Testing the Waters of Morocco’s Link to Africa

I just returned from Dakhla, in the south of Morocco, where the sounds of the Atlantic Ocean reminded me that there is an undeniable link that is becoming increasingly stronger between this continent and the Americas. Earlier last week, that was the theme of the Atlantic Dialogues, a joint project of the German Marshall Fund and the OCP-Foundation that explores the growing vitality of commerce, diplomacy, and common interests in the environment, human development, and economic growth on both sides of the ocean.

Throughout our stay in Morocco, including most recently in Dakhla, we have heard the theme of Morocco’s future in Africa as an alternative, along with the US, to its traditional trading partners in Europe, which have experienced a decline in their interactions with Morocco. Dakhla, we were told, is Morocco’s “Door to Africa” much as Tangier is Morocco’s “Door to Europe.” Fortuitously, two recent events in Washington, DC looked at this proposition from two different but related perspectives and found many reasons to support this view of Morocco’s future.

The Africa Center at the Atlantic Council held a roundtable on Morocco’s security relations in Africa and how these intersect with US interests in the region. Policy experts from various agencies, NGOs, and think tanks in Washington reviewed a paper presented by Dr. J. Peter Pham, who directs the Africa Center, which examined the case for enhancing Morocco’s security capacity in Africa both to deepen regional operational ties and to advance the US’ ability to work in cooperation with countries in the area. The final version of the paper, incorporating the group’s refinements, is due to be released shortly.

Morocco’s Role in Regional Security

Dr. Pham opened with a summary of the paper, stating his belief that Morocco is sometimes taken for granted by US policy makers, despite, or perhaps because of, our long and valued ties. He believes that in a region where the US doesn’t have many reliable allies, we should do more to build a strong security relationship with Morocco. While the country has a very robust counterterrorism strategy, which he described in some detail, Dr. Pham noted that greater international cooperation will certainly expand the effectiveness of the region’s efforts to maintain security and promote stability.

Morocco and the US have held joint military exercises since 1999, and building these into a program of regional joint operations would contribute to the interoperability of forces in West and North Africa and the Sahel and improve the professional behavior of militaries in participating countries. Dr. Pham pointed out that Algeria’s reluctance to include Morocco in regional counterterrorism coordination makes it necessary to have overlapping regional security agreements, which does not serve US interests for a broader, more effective approach to regional security.

Dr. Pham also strongly supports a holistic approach to security, which means enhancing stability by including programs that promote economic development, respect for minorities, enhanced rule of law, and better governance. At the core of the recommendations in his paper, later expanded on by the experts, is the view that the US has much to gain by broadening and deepening its security programs with Morocco as a regional player. Despite the obstacles inherent in Morocco-Algeria tensions over the Western Sahara, and the ensuing competition for regional leadership, US interests are not well served by the lack of robust military and security ties between Morocco and Algeria.

Knocking on the “Door to Africa”

A paper prepared by Haim Malka, Deputy Director of the Middle East Program at The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), took a broad look at Morocco’s Africa strategy. His paper was a refinement of an earlier paper published in early October, which was then presented to a roundtable of participants from the US government, think tanks, policy analysts, NGOs, and former diplomats for their comments and recommendations regarding how the US can support Morocco’s economic growth.

Mr. Malka makes a strong case for Morocco’s strategic pivot to the south, arguing that the decline of trade, investment, tourism, and remittances from the EU makes that shift an imperative. Another important point that may seem counterintuitive is that Morocco’s business outreach to the US has been limited due to the lack of competitiveness and “fit” of Moroccan products with the US market.

With the prospects for North African regional economic integration at a stalemate due to the conflict in relations with Algeria, the Moroccan strategy to expand and deepen its economic ties to Africa is sensible and can be immensely profitable. So Mr. Malka’s recommendation is that the US work to enhance Morocco’s strategy to more deeply engage economically throughout Africa, beyond its traditional ties to Francophone Africa.

The basic concern Mr. Malka raises is the need for Morocco to become more competitive in terms of its domestic economy so that it can enhance its capacity to export manufacturing products to Africa. While Morocco has a strong base in financial, transportation, and IT services, it needs to greatly improve its manufacturing base if it is to succeed in the Africa marketplace.

Among his other recommendations is for the US to work with Morocco by re-allocating US funding through triangular aid programs that utilize Morocco’s expertise in Africa in delivering social, health, and community development projects. He also makes a strong recommendation that Morocco decouple its economic strategy from its Western Sahara policy, as some of the biggest markets in Africa do not agree with Morocco’s position on that issue.

The experts noted that Morocco already has a strong footprint in Africa and must focus on increasing its competitive edge in order to expand existing market opportunities and open new ones. They also noted that the private sector has more freedom to operate below the political radar and therefore more flexibility and opportunities to promote ties across Africa. US regional interests in stability, employment, and economic growth benefit from a stronger Moroccan presence in Africa. Africa’s rapidly growing consumer markets, need for more efficient use of agricultural land, power generation requirements, and banking and financial services, all provide immense opportunities for Morocco in Africa. The basic requirement at this point is for Morocco to undertake a comprehensive analysis of where it has competitive advantages in the emerging African economy and build a strategy to target and support its exports to those markets.

While Morocco does not compare with China, India, and even South Africa in terms of size of impact on African markets, it has the agility and private sector capabilities to carve out a prosperous and effective presence in Africa, serving its regional and national economic growth goals, and US interests for greater stability and development on the continent

German Marshall Fund Report Links Morocco’s “Geo-Economics” to US Interests in Africa

In late October, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) released a policy brief “Morocco’s New Geo-Economics: Implications for U.S.-Moroccan Partnership.” Authored by Dr. Ian Lesser, Executive Director of GMF’s Brussels Office and its Senior Director for Foreign and Security Policy, the paper was reviewed by a roundtable of experts whose insights were incorporated into the final document.

It is fitting that the paper was released during the week that marks the founding of the United Nations. As the world’s leadership in the 21st century has moved beyond a handful of Western powers and the Soviet Union to a broader, more diffuse global network in which regional alliances and relationships are increasingly significant, Morocco’s maturing strategic role in Africa points to how emerging states linked together by a wide range of interests are reshaping models of bilateral and multilateral relations.

As Dr. Lesser explains, the US-Morocco relationship is longstanding, and “Morocco’s strategic significant for the United States has been shaped…by Morocco’s proximity to areas of vital U.S. economic interest.” He points to several trends that have reinforced the “geo-economic dimension of Morocco’s international posture and its importance to U.S. interests. From African development to global food security, from new transport hubs to renewable energy…Morocco’s focus is increasingly drawn south and west, to Africa and to the wider Atlantic.”

For Morocco, this growing outreach is driven by four overlapping trends in the region. First of all, traditional trade and investment ties to Europe are increasingly weaker due to the recent economic stagnation in the EU. This is clear from slowdowns in foreign direct investment (FDI), purchases of Moroccan products, tourism, and remittances from Europe. In looking for new business partners, Morocco has several differentiated marketing strategies: more tourism promotion globally, with initiatives along both sides of the Atlantic basin (regular flights to Sao Paulo are a recent example) and into Asia; the Moroccan Investment Development Agency (AMDI) has an eight-city road show covering markets in Asia, North America, and Europe to highlight opportunities in Morocco; and Moroccan firms are benefiting from government subsidies to attend trade shows and expand their export operations.

The second trend is the growth in trade and investment agreements linking Morocco to a potential market of one billion consumers, from the US and EU to Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Gulf. With its rapidly expanding manufacturing and logistics/distribution capabilities, Morocco is fast becoming a key regional hub for business activity north and south, into Europe and Africa.

The Africa Imperative

A third component in Morocco’s evolution as a regional economic player is its commitment to renewable energies and the potential for “substantial offshore oil and gas resources,” which would both reduce Morocco’s “high national expenditure on imported energy and domestic energy subsidies” and provide the backbone for expanding power transmission to meet the growing demand in African markets. With most projections for economic growth pointing to sub-Saharan Africa as the next great opportunity, Morocco is well-positioned to increase its already sizeable presence on the continent into an effective network for economic growth. 

Regional stability and security issues are the fourth element that affects Morocco’s regional designs. Although Morocco is committed to regional integration across North Africa, the continued stalemate with Algeria frustrates that ambition. For now, it appears that Maghreb relations will be more bilateral, building on shared business interests. So Morocco is looking elsewhere for growth to drive job creation to absorb local demand and provide a reservoir of talent for opportunities in target markets. It recognizes the importance of linking jobs, economic stability, and public security throughout the region. “To be sure, political and security factors are also at play in Morocco’s growing African interests, especially in light of the rapidly evolving terrorism, insurgency, and trafficking scene affecting Atlantic Africa and the Sahel – the dark side of regional geo-economics.” It is no surprise that King Mohammed VI has made Africa a priority in his travels, speeches, and support for economic and policy conferences focusing on Africa.

Dr. Lesser points out that “Morocco’s expanding economic role looking south shows every sign of becoming a structural factor in regional development and a more significant facet of U.S. interest in, and cooperation with, Morocco.” To this end, the policy paper concludes with several recommendations for US policymakers:

  • Morocco’s growing Atlantic engagement should be made an explicit part of the US-Morocco strategic partnership.
  • The US should renew its commitment to greater regional economic cooperation and integration in the Maghreb.
  • In the context of transatlantic trade negotiations (TTIP), consideration should be given to implications for the US-Morocco FTA and ways to streamline the current provisions on roles of origin and other constraints to extend the value of the FTA to other African countries.
  • The private sector should be more broadly integrated into US-Morocco Strategic Dialogue.
  • Morocco’s growing role in Africa should be part of the agenda with Washington and with European partners.

These recommendations are part of a common-sense approach to recognizing how the US can support Morocco’s growing global engagement, which enables Morocco to enlarge its leadership role while contributing to security, stability, and prosperity in a critically important part of the world.