By Isabella Wang
Rabat – Distance previously kept Australia and Morocco apart, but with Australia’s new Rabat embassy and trade opportunities, bilateral relations are strengthening.
The opening of the new Australian embassy in Morocco in June 2017 signified the burgeoning relationship between Australia and Morocco. Now emerges a partnership of opportunity and necessity from bilateral relations that have historically been scarce.
Diplomatic relations only began 30 years ago in 1976 with a joint statement which announced intentions “to consolidate and strengthen mutual understanding and to stimulate cultural and commercial links.” Yet since then, little has been done to galvanize the intentions into actions.
Rather, each country has sought to ascertain its presence within its own geographical region, asserting their significance through a geostrategically multifaceted identity.
Morocco’s Maghreb identity is incredibly fruitful: its geography in North Africa has enabled the country to assert influence within the region while also fostering relations with Europe. Compounded with this is Morocco’s Islamic identity which has enabled the kingdom to forge a continuous dialogue with countries in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Australia has attained status due to the island’s geographical dominance of Oceania, which in turn has led to a fostering of relations with Southeast Asia. At the same time, Australia’s association with the Commonwealth and the West, heightened by a shared history in fighting wars has solidified the country’s relations with the UK, and more prominently the US.
With both Morocco and Australia’s growing influence, they now look towards further regions in order to achieve a network of bilateral relations and greater international sway.
Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle uniting, the bilateral relations between Morocco and Australia are ideal; each country’s distinct identity and regional influence provides a gateway for the new territories and relations the other desires.
Opportunity for Trade and Investment
At the very basis of bilateral relations between Morocco and Australia is tangible economic gain through trade. With Morocco’s current concentration of trade in the EU region at 59.4 percent, the kingdom is overly dependent on the EU.
In contrast, the European Union is not as reliant on Moroccan exports: Morocco sells 78.5 percent of its apparel exports to France and Spain, but these products are a miniscule portion of the two European countries’ imported clothing. For one of Morocco’s biggest export markets, France, the kingdom only comprises 0.7 percent of the garment imports.
A plethora of opportunity awaits economic relations between Australia and Morocco. While both dominate specific sectors of the agriculture and mining industries, Morocco and Australia’s status within the global market is complementary rather than competitive: Morocco dominates the world’s phosphate and fishing industries while Australia heavily exports iron ore, coal, gas, and gold.
Yet as the Moroccan government noted, “Despite the advances in trade relations, the economic potential of Morocco-Australia relations remains unexploited.”
As the impetus to improving economic potential, Morocco and Australia established the Australia-Morocco Business Council (AMBC) in 2017, which establishes a “platform of meetings, interaction and exchange of ideas, experiences and information on business opportunities, regulations, investment and market momentum between Australia, Morocco and their development zones.”
The council makes efforts to bolster trade and investment links, while also emphasizing the strategic gateway that the partnership can be to open up economic relations with further regions.
Signaling the efficacy of the council is Kasbah Resources, an Australia company which has finalized its production of underground mines in Meknes at El Hajeb, an area 55 kilometers southwest of Fez. The project has the potential to produce 750,000 tons of ore per year and has also brought the investment of Japanese companies, Toyota Tsusho and Nittetsu Mining, widening the breadth of Morocco’s investment relations.
Can Morocco help Australia’s perception of Africa?
Relations dependent on economic benefits are not enough. They craft a superficial interaction focused on narrow gains. For Morocco and Australia’s bilateral relations to truly hold impact, there must be genuine and meaningful dialogue, entrenched in an exchange of politics and ideology.
Such dialogue may impact Australia’s perception of Africa. Before opening its embassy in Morocco last year, Australia, held the least number of diplomatic posts in Africa—a mere eight—among the G20 nations.
The reason behind the diplomatic deficit? Australia’s foreign policy on Africa has been defined by paralysis. Indecision and inaction have seized Australia’s engagement in Africa due to its inability to understand what it wants on the continent.
Australia’s latest Foreign Policy White Paper, which establishes the framework for the government’s international aims, encapsulates both its inability to understand what it wants in Africa as well as an inability to truly understand the nuances of the continent.
The paper lacks specificity and clarity when addressing its goals: it mentioned “Africa” only as a whole with specific mention only to “Morocco” in referencing the newly opened embassy. Such reflects Australia’s dominant political and public discourse on relations with African nations.
Nikola Pijovic, a PhD scholar with the National Security College, Australian National University writes, “While the African continent is home to a very diverse set of 54 states, the traditional lack of foreign policy engagement with most of them, coupled with the general lack of knowledge about African states, allows Australian policymakers and the wider public to refer to the engagement with the continent in such generic terms.”
Australia’s new focus on relations with Morocco could signify a closing of the ideological and rhetorical gulf between the realities of Africa and Australia’s perception of the continent. Australia-Morocco relations indeed signify a critical crossroads for Australia: to remain stuck in its indecision or to engage in a genuine dialogue with Morocco in order to truly understand the nuances of Africa.
While the dominant narrative propagated by Australian politicians and diplomats stresses the nation’s support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, focusing on the 1970s-1990s, Australia’s relations with Africa also bear darker underpinnings.
Until the 1970s, Australia directly supported the colonization of Africa and from the end of World War II also showed strong sympathy for “outnumbered whites” in South Africa and what was then Rhodesia.
South Africa has been a primary locus of Australia’s relations in Africa, both political and commercial, due to their shared membership in the Commonwealth. The uneasy truth remains that Australia’s engagement with Africa is most prominent in South Africa due to continued colonialist sentiments, which emerges from policies focused on racial exclusion.
The most recent Africa-related political activity has been a wave of conservative politicians from the incumbent Liberal Party stressing the need to help white South African farmers they believe are persecuted, even by means of a special visa category.
At the same time, the rhetoric of politicians towards African residents in Australia, particularly to those of South Sudanese heritage, has resorted to stereotypes of violence and gangs.
In an interview with Australian radio station 3AW, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had stated, “There is certainly concern about street crime in Melbourne. There is real concern about Sudanese gangs.” Similarly, home affairs minister Peter Dutton said people in Melbourne were “scared to go out to restaurants” because of “African gang violence.”
Morocco: ideological and economic supporter of Africa
As an integral part of Australia’s catchall understanding of “Africa” and as a nation which holds a multitude of historical, economic, and political bonds with African nations, Morocco presents an alternatively complex and refined view of Africa.
King Mohammed VI himself has sought to play a dominant role in setting African foreign policy, making over 51 visits to 26 African states, with over 952 agreements and partnerships since his ascension to the throne.
With growing relations with both Africa and Australia, Morocco has the potential to be a platform for genuine cross-cultural understanding which could inform Australia’s perception of Africa and demonstrate the richness and intricacies of the many African nations.
The King emphasized in his 2016 royal speech on the King and People’s Revolution Day that Africa is a priority in Moroccan foreign policy: “For Morocco, Africa means more than just being part of a geographical area, or having historical bonds with the continent. Africa also means sincere affection, appreciation, close human and spiritual relations as well as tangible solidarity. Furthermore, Africa is the natural extension of Morocco and the embodiment of the country’s strategic depth.”
The King’s speech in fact addressed colonialist roots to Africa’s problems and public perceptions, saying, “The problems plaguing African peoples today, such as backwardness, poverty, migration, wars and conflicts, in addition to despair and succumbing to extremist and terrorist groups, is the result of the disastrous policy adopted for decades by colonial powers.”
He continued in perpetuating a respectful optimism for Africa, “Despite the extensive damage caused by colonialism, I believe Africa has the means to ensure its development and to take its destiny into its own hands, thanks to the resolve of African peoples and to the continent’s human and natural resources.”
It is in both the countries’ national interests for Australia to foster deeper relationships with Africa. As Australia has said, but not acted upon, “The Government is also working to expand and diversify commercial links with Africa. Africa’s population of 1.2 billion will double by 2050 and its growing urban middle class is creating new demand for goods and services.”
Morocco benefits greatly from foreign investment and development in Africa, particularly with Morocco’s various infrastructure projects across North Africa. As analyzed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “in Africa, Morocco has a comparative advantage… and the potential to play an active economic, security, and diplomatic role.”
Further dialogue with Australia would also enable a thriving and accurate discourse to spread to Southeast Asian countries. With more coverage on Morocco’s and Africa’s opportunity and prosperity could come a shift in the narrative on Africa: it is no longer a locus of poverty in need of aid, but rather a continent of burgeoning states on the rise and establishing its status internationally.
China has embraced the change in the narrative with its national newspaper People’s Daily shifting its news coverage on poverty reduction in Africa to that of bilateral relations and diplomacy. Morocco’s relations with China has solidified the narrative shift: deviating from its traditional aid projects in Africa, China was able to orient the traditional conceptions of economic policy in Africa through a strategic partnership with Morocco.
The bilateral relations were supported by a plethora of joint ventures in late 2017: the Chinese Haite group and Morocco’s BMCE bank signed a deal to invest $1 billion in an industrial and residential park in Tangier.
King Mohammed VI’s historic visit to Bali in December 2017 for the 10th Bali Democracy Forum entailed talks with 58 countries, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. There, the King engaged in talks to “promote and foster regional and international cooperation in the field of peace and democracy.”
The forum highlighted the efficacy of Africa’s changing narrative and a dialogue inclusive of Morocco’s insights.
An opportunity to understand Islamic culture
Underpinning the growing relations between Morocco and Australia is also the convergent focus on terrorism and extremism. Described by Australian Ambassador to Morocco Berenice Owen-Jones as a “haven of stability,” Morocco’s image as a liberalized and democratic Arab nation presents Australia an opportunity to collaborate on issues of counter-terrorism and security.
Questioned by Australia’s Joint Standing Committee, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade responded that “an embassy in Morocco would increase Australia’s capacity to engage with a significant player in North Africa, including in the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.”
Australia has relatively sparse ties to the Arab world, whereby its policy and monolithic understandings on the MENA region are derived from its alliances with the US and China. For example, at the end of 2014, Australia used its position on the UN Security Council to vote down a resolution for Palestinian statehood; Australia and the US were the only nations to vote down the resolution out of the 15 nations on the council.
Very often, fundamental misconceptions, founded on Islamophobia pervade the political discourse in Australia. The former prime minister, Tony Abbott, had defended people’s rights to target Muslims and Islam, claiming “Islamophobia hasn’t killed anyone, Islamist terrorism has now killed tens of thousands of people. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that there be the strongest possible response at every level.”
A study by Australia’s Charles Sturt University found that 79.6 percent of hijab-wearing women and 47.7 percent of their children are the direct or indirect targets of Islamophobic attacks.
Despite only 2.2 percent of Australia’s population identifying as Muslim, prominent politicians capitalize on negative stereotypes and fear-mongering within their political rhetoric.
Pauline Hanson, a Queensland senator and One Nation Party leader delivered a speech in late 2016, provoking fears that Muslims and Sharia law were invading the country: “Australia is now seeing changes in suburbs predominantly Muslim. Tolerance towards other Australians is no longer the case. Our law courts are disrespected and our prisons have become breeding grounds for Muslims to radicalize inmates.”
Hanson went on to claim, “Muslims want to see sharia law introduced in Australia. This law is a totalitarian civil code which prescribes harsh feudal rules imposed on everything, firstly for Muslims, later for everyone.”
She also called for an end to halal certification and for a ban on the construction of any further mosques, stating that the country was not safe with its current non-prohibitory policies.
Need for dialogue between Morocco and Australia
Australia’s fear of Islam is present even in the country’s perception of Morocco, as manifested by its smart travel tips for the kingdom.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns Australians to “exercise a high degree of caution in Morocco because of the threat of terrorist attacks. Terror group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) identifies the Maghreb region, which includes Morocco, as a target for terror attacks.”
The department also claimed, “There is a general threat of kidnapping against Westerners in North Africa, including Morocco.”
Yet, Morocco has experienced no terrorist attack since 2011, and kidnapping is scarce. Other countries, like the US, have refuted the hyperbolized dangers portrayed by Australia, presenting the reality that both terrorist attacks and kidnapping are rare.
Compare Australia’s travel advisory for Morocco with its advisory for Spain, a country which experienced its latest terrorist attack just last year in August 2017 and fervently disruptive demonstrations in December 2017. Despite Spain’s more riotous and precarious conditions, Australia deems Spain more secure than Morocco with a basic notice: “Exercise common sense and look out for suspicious behavior, as you would in Australia.”
Morocco has the opportunity to enlighten Australia with a nuanced understanding of the Arab world. This would also align with Australia’s interests to “collaborate further on counter-terrorism and security issues” as outlined by a press release announcing the appointment of Australia’s new ambassador to Morocco.
Understanding Islamic culture is the crux to combatting Islamic terrorism. With the help of Morocco, Australia can move beyond a fearmongering discourse which often obfuscates the real issues.
The need to root out fears of Islam was exemplified in a conference hosted in Australia’s capital Canberra, featuring Youssef Amrani, delegate-minister for foreign affairs and cooperation. Amrani’s focus on reforms, centered on inclusive human development particularly in the religious field to promote a tolerant Islam, is a noteworthy lesson for Australian politics.
Amrani aptly highlighted to Australia the nuances and complexities of Islam. When addressing the various current crises in the MENA region, Amrani emphasized the need for “a more comprehensive, coherent and pragmatic regional approach, in tune with the realities of each country in the region and in line with the aspirations and legitimate needs of the people.”
It is this enlightening message to Australia which animates the possibility of Morocco and Australian relations. Amrani closed the conference by emphasizing Morocco and Australia’s common commitment to the values of dialogue, peace, and openness.
Indeed, the future of Australia and Morocco’s bilateral relations depend upon a continual cross-cultural dialogue. This requires honest and genuine feedback with an openness for change so that Australia and Morocco can bridge not only the physical but the ideological distance between them.