its own lot. As such, Morocco is taking many risks, and bold, admirable steps – which also invite greater scrutiny, because it is opening itself up to the world, and embracing different perspectives. Rather than using Morocco’s remarkable interest in self-improvement towards the temptation to pile on and bash it for everything that is not according to the European or American standards or expectations. This is a great opportunity to positively encourage additional progress, praise and reward improvements and changes, and assist with addressing difficulties and dilemmas.
Positive international relationships do not come with either purely transactional alliances where major issues are ignored until such point as they become insurmountable obstacles in the growth of these relationships nor with focusing exclusively on the problems and differences. Rather, a balanced conversation about maximizing opportunities for growth will serve Morocco’s friends and allies well in growing, strengthening, and deepening those bonds without being perceived as meddlesome and small-minded. On the contrary, the country that is positioned to become the focus of the CyberSouth project – a collaboration between European Union, the Council of Europe and several MENA countries to combat cybercrime and improve electronic evidence gathering – already objectively has a lot to offer.
Its contributions should be celebrated as an example to other future potential partners in such ventures. And the fact that Morocco is positioning itself as a gateway for African outreach is promising to any country that is looking to establish a foothold in the continent. More than just a beautiful vacation destination (though it certainly is), Morocco is becoming a valuable international contributor in many different arenas; it is becoming a real partner, an ally, and is already a good friend to many.
Rather than the continuous shaming over the issues that are constantly instigated by those who are envious of its success and drive for progress, Morocco’s European and American counterparts should extend their interests beyond a few widely publicized issues and expand their outreach and partnership on more diverse and deeper levels. They then will be better positioned to contribute to a legitimate, constructive, respectful, and friendly discussion on improvements in various fields, and they themselves will benefit from seeing the fruit of their own investment in the country’s blossoming before their very eyes. In many ways, Morocco is already punching above its weight: imagine how the resourcefulness of its citizens propels its advances when the conditions for entrepreneurship, education, and innovation become optimal and enjoy wider support.