By Isabella Wang
By Isabella Wang
Rabat – Just over a year has passed since the first Australian embassy was established in Rabat. MWN interviewed Australian Ambassador Berenice Owen-Jones, revealing the progress in relations and the pioneering woman behind it.
When Berenice Owen-Jones came to Morocco as the first Australian ambassador, she was faced with a void. While the diplomatic relationship between Morocco and Australia had been established in 1976, there was in fact very little in Morocco to show this tangibly.
There was no prior diplomatic post, and the relationship lacked infrastructure: no embassy, no chancellery, not even a database or contact list to provide a launching point.
Reflecting on the beginning of her ambassadorship, Owen-Jones reminisces with incredulity, “When I landed here in July here last year, there was nothing.”
Before her ambassadorship, Owen-Jones had envisaged Morocco as a country of wonderment and beauty. Like the conventional perceptions of the country, her ideas of Morocco were based on the symbiosis of fantasies and travels.
She outlined, “I first came to Morocco a couple years ago and went to Marrakech.
Morocco had this aura. I fantasized about Morocco; a lot of people do really. So I was delighted to be able to go on this trip.”
But with Owen-Jones’ ambassadorship came dramatic shifts in her sentiments towards the country. Wonder transformed into determination and action, as Owen-Jones sought to uncover the many intricacies of Moroccan culture, society, and politics and pioneer the previously anemic Morocco-Australia relations.
Owen-Jones’ goal was unequivocally simple: to overcome the “tyranny of distance” which will always be an inescapable fact in the relationship between Morocco and Australia. Her efforts in the first year of her ambassadorship have underscored that surmounting the distance is certainly possible.
The ambassador notes, “I felt a bit like an explorer planting the flag in a new country, and that was quite exciting, and it was really up to me to work out the scope of the relationship, to make those networks.”
Setting upon her diplomatic mission, Ambassador Owen-Jones has uncovered a new terrain of diverse relationships and projects in Morocco as she establishes bilateral relations through a multitude of fronts: from the chiefly political and parliamentary fronts to the educational and economic.
Owen-Jones, alongside her counterpart, Moroccan Ambassador to Australia Karim Medrek, have organized a parliamentary dialogue between Morocco and Australia. Together they have forged a Morocco-Australia parliamentary friendship group to ensure that each country’s legislative institutions exchange and share views on bilateral relations, both on the regional and international level.
Indeed, this month marks the visit of El Habib El Malki, speaker of the House of Representatives, to Australia, a further step in advancing and promoting parliamentary cooperation.
Over the past year, Owen-Jones has also fortified Australia’s dialogue with Morocco on counter-terrorism.
She notes the many efforts which define Australia and Morocco’s agreement on the issue, “We are already working with Morocco on counter terrorism in the Global Coalition against Daesh [ISIS] and Global Forum against Terrorism. Basically, we share the same goals in those forums. We share the same view the transnational nature of terrorist threat requires comprehensive, cooperative, and united approach at all levels.”
Looking to Morocco as a paragon of counter-terrorism, sharing expertise is particularly significant for the ambassador. With the July 2017 terrorist plot targeting an Etihad flight departing from Sydney coming just before her ambassadorship, Owen-Jones stresses that counter-terrorism is an integral facet to bilateral relations.
She lauds the ability of Morocco to combat terrorism and prevent radicalization through a multi-pronged approach, admiring that Morocco’s counter-terrorism policy integrates “a security dimension while helping to promote economic growth and social and human development; preservation of religious and cultural identity, whilst strengthening rule of law.”
Yet, the ambassador is nevertheless anticipating the progress to come. She outlines imminent plans to bolster strategies on counter-terrorism, “Our ambassador for counter terrorism [Paul Foley] is coming to Morocco in a couple of weeks to attend a countering violent extremism conference in Marrakech in prisons actually, and we will organise a bilateral cause.”
Owen-Jones’ past year as ambassador has seen her lead the frontier of relations in the business and economic sector. She notes, “I’m very pleased that the relationships on the business and commercial fronts are well on track.”
She stresses the positive efforts of the Australia-Morocco Business Council in Marrakech, a platform for Moroccan and Australian businesses to discuss investment opportunities and market dynamics.
Since 2008, Australia has had economic representation in Morocco; the Australian Commission for Trade and Investment (Austrade) had appointed Osama Alaoui as the representative in Morocco.
The ambassador had sought to extend such ties. In 2017, Australian investment in Morocco was booming with AUD 150 million financing the mining sector and $110 million in agriculture.
In February, she co-chaired in Morocco Austrade’s 6th “Australia unlimited” event. The event sought to showcase, particularly to the many Moroccan attendees from the political, economic and business world, what Australia can offer in trade and investment.
But the ambassador envisions more for bilateral relations. With a strong steely look her in eyes, she affirms, “I’d like Australia to see Morocco as a partner choice in the region and vice versa.”
Australian-Moroccan relations: Looking to Africa
These are not the only plans for the ambassador: She now ambitiously focuses upon opening Australia to the rest of Africa. Afro-relations is a terrain rarely traversed in Australian politics. But Owen-Jones hopes that the relationship between Morocco and Australia can bring further diplomacy and greater interactions in the region.
She praises Morocco’s exemplary efforts with Africa, “Morocco is very influential in Africa. There is a depth of knowledge not just of Francophone Africa but all of Africa. And this is under the leadership of the King.”
In pioneering relations with Morocco, she hopes that she will be able to dispel Australians’ misconceptions and ignorance about Africa. Her newly minted diplomatic post is the first of a greater outreach by the Australia government.
As outlined in the Foreign Policy White Paper, Australia now looks towards Africa for greater relations. Ambassador Owen-Jones will be at the vanguard of this mission, as she insists on the need for greater awareness about Africa in Australia. To truly understand Africa is to both recognize the prosperous continent as a whole while also acknowledging the unique identities of the 54 states.
Only last month on August 29-31, Australia held its 16th Africa Down Under Conference, which sought to foster awareness of Australian interests in African mining, energy, and agribusiness. The conference was the central pillar to Australia’s “Africa Week,” which comprised satellite events, such as the Australia-Africa University Network Forum and the Australian Africa Infrastructure Conference, all with the aims of creating a dialogue between Australia and Africa.
The ambassador speaks proudly of the growing investments, as she lists the many manifestations of the thriving relationship. “There are currently 170 ASX listed companies, operating in 35 countries in Africa; 2-way goods and merchandise trades have reached 7.6 billion AUD in 2017.”
Uncertainties which lie ahead
With the significant progression of Australia-Moroccan relations, certain issues nevertheless remain uncharted territories. Western Sahara is undoubtedly one of them.
When asked about Australia’s stance on Western Sahara, Owen-Jones is neutral and diplomatic, reiterating precisely the statement of Australia, made in the United Nations: “Australia recognizes the Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory in accordance with UN classifications and we encourage all parties to dialogue on the issue.”
She further outlines Australia’s neutrality, “We continue to urge all parties to support and continue all efforts to reach a lasting and peaceful political settlement for the Western Sahara. How we do that? We support UN efforts to find a settlement for the Western Sahara and we encourage progress towards referendum, commend the continual efforts of MINURSO and the UN Special Envoy Horst Kohler to resolving the conflict.”
Yet the ambassador’s demeanour changes when questioned about Australia’s trade ties with Morocco and Western Sahara. When questioned about the controversial phosphates trade, imported from Morocco, yet sourced from Western Sahara, she disagrees adamantly.
She insists that Australian companies, like Wesfarmers, have ceased imports, and that less than 2% of the phosphates come from the Western Sahara territory.
In 2015, Australian company Incitec Pivot imported 63,000 tons of phosphate worth $7.48 million from the region, making it the world’s sixth largest importer of phosphates from Western Sahara.
Only earlier this year in March did Lee Rhiannon, a senator from the Australian Greens party further question the company’s imports of Western Saharan phosphates: “The most significant resource exported by Morocco from Western Sahara is high-quality phosphate rock for agricultural fertiliser. Australia’s Incitec Pivot Ltd—IPL—purchases this fertiliser. Two other Australian fertiliser manufacturers have actually withdrawn from the trade since 2010. IPL has ordinarily received three shipments annually with a total value of A$14 million.”
Rhiannon’s statements came with a reprimand for Morocco and its claim on Western Sahara.
The inconsistencies in Australia’s discourse on the Western Sahara dispute reveal a need for greater exploration of the issue. With the Western Sahara issue, prominent on the Moroccan agenda, a comprehensive and consensual position would enable a more accurate assessment of Morocco and Australia’s trade relationship and forge a more genuine and realistic dialogue.
Questions also loom for Australia-Morocco relations after the tumultuous shifts in Australian politics at the end of August. With a relaxed and nonchalant tone, the ambassador assures continuity: “It’s business as usual.”
But Australia has been more sceptical.
Susan Rimmer, Australian Research Council Future Fellow of Griffith University has addressed her concerns over the momentum of Australia’s foreign policy under the new leadership of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. She critiques, “Morrison’s foreign policy credentials are slim and his interest in foreign policy is low, not rating even a mention in his first speech to the nation as PM.”
Critical for Morocco’s Islamic identity, Scott Morrison’s views on Islam are dubious; a 2011 shadow cabinet leak revealed that he had urged his party to capitalize on the electorate’s anxieties concerning immigration and Muslims in Australia.
Development funds: Humanity in diplomacy
Yet, the trajectory for Australia-Morocco relations is nevertheless optimistic. Ultimately what upholds the very integrity of Australia-Morocco relations is humanity.
For Owen-Jones, the relationship between Morocco and Australia must transcend just economic figures and a public façade of official visits and diplomatic hand-shaking. Her ambassadorship seeks to truly interact and change the individual lives of Moroccans, particularly those in rural areas, who may be marginalized from access to resources.
The ambassador’s eyes brighten slightly, and a wave of joy tinged with concern sweeps her face as she outlines the development funds under way. Project SOAR is a program aiming to empower girls through academic support, education and empowerment coaching. While Morocco has established the legal equality of women in the family code, and the status of women is undoubtedly improving, there are still problems of illiteracy and gender equity, particularly the high dropout rate of girls from school in rural areas.
With specific support provided by the Australian Direct Aid Program, Ambassador Berenice Owen-Jones has championed the cause, visiting one of the program’s efforts in Essaouira, the “Girl Leaders Club.” Reflecting on her time, Owen-Jones says, “There is still a lot of work to be done. The fact that the embassy has been able to help in that way, but in a very tangible way is fantastic.”
The tangible impact of her ambassadorship is integral to Owen-Jones’ aims. She repeats in awe, “You can see it, the light bulb moment within them,” as she refers to the tremendous rewards of empowering the more marginalized populations of Morocco.
Such experiences extend further to the humanitarian work of Australian NGO “Red Goes Faster.” In the remote villages of the Merzouga region in eastern Morocco, the organization provides wheelchairs to disabled children, while also establishing the infrastructure to fit such wheelchairs according to the standards of the World Health Organization.
Wheelchairs unlock a whole new realm of movement and possibility for the children.
“It’s an extraordinary thing to do because we’re making a real difference to the lives of these children” she says, later showcasing the myriad of photographs depicting her time with the children.
Looking back on the formidable year that has passed, I ask Owen-Jones about her proudest achievements. After outlining the many projects, visits, and obstacles of her ambassadorship, she pauses before noting, “Being a bit of a trailblazer. It’s a new embassy and I’ve set it up.”
Her eyes gleam, unapologetically proud. Trailblazer. It is certainly an apt title.