Published on 27 Dec 2022

Bridging the North-South divide

Amit Jain attends the Atlantic Dialogues and discovers how Morocco is using its unique position as a link between the rich North and the poor South

Photo credit: Amit Jain

The Atlantic Dialogues is an annual conference hosted by The Policy Center for the New South under the patronage of his Majesty the King Mohammed VI and this was the first time I was attending it. Since its inception in 2012, the conference has become one of the most august gatherings of academics, policymakers, and opinion-shapers in Africa and it was an exceptional privilege to be to be invited for it. This year’s theme - Cooperation in a Mutating World: Opportunities of the Wider Atlantic examined the price inflationary and food insecurity inducing consequences of the Western conflict with Russia over Ukraine, climate change, and de-globalisation on Africa and the wider Global South. In doing so it also presented Morocco as a facilitator of dialogue between the rich North and the poor South.  

Morocco occupies a unique position in African history. The successor of an Islamic empire that once stretched from the fly-blown desert of the Sahara to the Iberian Peninsula of Southern Europe the Kingdom is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of indigenous Berber, Arab, African, and European heritage.  This is visible not only in the architecture of its cities and the multi-ethnic make up of its population but also the exquisite splendour of artifacts that blew me off my feet. Under the watchful eye of the Alaouite monarchy it remains a bulwark of stability in a neighbourhood ravaged by military coups, jihadist insurrection, and civil war.  The Kingdom has transformed itself into a hub of renewable energy, manufacturing, and fertilisers. GDP per capita has increased by 70% in real terms over the last two decades. A series of new tax breaks have drawn a splurge of foreign investors, including 110 aerospace firms and 150 automotive firms. Morocco is the most digitally connected country in Africa, with 84% internet penetration rate. It has established itself as a commercial and financial hub between Africa and Europe by investing heavily in transport infrastructure. The World Economic Forum has placed Morocco at the top in its ranking on the quality of infrastructure in Africa. Tangier Med is one of the most efficient port complexes in Africa. Indeed, it now rivals Durban on turn-around time and automation. Half a million cars are manufactured and exported out of Tangier Med annually and it has firmly put Morocco on the global supply chain map. At its closest point it is barely 13 kilometres from Europe. A smooth road network cuts through the gorgeous Atlas Mountains and a first-rate high-speed railway connects the port-city of Tangier with the commercial capital Casablanca. Glorious medieval cities of Marrakesh and Fez, used to draw over 12 million international tourists to Morocco each year before the pandemic. I found myself happily lost in the labyrinthine lanes of the Medina in the heart of Marrakesh.

Bab Agnaou, a Marrakesh city gate built under the Almohad dynasty in the 12th century (Photo credit: Amit Jain)

The Moroccan economy has almost fully recovered from the double blow dealt to it by the pandemic and drought. Growth is expected to be 3.5% this year (2022). Its recovery has been supported by a bumper cereal agriculture harvest as well as a bounce-back in global demand for fertilisers. Agriculture contributes 15% the country’s GDP but manufacturing accounts for 25.7% of GDP, making Morocco a serious competitor to South Africa. It enjoys preferential access to Europe as well as the United States. The mining industry is dominated by the production of phosphates. Morocco holds around 75% of the world’s phosphate reserves. Although the Kingdom holds almost no proven oil and gas reserves, it is spearheading the construction of an ambitious 6000km long US$25bn offshore gas pipeline that will run from Nigeria to Spain. Morocco is also believed to have large untapped shale-gas resources. Almost 40% of its power comes from renewable energy. It is home to the largest solar power plant in the world. Constructed on 3000-hectares of desert land the spectacular Noor-Ouarzazate solar power complex produces 580MW of electricity – enough to power a mid-sized European city. Poverty has dropped dramatically over the past decade although many still feel left behind. As many as two-thirds of Moroccans entering the labour market fail to find work and many try and migrate to France. Youth unemployment rate in the north is 40% - twice the national average.

Although very few Moroccans come across Singaporeans, the Singapore brand carries an impressive currency. My hosts were scarcely restrained in their fulsome praise of the city-state’s status as a premier Asian financial hub and its model development story. Though they may find it difficult to locate the city-state on the world map the everyday Moroccans I encountered on the streets of Marrakesh hold Singapore in awe and admiration. This ‘soft-power’ can be something of a competitive advantage for investors. Morocco and Singapore marked 25 years of diplomatic relations this year (2022) but they do not have permanent embassies in place. Nor are there any direct flight services between the two. Although Singapore does not have a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Morocco yet there is a double-tax avoidance agreement (DTA) in place since 2014. Bilateral trade is relatively small - US$294m – and tilted slightly in favour of the latter (US$183m).

Centre Director Amit Jain with a delegate from Alabama, USA (Photo credit: Amit Jain)

My visit coincided with Morocco facing off its largest trading partner and former coloniser France at the FIFA World Cup semi-finals. The mood at the conference venue on the day of the match was electrifying. As an underdog that had unexpectedly defeated Spain to become the only Arab and African team to reach that stage Morocco represented the hopes of not just a billion people of the continent but also that of the entire developing world that still yearns for a voice in global affairs. Nearly a century of French involvement in Moroccan affairs has left a scar that remains unhealed. Although sultan Mohammed V declared independence in 1955 France has rarely treated Morocco as an equal. The Atlantic Dialogues were taking place during a stiff diplomatic row between the two over visa issues. The condescending tone of French politicians, policymakers, and intelligentsia irks Moroccans frequently. A former cabinet minister broke down in tears at the Atlantic Dialogues as he launched a passionate intervention demanding respect and dignity from Paris. This was hours before the two sides were meeting for the first time in a serious sports contest. I found myself rooting for the Moroccan team. But as the French scored a second goal a little after half-time the spirit in the room sank rock bottom. The Blues supporters at the conference were careful not to appear too triumphal at French victory but it was clear who were the real heroes of the day. 

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