Home Culture Traditional and Futuristic: A Tale of Rabat’s Two Cities

Traditional and Futuristic: A Tale of Rabat’s Two Cities

By Isabella Wang

Rabat – The city of Rabat is a testament of its rich history and sophisticated future: from the ancient Chellah to the new marina, the city’s story is on display.

History beckons in the ecru sandstone of the Roman ruins and the detailed Islamic-patterned tiled walls and ornate metalwork of the ceilings. On the Almohad gate of Bab Oudaia, the intricate carvings and the gravitas of the high arch harken to the 12th century before revealing a labyrinth of charmingly painted white and blue buildings.

Between the hustle and bustle of the old medina (city), the vibrant manifestations of its historic culture, the Amazigh (Berber) rugs, and the zellige plates, all remind of Morocco’s rich heritage. It is easy to see how Rabat was granted in 2012 a place on UNESCO’s world heritage list.

Yet this is a city which also celebrates the new and modern. On the fashion promenade of Avenue Fald Ould Oumeir lies a world of fashion and consumption, where a globalized array of brands have established their shops.

The trams running through the city gleam with a silver sheen, gliding on the tracks as the ringing of their bells resound through the open streets filled with new administrative areas and residential and commercial developments.

This is a city which sits on the precipice between modernity and heritage. With more developments planned, the balancing act between old and new will only continue.

As the government focuses on edification and progress, Rabat will undergo a strategic development to become a “green city” and cultural capital.

Development projects: an urban revolution

Urbanism and modernity is the trajectory for Rabat. In 2014, King Mohammed VI launched his plans to reinvent the city in a program dubbed “Rabat: City of Lights, Moroccan Capital of Culture.” Integrating projects to develop the Bouregreg Valley separating Rabat from its twin city Sale, the program aims to transform Rabat into a global capital, rivalling cities around the world.

At the ceremony launching the urban projects, King Mohammed VI stated, “This five-year program, which will allow the nation’s capital to measure up to the world’s major cities, revolves around seven main areas, namely the promotion of the cultural heritage of the city, the preservation of green spaces and the environment, improving access to local social services, strengthening governance, the revitalization of the urban fabric, boosting economic activity, and strengthening road infrastructure.”

The Bouregreg Valley is the main locus of the project. In the past, the valley was marginalized, underused, and neglected. Some areas were used as a dumping ground for household refuse and waste water, while others were used as “bidonvilles” (slums or shanty towns).

With development comes the opportunity to overcome the degradation and an opportunity to reinvigorate the capital’s prestige as an attractive destination.

The Bouregreg Valley Development Agency (AAVB) seeks to rehabilitate the deteriorated environment around the valley, preventing the informal discharge of sewage an industrialized waste which has contaminated the bays for decades and regulating it according to international norms. The project will embody Rabat’s intended status as a green city.

As outlined by the general management plan, the architectural plans show a harmony with the natural environment. The project boasts new public spaces in the forms of hanging gardens, cultural sites, and beaches. At the same time, the erection of a marina and two new ports harken back to the history of when Sale and Rabat provided a haven for ships when Muslims were expelled from Andalusia.

In the distance of the Kasbah Oudayas is the view of the development projects: Rabat-Sale tramways, the building complexes, the Tunnel Oudayas.

Since its inception in 2004, the AAVB has constructed a new marina, two tramways, and Hassan II Bridge. Currently in the works are also commercialization projects, like Bab El Bahr center and the extension of the tramways.

Just as AAVB aims to reinvigorate the seas and the shores, other projects seek to embrace the coastal identity of Rabat and Sale. Spanning 11 kilometers, the Saphira Waterfront aims to capitalize on the picturesque Atlantic coastline surrounding Rabat. The project will transform the coast into a bustling marina and a waterfront development with residential, leisure, and business facilities.

Rabat’s goals to become a cultural city on the global scale have indeed led to an urbanized revolution.

The Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art already is a manifestation of Rabat’s new urbanism and the government’s will to forge cultural institutions in line with international standards.

The new plans for the Grand Theater, designed by Zaha Hadid

Under the Wessal Bouregreg Megaproject, the umbrella project behind developing Rabat, the upcoming plans for the Grand Theater of Rabat and the National Museum of Archaeology and Natural Science will extend the project of culturally-prestigious urbanism.

Designed by the late Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-British architect, the Grand Theater’s futuristic layout, glossy white, and sleek lines aim to “transform the cultural and social landscape of Rabat,” as outlined in their plans.

Building segregation?

Yet, with a focus on the big, bold, and new, the development policies equate Moroccan culture with the construction of large-scale cultural institutions. The new policies compete for international recognition, aiming to attract outsiders, tourists and investors.

As a result, there is little room for local authorities in the design sector to propose cultural initiatives and to improve the local institutions which sustain Morocco’s cultural history and interweave a rich array of Arabic, Amazigh, European, and African influences.

Under the AAVB, a developmental company, Al Maabar, aims to incorporate a new region dedicated to artisan arts and crafts in Bab Al Bahr, a region on the Sale coast. Yet the gentrification of the area into a more upscale, more expensive market could bring competition to the artistry markets in the traditional medinas.

Although encased by the mastery of the high brick walls and Marinid ramparts, the historical medina of Sale has deteriorated; the infrastructure has become worn and access to collective services is difficult.

Competition with a new upscale industry only threatens the commercial existence of the medina and in turn the economic sustenance of its citizens.

With a transformation of Rabat into a thriving global metropolis may also come the neglect of local industries’ needs and development. Expansive projects could cause a worrying divide in the city: between the urbanized and the traditional, new foreign attractions and local industries.  

The cultural divide is not only present in Rabat’s industry. The divide extends to the very residents of Rabat.  

Indeed, it is a divide which has existed in Rabat for quite some time and derives from Morocco’s history itself. After opposition in Fez, Rabat became the capital of the French protectorate in 1912. The move was a crucial factor in reorganizing and galvanizing the urban hierarchy.

During the rule, Comissaire-Resident General Hubert Lyautey envisioned that the economic and physical development of Rabat should transcend the existing medina. His subsequent decision to build new French quarters, at the time called the European towns outside of the old city catalyzed a polarized urban landscape between “traditional and modern” which still exists.

Now known as Agdal, the European towns have undergone further changes by government and private entities, transforming into high-rise apartments and building complexes, while other districts did not experience the same developments. In the worst cases, buildings have become degraded and slum communities have appeared, such as the Douar Al Haja slum, just 1.5 kilometers east of Agdal.  

2014 Census Data for Rabat

The disparity in development forged the divide between Moroccan citizens and foreigners. The 2014 census revealed that the outer, more developed neighborhoods Agdal-Ryad and Souissi had a predominantly higher foreign population: Agdal Ryad had a 5.9 percent foreign population and Souissi had 5.2 percent. Meanwhile, the foreign population of all other neighborhoods were approximately 2 percent or lower.

The segregation of residents is only set to grow. The new developmental mega-projects are promoting an urbanism which meets the demands of a globalized middle and upper middle class, and among them the expat class.

With their selective campaigning of opulence and high prices, the projects do not have the same pertinence to the average Moroccan citizen, who is more concerned with issues of affordable living.

According to anthropologist Jamila Bargach, the infrastructural project “will mark the Bouregreg Valley as a space belonging to the wealthy.”

Many academics, like Sami Zemni and Koenraad Bogaert from the Belgian public research institute Ghent University, posit that urban development strategies, such as the Bouregreg project create spatial segregation. They juxtapose privileged zones of inclusion and grandeur for international investors and tourists and the outside spaces where urban poverty and exclusion remain for the average Moroccan.

Hassan, a Rabati local, spoke to Morocco World News about living in Rabat. He stated, “You have 2 Rabats: the old Rabat, it is medina, and the new Rabat is outside the medina. It’s like Paris. If you were to go outside the medina, you wouldn’t know you were in Morocco – the shops with the clothing, the restaurants, the cafes, the bars. Stay in the medina if you want to feel you are in Morocco.”

He continued to comment on the disparities between costs of living. “I stay in the medina because in the medina, you don’t need taxi, don’t need tramway or the car. All is near you. If you go out the medina, always we need taxi, tramway car, and then you need to spend money. If you stay within the medina, you don’t need to spend much money. All the life is cheap. Fifty dirham or 30 dirham you can spend in a day. Out the medina, no, 300, 500 in one day.”

Hassan called into question the presence of the tramways. While the new Rabat-Sale connection is an important facet for the development of Rabat and its connectivity, the tramway is a development that does not contribute to many locals’ needs, particularly since trams are not the most affordable means of transportation.

Hassan’s concerns over the future of Rabat continued, including the traditions of the people, culture, and industry.

“In 2 years, the medina will change. In 2020, it will be changed. There are lots of working [construction] men in Rabat. They will change in the medina and outside the medina. People have changed. Their minds have changed. For example, people have changed their clothes, they don’t want to wear the old but now nicer.” He said it while pointing to his own shirt.

His last statement to MWN was: “Old people are dead now. Other people have come and it will change.”

Sala al Moustaqbal (“Future of Sale”), an NGO, has emphasized the spatial and socioeconomic segregation of the Bab al Bahr Development as a pressing point of concern. They gathered for a roundtable to discuss the significant issues: the planned three-story buildings will create a barrier between the historical medina of Sale and the riverside.

The proposed Bal Al Bahr development: segregation from the Sale medina

What will arise is a physical wall, created by the development, separating the medina of Sale from the quays of Rabat and the Oudaya. Under the plans, Sale’s medina will be enclosed by luxury with the Bab Al Bahr on one side and the bridge and tramway on the other.

Architect Nabil Rahmouni, an initiator behind Sala Al Moustaqbal, stated the project “turned its back on historic patrimony of Salé.”

As Beatrice Allain El-Mansouri, who holds a geography doctorate, writes in her novel “The Water and the City of Morocco: Rabat-Sale and Its Periphery,” the medina of Sale is a poorer area, known for its bidonvilles, informal neighborhoods, and social housing. With what El-Mansouri described as the lack of collective services in the medina, the economic stratification between medina and Bab Al Bahr is clear.

By proposing a vision of cosmopolitanism and luxury in the new urban space of Bab Al Bahr, the price of the residences also escalate to match the image of grandeur. As the development’s website currently advertises “The City of Arts offers 390 apartments from 95 to 300m2, whose selling price start at 14,500 MAD” per month.

The cheapest apartment in the complex will cost MAD 1.26 million, which exceeds the typical cost of apartment under social housing of MAD 200,000 to 290,000. The economic disparity between social housing apartments and complexes, the old and the new, will further impose a design of spatial and social segregation.

Indeed, in 2016-2017, inequality increased in the administrative region of Rabat-Salé-Kenitra. Using the measure of the Gini coefficient, inequality has risen from 39.9 to 44.2 between 2001 and 2014 in the region, although it decreased slightly in the country overall.ag

The question of slums

To counter the growing inequalities, the government has established modernization strategies for the housing sector. “Cities without Slums” is a nationwide program which aims to eradicate slums and improve housing conditions for Moroccan citizens. The program has reportedly benefitted 257,993 families in the whole of Morocco.

However, many are concerned that the program is a façade to justify evictions, which enable the development of public-private partnerships in the construction of new developments, such as the AAVB’s buying of land to build the tramways.

Evictions detriment the traditional tribes of Morocco and only exacerbate social inequalities.

Between Sale and Kenitra, a city 30 kilometers to Sale’s north, lives the Ouled Sbita tribe. The elders of the tribe claim that their tribe has lived there since the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th century.

In 2007, state officials approached the tribe to purchase parts of their land for development projects.  The Ministry of Interior sold the land to the Addoha Group with compensation at MAD 55 per square meter.

However, the scope of the project extended beyond the sold land, and compensation was not given accordingly. What has emerged is a marginalization and destruction of Morocco’s culture and wrongful expropriation of the tribe’s land.

The Ouled Sbita tribe are not the only ones who have been wronged.  The AAVB only enables more expropriations to occur. Prior to the Bouregreg project, only 44 percent of the designated land was public, and 56 percent was privately owned. Due to its special legal powers, the AAVB were able to declare the private lands necessary for the public interest and integrate them into the urban planning zone of the Bouregreg Valley Project.

The AAVB exists as a special case of de-concentration, negotiating between state and non-state actors. Law No. 16-05 establishes that the AAVB can “take all necessary measures for the realization and honoring of the development plan.”

The government thus prescribes the agency exclusive authority over the project within its legally determined territorial boundaries. The law gives the AAVB the unprecedented power to expropriate land and evict families.

Fostering investment and the economy

There is a seemingly compelling economic rationale behind the development projects. King Mohammed VI has commanded large-scale urban and regional developmental programs to promote economic growth. Economic growth is critical for Rabat and Morocco in order to generate taxes for welfare and social development.

The World Bank had predicted that an annual economic growth rate of 5-6 percent is necessary in order to reduce unemployment and poverty in Morocco. The developmental projects in Rabat aim to accelerate the rhythm of investments in Morocco in order to achieve that growth rate.

In its relations with the Gulf region, Morocco has presented itself as an attractive and reliable locus of investment. In total, Morocco attracts 80 percent of all Middle Eastern investments in the Maghreb region. The development projects are a testament to Morocco’s heightening ability to attract foreign investments and adapt to a competitive global investment market.

The urban spectacle that will be the Bouregreg Valley is funded by Abu Dhabi investor Al Maabar, alongside Wessal Capital, a joint venture between the Moroccan Fund for the Development of Tourism and four Gulf Cooperation Council countries: United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. The development projects are an opportunity to increase relations and investment flow from the Arab Gulf.

However, the economic model of investment is dependent on the development projects as leverages of economic growth. Integral to the model are the assumptions of the trickle-down effect and that the grand projects will provide and attract tourists to bring money into circulation.

Riccardo Fabiani, a senior analyst with the Eurasia Group, told Quartz, “There’s no distribution of the benefits of foreign investment to the rest of the economy. It’s like talking about two separate economies.”

In Morocco, unemployment is still increasing, rising 4.2 percent from 2016 to 2017. Many, like Ghent University researchers Bogaert and Zemni, view the development projects as only contributing to unemployment, disrupting the traditional occupations of Moroccan society.

The fishing industry is one undergoing disruption. In 2006, the AAVB relocated fishermen to a new platform in order to dig out and dredge the rivers for the construction of a new port.  

At the time, the fishermen endured engine breakdowns due to the insufficient depth of water. Disrupting the work flow, fishmongers were also banned access to the docks for supplies during the construction of the docks.

After the new fishing port was constructed in Sale in 2008, disruptions continued. Fishmongers from Rabat had to bear the cost of additional travel to Sale.

According to Hicham Mouloudi, chief architect at the Department of Housing, Urban Planning, and City Policy, “Fishermen also believed that the number of boxes contained in the platform was inadequate and the new fishing harbor was too narrow to accommodate the 108 fishing boats allowed.”

Festivals: a celebration of Rabat and its people

While the mega-projects of Rabat draw in investment and international prestige, the government has also strived to create smaller cultural events which are capturing Moroccan citizens in the new urbanism.

Taking over Rabat annually, Mawazine is a music festival which features a number of international and local artists. It promotes the internationalized and trendy urbanism which defines the modernization strategies of the government.

With free admission, the festival, argues Abbas Azzouzi, executive vice-president of Maroc-Cultures which hosts the event, is critical to the community and civil society of Rabat.

The festival is a tangible manifestation of what Rabat could become as a globalized city: the festival creates job opportunities, incorporates Moroccan businesses, and offers citizens themselves the opportunity to engage with music and culture otherwise inaccessible.

Azzouzi further spoke to the Guardian about the benefits of the festival: “Since its creation in 2001, Mawazine levied itself as a first class economic actor of the city of Rabat. It guarantees long-lasting activity to hundreds of technicians and businesses. Every year, Mawazine continues to increase the revenue of taxis and nearby business, as well as ensuring a full hotel and restaurant occupancy rate. In all, this allows tourism professionals to increase their turnover by 30%.”

However, many critics, like Elhadj Ezzahid, professor of economics and finance at Mohammed V University, still see the festival as an extension of the government’s overt focus on prestige urbanism, which ultimately sidelines the interests of the citizens.  

Ezzahid posits that the festival has “no lasting  or major effects on the wellbeing of the people in the city,” and believes the government could be focusing funds more on the citizens’ needs, such as social projects.

Street art further enables Rabati citizens to embrace the new modern identity of their city, yet, through their own cultural means: the urban alternative culture of street art.  

Supported by the government, the annual Jidar Street Art Festival celebrates the public space of Rabat. Featuring a plethora of artists from around the world, the festival democratizes art, enabling citizens to see and feel the city around them in new ways.

Hicham Bahou, co-director of the festival, states “One reason why we develop this project is to transform the street into a cultural venue. Morocco is moving and it’s very dynamic but when you look to education and culture, it’s not the same rhythm of development. Culture is going backwards.”

On the walls around them, the street art is an intriguing blend of styles, modern and traditional, and a mix of cultures, local and international. With geometry and calligraphy, evocative of traditional Islamic art, as well as surreal and new postmodern art forms, the street embraces the past and present of Rabat.

The street murals enable citizens to both appreciate the local heritage, which is dear to them, as well as envision the future of their increasingly globalized city.

Rabat is forging ahead with grandiose development projects which instill the city with a new vivacity, urbanism, and economic stimulus. Yet there is great beauty and dynamism which lies still in Rabat’s rich heritage and local life. To develop Rabat is to embrace modernity while in constant dialogue with the past and accounting for the myriad of citizens.


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