Morocco: The Casa challenge
The social-media phenomenon that started in April with a hashtag, #boycott, has since embarrassed Moroccan political and business elites as the turnover and profits of three major groups linked to the Makhzen (the ruling establishment – the name comes from the Sultan’s ‘storehouse’) have plummeted. Anecdotal and some empirical evidence suggest the boycott has been more widely observed in ‘marginalised’ regions, like the north-east, but its impact on the commercial capital is tangible, showing the fragility the fragility of even the most powerful titans among the ranks of Casablanca’s business elite. The boycott targets three major players: the Afriquia gasoline chain, owned by Aziz Akhannouch, petroleum products billionaire, minister of agriculture and key palace ally; the Oulmès mineral-water brand founded by Miriem Bensalah Chaqroun, the queen of the Casablanca business elite and boss of outgoing Confédération Générale des Entreprises du Maroc; and iconic French-owned yogurt brand Danone.
“The boycott shows the extent to which people are disillusioned with the elite who are supposed to be driving the economy ahead,” comments a civil society activist who cut his teeth with the Mouvement du 20 Février protests in 2011. “Casablanca hums with commerce and finance. It may seem at peace with itself, and has more buildings rising all the time as it continues to grow. But the city, as much as anywhere else across the kingdom, is riven by deep cleavages that will not so easily heal.”
The Casablanca-Rabat-Kenitra triangle enjoys the kingdom’s highest gross domestic production per capita. Casa’s wealthiest neighbourhoods – including the well-named Californie – host grandiose real-estate plays and huge personal investments, from the bling to the exquisite, made by a business class that has profited hugely from economic liberalisation. But millions of poorer Casawis live in difficult conditions.
Now linked to the megalopolis’s wealthier centre by the French-built Casablanca tramway, Sidi Moumen remains a hardscrabble suburb where, for many, life is still a grind. A decade of construction of social and low-cost private housing has transformed the neighbourhood’s landscape. It was an area of shanty towns that housed many of the Moroccan jihadist Islamists who terrorised the first decade of this century. However, shanties still rise up as newcomers arrive – some of them hoping to be speedily rehoused.
At the neighbourhood’s vibrant Complexe Social Oum Keltoum – financed by the influential Berrada family – a committed team provides services including education and social support for small children, health care for a population under stress and adult literacy courses that are enthusiastically attended by women of all ages. “We have children here who don’t sleep until very late at night because they live in one or two rooms with 12 people. We need a much larger clinic to meet demand,” says Salma Tourougui, director of the complex’s Complexe Culturel El Ghali.
“Casablanca can be seen as the New York of North Africa,” a veteran expatriate says: “You can make a better future for your kids here, whether you’re a driver or an entrepreneur.” New York has a huge financial centre, and Casablanca wants its own.
Launched five years ago, Casablanca Finance City (CFC) is a symbol of the government’s investment drive and Morocco’s attempts to tap into global finance networks. It is the planned home for about 130 companies, including Allianz, Lloyd’s and Reuters, and ranks higher than Johannesburg in the Global Financial Centres Index. The government is offering to facilitate work visas and provides other incentives for companies that set up in the area. On the surface CFC is making progress, but deeper down, it is struggling to get going on the ground. Casablanca faces competition from Tangier, which is pushing a similar initiative to attract financial services companies, as well as the challenge of working with a relatively weak domestic stock exchange.
The glamour of Casablanca can hide other challenges, like the large percentage of public-sector workers, the influx of rural incomers, and the failure of many small businesses, whose fortunes are moving in the other direction. The recent boycott is widely seen as a protest at rising living costs and perceived Makhzen profit-taking from monopoly positions.
Benefactors like the Berrada family can play a significant role in improving people’s lives. But much more still is expected of Morocco’s first family. As your correspondent left a business lunch, an old woman asked for alms. She said her only son was out of work and could not support her. “Where is the Makhzen?”, she asked.
King Mohammed VI has seen the need for the teeming city to receive extra care, unlike his father, the late King Hassan II. According to an historian, Hassan II “paid little attention to the commercial capital after the Casablanca riots in 1965, until he decided to fool everyone and build his legacy there in the 1990s.”
Hassan commissioned French architect Michel Pinseau to design a giant mosque. It looms over the sea that buffets Casablanca’s corniche, and Hassan II controversially called on all the kingdom’s citizens to contribute a percentage of their earnings to build what was, on completion in 1993, Islam’s second-tallest mosque.
The giant mosque was one of the late monarch’s only legacies to the biggest, least ‘imperial’ of Morocco’s major cities. The other legacy was the economic and social liberalisation Hassan launched in his final decade. It was “a strategy to open up Morocco so his dynasty could survive in a new age,” the historian adds.
Charity and opportunity
Mohammed VI has worked with the Casablanca business elite to create a city more relevant to an increasingly wealthy local population and ever more international visitors. His allies include Afriquia boss Akhannouch, and his wife, Salwa, who in October 2011 opened the flagship Morocco Mall.
The monarch seems to recognise the harder facts about life in Casa. In early June, clad is his trademark coloured turban and jellaba, the King inaugurated a second centre to tackle drug abuse in greater Casablanca. Following a similar project in Sidi Moumen, the new unit, at Benslimane on the conurbation’s western edge, is funded by the Fondation Mohammed V pour la Solidarité – part of the royal machine for distributing largesse.
Casablanca needs more than charity to keep its population at work and help it acquire the skills that define cities with global aspirations. With a population estimated at close to five million and a growing reputation as a hub for continental business, greater Casablanca is emerging as a major African city – one that is capable of attracting international players, from the Africa50 Fund to McKinsey and Co. and, more important still, of unleashing the talents of a younger generation Moroccans to create a new, more vibrant and open economy in the still often all-too-dusty kingdom.
Many of those who make Casablanca’s business districts hum with activity are women. “Life is not always easy, but we are working towards a goal,” says a senior executive with a major bank. Committed to social reform, she nevertheless lives a life, similar to many others of her economic status, “in my Maarif [upmarket central district] bubble”.
Many of Mohammed VI’s mega-projects have blossomed further to the north – the Tanger-Med container port, fast-growing and tech-driven aeronautical and auto industries and an Africa-first high-speed train that will run from Tangier to Kenitra. But Morocco will be slow to advance without the concentration of private-sector capital, know-how and drive that places Casablanca at the cutting edge of African business.
A Moroccan model of a developmental state has emerged during Mohammed VI’s second decade at the helm (see TAR89, April 2017) and following the shocks of the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’, which endowed the kingdom with an Islamist-led government. While a prime minister in theory runs the government, the palace has – in many fields – retained the towering heights of strategy that must then filter down on the ground.
Casa has its place in this, as the monarch observed when opening parliament in October 2013: “Casablanca’s transformation into an international financial hub requires above all infrastructure and basic services that respond to global norms,” Mohammed VI said. It “also requires the consolidation of rules of good governance, an appropriate juridical framework and the training of highly qualified human resources.” However, the king concluded: “Unfortunately, Casablanca does not bring together all those assets.”
There have been some improvements since then. Governance of “a city that has too long tended to be run by voyous (gangsters) has improved to a degree,” says a Casablanca newspaper editor. The government is aware that it needs to do more to make life better in urban areas, and launched a pilot programme of new administrative police officers in Casablanca in January of this year. The 77 officers are working in five areas of the city, focusing on security, cleanliness and respect for building regulations and other administrative measures. The programme will soon be rolled out to the remaining areas of the city, and to other cities as part of the government’s 2015-2022 urban action plan.
Private tax collectors
Like officials in other major Moroccan cities, Casa mayor Abdelaziz El Omari – a member of the governing Islamist party, the Parti de la Justice et du Développement – is worried about raising the funds that the city needs for its future development. He told our sister magazine Jeune Afrique that the city had failed to collect an estimated D5bn ($523.6m) that it is owed: “On the financial front, the situation is very complicated for Casablanca.” In late April, city officials debated a controversial plan to create a private company called Casa Ressources, which would be responsible for collecting unpaid taxes. Houcine Nasrallah, president of the Commission de l’Urbanisme et de l’Aménagement du Territoire, warns about the opacity of the project and told Jeune Afrique in April: “They tell us nothing or almost nothing.”
Investment in infrastructure, such as the expanding tramway system, is symbolic of efforts to draw together the city’s very disparate populations, from Anfa through Maârif to Sidi Moumen and other previously marginalised neighbourhoods. But ensuring unity is far from obvious in this city of extravagant opportunities for some and hard luck for others, where – in no particular order – drug use, sexual frustration, exploitation and abuse, football violence and rising street crime all point to pressures bubbling up beneath the surface.
The Makhzen has traditionally controlled such pressures, but may not have a strong connection with the average citizen. Activist Anouar Zyne, a committed child of Casa, says that there are some reasons for optimism. He argues that “people protest and agitate in their own way, and local authorities that accept this is so will make for a more inclusive future.”
This article first appeared in our July/August 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine