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The joined-up kingdom

By Jon Marks in Settat
Posted on Monday, 10 April 2017 10:19

A country’s economic and social development ­cannot be measured in kefta (meatballs). But, ­sitting in a capacious roadside diner outside Settat, where large ­tajine dishes are served to ­Moroc­can families, eaten with ­Berber tafernout bread and washed down with globally branded fizzy drinks and mint tea, it is tempting to reflect on Morocco’s society and economy, and to imagine ­Africa’s future.

On this particular Sunday, a variety of Moroccans take to the road between Marrakech and Casablanca – the kingdom’s glitzy and fast-growing capitals of leisure and commerce, respectively – to eat well at reasonable prices. Members of several generations chatter away.

A young female manager marshals her well-trained, mainly male staff as they deliver a distinctly Moroccan offering to an appreciative public at a locally owned service-station chain. The Oasis Café is filled with the emerging ­working and middle classes so beloved of sociol­ogists; Africa is rising, and eating well, viewed from an Afriquia service station just outside Settat.

But Morocco remains an outlier. Many other African countries are struggling to meet the levels of growth recorded earlier in the decade. As their commodity dependence has been laid bare, Morocco has continued to build a liberal economy underpinned by strong state structures.

Headline growth is steady rather than spectacular, despite the benefits of lower oil prices and impressive growth in several cutting-edge sectors. Figures are a matter of debate, but the International Monetary Fund (IMF) put gross domestic product (GDP) growth at 2.4% in 2014 and 4.5% in 2015, estimating it at 2.4% in 2016 and predicting it to rise to 4.1% this year.

So what is the secret sauce? Where Morocco has played to its strengths, it has outperformed its neighbours – often with ‘­champion’ corporations directed by the state. The country has success stories, from its leadership in developing renewable energy to the expansion of its banks and major industrial companies into ever more markets.

Top-driven development

In July 2013, The Africa Report observed that in Morocco: “The government is squaring the circle of state planning with market dynamics […] [in a] fresh version of the developmental state [that] tries to deliver jobs and low-cost housing without removing incentives for the private sector.”

Since then, Morocco’s social-housing boom has come under heavy financial pressure. Entrepreneurs like construction billionaire Anas Sefrioui have kept going through tougher times, and construction continues in the kingdom’s major urban centres. Critically – and just like in Asian countries that have used this state-led model – government support has not wavered.

When it works well, the kingdom benefits from a high degree of joined-up government. Substantial investment in technology and infrastructure in the past decade has endowed Morocco with some major assets, including the Ouarzazate solar farm – Africa’s largest – the Tanger Med container port and an innovative aerospace industry.

From mid-2018, a high-speed train will link long-neglected Tangier in the north to Kenitra and the vibrant commercial hub that is Casablanca. State rail company ONCF head Mohamed Rabie Khlie says the railway will more than halve the time it takes to travel between Tangier and Casa to only two hours and 10 minutes.

For better or for worse, all this is driven from the top. Key officials who have managed the multibillion-dollar ­Moroccan Solar Plan (MSP) – which has succeeded in raising finance from international banks, bilateral and multilateral agencies, and local markets and equity players – are ­royal ­appointees.

Financial expert and politician Mustapha Bakkoury heads the ­Moroccan Agency for Sustain­able ­Energy, which has been given ever more responsibilities – some taken over from indebted state power and water company ONEE – after delivering on the Ouarzazate solar plant.

A question of perspective

The benefit of royal appointees is that they can take a longer-term view. Amid criticism that Morocco could deliver electricity much more cheaply from other energy sources – ONEE has also attracted investment to build coal-fired plants – Bakkoury emphasised the strategic advantages of renewables in an economy heavily dependent on hydrocarbon imports.

He told one interviewer that, with the 2GW to be generated from the MSP’s solar units: “I know the price of my electricity over the next 25 to 40 years […]. Can you tell me the price of coal in 30 years?” Such perspective is ­possible in a monarchy, whose senior leaders are planning to be in power several decades hence. Elected politicians may feel less comfortable with such calculations as they struggle to implement policy in five-year electoral cycles.

It can also ease day-to-day politics. The ‘moderate Islamist’ prime minister ­Abdelilah Benkirane failed to form a coalition government after his Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD) came out on top in October 2016 elections. The King eventually replaced him with the PJD’s Saad Eddine El Othmani, and a six-party coalition is finally underway.

Looking abroad

High-level cadres at Morocco’s leading banks and corporations, which have spread out across Africa in an energetic trade and investment drive led by Mohammed VI, have been ­frequent visitors to African capitals over the past year. And the penetration of ­African markets is accelerating. More than half of ­all Moroc­can foreign direct invest­ment (FDI) is now going towards the continent.

Considerable focus abroad has concentrated on the Africa drive’s ­political motivations, not least consolidating ­Morocco’s hold over the ­disputed ­Western Sahara. In January, the King oversaw Morocco’s admission to the African Union; Morocco left the ­Organisation of African Unity when the Polisario Front-run Sahrawi Arab Democratic ­Republic gained full ­membership in 1982.

Its sovereignty over the disputed ­former Spanish colony is seen by some ­forces within the kingdom as elemental to Moroccan national interests. What is also now seen as central is ­Morocco playing a strong role in Africa’s economies – representing an essential shift after its ­20th-­century focus on Western connections.

Deputy foreign affairs ­minister Youssef ­Amrani, now working in the ­royal cabinet, sums up the kingdom’s vision: “Fully cons­cious of Africa’s ­potential, Morocco has positioned itself […] as an economic and financial hub resolutely focused on ­Europe and Africa, based on its successful [and ­coherent] model built over the years.” This is reflected in more than 5,000 cooperation agreements with African partners.

This policy has been enthusiastically pursued by ‘Morocco Inc’ – the handful of dominant companies considered of strategic importance. Attijariwafa Bank, BMCE Bank of Africa group and other Casablanca-based institutions first filled gaps left by French and other retreating banks after the 2008/2009 global financial crisis.

More than 50% of Moroccan FDI into Africa comes from banks, followed by telecommunications firms, with around one-third of the total. This is set to change as more companies expand abroad. In Francophone markets like Côte d’Ivoire and ­Senegal, ‘Morocco Inc’ is a major player. But the business sector’s ambitions are now continent-wide, emphasised by ­Attijariwafa’s recent move into ­Kenya and its purchase of Barclays’ ­Egyptian operation.

Industrial giant Office ­Cherifien des Phosphates is a major cash cow that has been harnessed to widen ­Morocco’s Africa focus. It is taking a lead in Morocco’s engagement in markets like Ethiopia’s, where Morocco was, until recently, an unknown quantity.

Positive developments south of the Sahara have made this possible. ­Attijariwafa chief executive Mohamed El Kettani told his bank’s annual Inter-­national Africa Development Forum that the business upturn was possible because “increasingly African states have equipped themselves with structured sectorial visions and targeted investment projects […] giving more confidence to operators.”

This mirrors Morocco’s experience following years of economic reform, as decades of IMF laissez-faire doctrine in Africa cedes way to more moderated views of industrial policy.

Back home, another Morocco ­exists, peopled by poor farmers and an ­increasingly urbanised underclass whose development indicators fall well short of international norms. The education system has created some impressive talents for the banks and corporations driving the ‘modern’ economy, but public education is seen by many to have failed the majority. In turn, this is undermining economic progress and building up a well of social discontent.

Education stalled

As Nadia Salah observed on 28 ­February in the business daily she ­created, ­L’Economiste, whereas in 1960 ­Morocco’s GDP per head was slightly higher than South Korea’s, “60 years later, every Korean is 10-times richer than every Moroccan.” And “driving this is education,” she points out. ­

Moroccan state schools have been a political football, first for the left and then for Islamist parties. A recent study found that teachers were on average absent for a third of their working hours. It is no wonder that parents have opted for private education, if they can afford it. In disadvantaged areas, illiteracy levels remain shockingly high – pointing to severe urban-rural and gender divides.

A strong and focused state can play a critical role in driving policy, supported by a profitable and job-creating private sector. But state domination can also stunt public life and individual initiative. Activist Anouar Zyne recently left a traditional political party, the Union Constitutionnelle, to found a citizen movement, #Changer.

The movement is dedicated to encouraging grassroots activity – calling on communities, led if necessary by a handful of individuals, to engage with and lobby local and national authorities. Moroccans “are children of the state” in a system where daily disputes were settled traditionally by a moqadem (a public functionary) rather than by the legal system, Zyne argues.

A shift in culture could drive another stage in Morocco’s social development, which might also unleash the kingdom’s undoubted entrepreneurial flair further down the social chain. Neither tajines nor kefta nor shiny projects mean a strong market has emerged. Internal political conflicts are a cause for concern and persistent social disparities plague many Moroccans. But the kingdom is on the move, with consequences that will be felt far beyond its borders.

From the April 2017 print edition

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