International Donors Conference on the Sahel, Much Ado…Will It Make a Difference


According to a number of reports, more than 60 delegations and 14 partner countries gathered in Brussels last month to put meat on the bones of the G5 Sahel force set up in 2017 to enable Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad build their military capabilities to conduct anti-terrorism operations in their countries and along their borders. There were also discussions concerning the need for social and economic development to address underlying local issues that feed dissatisfaction and instability.

The meeting was co-hosted by the EU, the UN, the African Union (AU), and the G5 under the auspices of Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou. Pledges were made totaling some $509 million for the joint force’s operating budget. Issoufou pointed out that it would only support the first year’s operations and that subsequent annual budgets of $150 million would be needed. France also announced that it would increase its contributions to development and government assistance to the region to more than $1.5 billion over the next five years.

As a post in Euractiv explained, “The aim of the military force is to drive out terrorist groups, smugglers, and organized criminal gangs that are taking advantage of the weakness of the state in certain areas of the region. It is a critical region since poverty, climate change, and the collapse of the Libyan state have turned it into an ideal breeding ground for all sorts of smuggling and could also be a haven for Daesh fighters fleeing Syria.”

Given this complexity, among concerns expressed by several delegations were “There is also a risk that an overly securitized approach could squeeze out equally necessary work on governance, justice, and the protection of local populations,” according to ECFR coverage.

In order to address concerns regarding the appropriate use of the funding, the G5 has set up a fiduciary fund for donations, and the EU now has set up a “coordination hub” for channeling international donations to aggregated and disburse funds within the GF effort. Hopefully, this will “help alleviate the risk already posed by so many international actors intervening in the Sahel, ideally avoiding duplication of efforts and wasted investments,” the article noted.

Coordination of both military and development efforts poses a tricky balancing act for the EU and G5 countries as the EU wants the G5 with intimate local knowledge to play the lead role in developing the military interventions while ensuring that support and assistance are channeled to projects that will best benefit at-risk populations and not exacerbate discrimination against local groups.

Unfortunately, the military situation continues to deteriorate. Attacks by jihadist groups aimed at French and G5 forces, often abetted by locals, have increased; and security operations by the joint forces sometimes agitate local civilians and have created refugee situations in some cases. It has been mentioned that as G5 operations continue, “The tactical need to work with “friendly” local armed actors could end up further destabilizing local security arrangements in the name of combating terrorism.”

This makes it even more imperative that the EU Training Mission (EUTM) and security sector reform in the G5 countries proceed apace, that the rights of minorities are protected, and that development assistance is effectively targeted. As Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs remarked, “This isn’t only about security but also about development. Because there can be no real conditions for security without social and economic development, such as opportunities for young people and women in the region.”

The Euractiv post listed that “France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, the EU, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the UNDP have announced that the Sahel Alliance will collect a total of $7.4 billion to finance development projects for the next five years. These funds will go towards the 500 projects that will be set up in the countries of the G5 Sahel, and will be based on six main areas: employment for young people, rural development, food security, energy and climate, governance, decentralization, and access to basic services and security.”

Concerns with a balanced, coordinated strategy were also emphasized in a Devex post noting that Mogherini made the point that the EU had invested more than $9.8 billion in the Sahel in the past seven years. Yet, Friederike Röder, director of ONE France, was skeptical of the durability of the commitments. “It’s great to hear announcements for more investment into development in the Sahel, but we need to ensure that the primary objective of this funding is the eradication of extreme poverty and not controlling migration or military objectives,” she said.

Achieving positive results in the next few years will take more than infusions of money. Reliable coordination and collaboration across the spectrum of military and development programs can only be built on commitments to transparency, effective communications, transnational cooperation, and consensus that is a rare commodity in the region. With the Sahel still liable to increased infiltration by outside militants and jihadists, and the existing unstable political environment, it will take leadership that embodies a long-range vision of building states out of insecure territories based on tribal alliances.

The Wheel of Misfortune – Russia Takes Advantage of US Lethargy in North Africa

Those who follow US policy in the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly concerned with a lack of a robust or consistent American presence in the region outside of support for Israel and mixed messages on Syria and Iraq. Arab governments initially were pleased that the Trump Administration took a high profile on pursuing a Middle East peace settlement, inserting itself into the Israel-GCC-Iran quagmire, and issuing some soothing words in the Qatar boycott fracas. But the rest of the region, including Egypt and Yemen, are apparent afterthoughts in policy discussions at the State Department and National Security Council, while North Africa may as well be on another planet.

Aside from bewildering our Arab allies and stoking Israel’s anti-Iran fury, it is hard to discern the strategy or results of the Administration’s actions to date. Among the signs of discontent are mutterings about the lack of Ambassadorial appointments to the majority of Arab countries and the opaqueness surrounding the work of the President’s special envoy to the region. As with the Obama Administration, Arab leaders are wondering what can be done to engage the US outside of its seemingly very narrow agenda.

Another consequence of the Administration’s perceived lack of engagement was recently highlighted in an article from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), remarking on the extensive outreach of Russia in North Africa, ostensibly a region of low priority to the US.

In the article, the authors, Sarah Feuer and Anna Borshchevskaya, make a point of the heightened pace of Russia’s dealings with the region in hopes of offsetting traditional US influence and promoting its own “geostrategic, economic, and political interests.”

They point out that, “In Putin’s estimation, Russia’s ascendancy depends on countering the United States and its European allies. Expanded access to the Mediterranean serves this broader goal by establishing a foothold in a European sphere of influence and reducing the U.S. ability to maneuver militarily. In economic terms, North Africa presents an opportunity for Russia to sell arms, forge partnerships in the energy sector, and invest in infrastructure development. Moscow can also claim it is in the region to fight terrorism.”

Although Russia has traditionally had strong relationships with Libya and Algeria, its moves into Tunisia and Morocco should be troubling to the US.

In Libya, Russia is seeking to maintain its foothold by supporting Gen. Khalifa Haftar and positioning itself as a neutral force between the major factions in the country. In addition to its energy resources, Libya offers important access to Egypt and port facilities that expand Russian presence on the Mediterranean.

Russia’s relationship with Algeria is perhaps the longest one it has enjoyed in North Africa, dating from the time of its enormous weapons sales as the Soviet Union. More recently its dealings with Algeria encompass debt forgiveness, more weapons sales, intelligence sharing, and cooperation in the energy sector, despite Algeria being a competitor in natural gas exports. Russia has also signed exploration and development agreements covering oil and gas concessions in the country.

Although Tunisia has long been considered pro-Western, it is benefitting from closer ties to Russia. The article notes: since 2011 the bilateral relationship has focused on counterterrorism, nuclear energy, and tourism… In 2016, roughly 600,000 Russian tourists visited Tunisia, a tenfold increase from the previous year and over 10 percent of the country’s visitors that year. Tunisian retail businesses have welcomed Russians’ presence, and the government has spoken positively of Russia’s assistance in counterterrorism. Officials have also publicly acknowledged Russia’s growing regional sway, including in Syria.”

Morocco-Russia relations are where the hedging of bets by traditional US allies in securing their interests is most apparent. Since his trip to Moscow in 2016, King Mohammed VI has “strengthened economic relations through a renewal of the countries’ free trade agreement and an expansion of Russian access to Moroccan fisheries on the Atlantic coast.” While Morocco-US relations flounder without clear signals from the US side, Russia has continued to build its ties by becoming a major importer of Moroccan agricultural products, providing technical assistance in the energy sector, and supplying liquefied natural gas to the country.

As importantly, “As it does Tunisia, Russia views Morocco as an economic gateway to Africa; it also regards the kingdom as a model to emulate in countering Islamist extremism in its own vicinity.”

Given the stasis that seems to permeate US diplomacy outside of conflict situations, there is much more that the US could do to assert its common interests with the Maghreb countries, starting with appointing competent and active Ambassadors to fill all the empty posts.

Additionally, “In cooperation with its European allies, policymakers should promote greater regional counterterrorism cooperation among the Maghreb states and expand the US Navy’s presence across the Mediterranean. Stationing more vessels out of Rota, Spain, for example, would help constrain Russian actions.”

Despite the cuts to foreign assistance programs, the US must continue to build its cultural, education, and capacity-building programs with North Africa whenever possible, developing regional programs when useful. North African countries could greatly benefit from encouragement to strengthen civil society and protect individual liberties; the U­S can do much more in this regard.

Promoting stronger economic relations can also play a role in enabling local economies, which are in need of resilient and sustainable projects that create valued jobs and include women and youth. Programs that support entrepreneurship and the creation of SMEs should be continued and expanded as an antidote to the growing numbers of restless, unemployed youth susceptible to negative messaging.

North Africa should not be Russia’s for the taking. The US has invested decades of efforts in supporting the development of these societies. Many individuals within these countries’ public and private sector leadership have taken advantage of US exchange and educational programs and have an inclination to support closer ties. Without a commitment to husbanding these ties and building long-term relationships that engage North Africans across sectors and parties, the US is signaling its intentions to become a second-rate friend in the region, and American influence will wane accordingly.

So What about Tunisia?

Government Faces Legacy and Aspirational Challenges

Perhaps it was too much to expect, that Tunisia could overturn a decades long autocratic state, create inclusive political space and a responsive and inclusive economic strategy, and fight off external security threats, all in ten years. Regardless, one thing is clear, the majority of Tunisians are committed to peeling back years of political and economic decay and restructuring their society to be more inclusive and equitable, but how?

There are many analyses of where Tunisia is headed – it even comes up during US wine tastings of Tunisia’s finest (another one of those pesky Muslim countries that grows and enjoys wine!). And there is consensus on the key issues, but the how to get there and who will have to make the sacrifices engender a great deal of debate.

As I noted in my recent blog on Morocco, forming a national strategy is a bit easier when you have a king who reminds his citizens about their obligations towards each other and responsibilities within the context of government serving the people. Yet, even King Mohammed VI has expressed frustration with officials and cultural luddites that see the past as the only guide to the future. And he is giving the Parliament, civil society organizations, and NGOs plenty of space to figure out how democracy will work in Morocco and the burdens of not delivering.

So it is with Tunisia. Everyone is rooting for its success, but it is still fighting past demons of inequitable political and economic empowerment, structural discrimination against women and youth, entrenched elite power networks, and lack of robust economic growth to generate badly needed employment. Among the recent reports of note was published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace authored by Maha Yahya, after extensive research in the country. The report came out before the most recent government shake-up so it is useful to compare the recommendations in the report with the latest policies espoused by the government.

The major concern expressed in the report was the “The spreading disillusionment and alienation of large swaths of Tunisia society and their burgeoning misgivings about their prospects for a democratic and stable future.” Both the political and economic spheres are characterized as out of touch with young people, beholden to elites tied to the old regime, not rigorous in developing inclusive strategies to promote prosperity in the inland areas, and lacking long-term strategies to ensure equitable participation in the political and economic life of the country.

Relying on various polling data, Ms. Yahya points out that in 2014, 50% of Tunisians point to corruption, especially in the health services and police, as widespread, and close to 70% believe that the government is not proactive in combating corruption.

Similarly, it is not surprising that 80% of those 35-49 believe that strong economic growth should be the country’s first priority. Less than 9% of rural youth and 31% of urban youth expressed any confidence in the political system, while more than 80% believe that their local imam and religious organizations are credible. This has serious consequences. “In the 2014 elections 80% of 18-24 year olds did not vote in the parliamentary elections and largely abstained from the presidential election.”

As Nabil Fahmy, former Foreign Minister of Egypt recently noted, “Domestic social and sectarian grievances are still very much a part of Tunisian politics. The Tunisian government must tread carefully, and it cannot assume that all of its citizens are satisfied with the new arrangements.”


The primary recommendation made in the Carnegie study is that “Tunisian political elites need to rebuild the bonds of trust between the citizens and their state, strengthen democratic institutions, and uphold the principles of equity and social justice enshrined in the constitution.”

Voters waiting their turn.

Voters waiting their turn.

Regardless of the overarching concern with border security and counterterrorism, the country needs to continue to build on the 2012 National Council of Social Dialogue to build “a common platform for dialogue on basic principles among political parties, civil society organizations, and the private sector, and for reflecting the basic concerns of Tunisian citizens.”

The government has committed to far-ranging economic and political reforms, which need to be defined and sequenced with special attention to addressing regional disparities. An innovation in the MENA that definitely has applications throughout the region is the country-wide use of technology to link state and citizen. While Jordan and others have instituted some e-government programs to promote transparency and communications, the Tunisian goal is more robust and has the potential to generate effective bridges between youth and decision-makers.

It was recently pointed out by a former government minister that the country is moving to equip its people with 21st century technology, for example, promising internet access throughout the country by 2020, but the government is narrowly focused on issued defined in the 20th century using laws and institutions based on 19th century or before models…not, he fears, the most effective equation for success.

Some hard facts…the global economy is undergoing traumatic transitions wherein two-thirds of many jobs will disappear, reflecting increased computer-driven capabilities; and all countries are searching for strategies to prepare market-relevant workers. Put building walls and threatening companies aside. The disruption of digital technologies is here to stay. Some countries will remain competitive with human capital as long as the costs are competitive with new technologies, and that won’t last long.

The former minister suggests three points of impact on countries. First, the widespread availability of Internet, either as a government policy or as a result of market forces, will diminish the isolation of rural areas and forge bonds for mobilization and action that can be used for many purposes. Secondly, digital education will provide equality of access not only within a country but to the world of global classrooms, changing the way we value and accredit education and skills acquisition. National education policies will of necessity need to incorporate these opportunities. Also, for many reasons, technology will lead to greater government transparency as administrations forgo paper and rely more on computer-based cashless transactions, hopefully reducing at least one channel for corruption. All of these will change the forms of government structure and services in the coming generation and require a 21st century constitution reflecting the digital ties between state and citizens.

As Tunisia struggles to implement the pledges of the new government, it faces tremendous entrenched interests, from political and economic elites to trade and other unions protecting their turf. Exhorting Tunisians to do more with less will not save the day in the short term. If and how Tunisia succeeds may point the way ahead for other MENA and African countries.


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Morocco Speeds Ahead in Renewable Energy

Power Purchasing Agreement Provides Momentum to Reach National Goal

Morocco’s leadership in renewable energy received a strong jolt of support this past week with the announcement of a finalist for 850MW of wind-power projects to be awarded to an international consortium headed by NAREVA, a Moroccan energy company.

Upon signing of the contract, still to be finalized, the consortium will develop, design, finance, construct, operate and maintain five wind projects: a 150MW facility in Midelt, 100MW in Tanger and 200MW in Jbel Lahdid in northern Morocco, and 300MW at Tiskrad and 100MW in Boujdour in the south.

The preferred bidder status award was made by ONEE, the Moroccan Office National de l’Electricité et de l’Eau Potable, to the consortium which includes Nareva as well as Enel Green Power (EGP) and Siemens Wind Power. Total investment is estimated at around $1.1 billion.

According to EGP CEO Francesco Venturini, “We are leveraging on our knowledge and expertise, in collaboration with our partners, to contribute to Morocco’s ambitious energy plan that has renewables at its core. The country is an example in North Africa of reliability and transparency in supporting the development of renewable technologies.”

The overall project requires creating two financial vehicles to guarantee the deliverables at a reasonable cost to Morocco. EGP and Nareva will create limited liability companies called “special purpose vehicles” for each of the five sites to insulate the project from any financial issues of the parent company.

In addition, the project was conceived under the Power Purchasing Agreement (PPA) passed into law in 2013 that enables companies to pursue power projects based on an agreed purchase price by the government, amounting to a sovereign guarantee for projects that are financially sound and efficiently operated. The agreement with ONEE runs for 20 years on the facilities that will come online between 2016 and 2020.

These target dates fit within Morocco’s current goal of 42% power from renewables by 2020, which was projected by King Mohammed VI at COP21 to be 52% by 2030.

Separately, Siemens agreed to build a rotor blade factory at an investment of more than $110 million that will result in up to 700 jobs in a factory to be located in Tanger. The facility will serve African, Middle Eastern, and European wind markets upon completion in spring 2017.

Markus Tacke, CEO of Siemens Wind Power and Renewables Division, noted “We invest where we see strong business opportunities. Morocco is the perfect location from which to serve the growing onshore wind power markets in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The economy is strong, the political climate is stable, and Morocco has a young, skilled and motivated workforce. These factors make Tangier the ideal site for this new state-of-the-art factory.”

Siemens has had a permanent presence in Morocco since 1956 and has already been involved in several major renewable energy projects, including the 300-MW Tarfaya wind farm project.

With additional investment opportunities identified in hydropower, biomass, and even nuclear power, Morocco is well on its way to meet and possibly exceed its energy goals.

Supporting Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy, Stability, Growth

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Challenges Test Resilience of Society, Political Order

Over the past two years, President Obama has met with King Mohammed VI of Morocco and Habib Essid, the Prime Minister of Tunisia, America’s two strongest allies in North Africa, to support their continuing efforts to build strong democratic institutions and reform their economies. This should come as no surprise, as these countries have many interests and values in common with the US, ranging from regional security and stability to protecting the rights of women and children, promoting regional economic integration, and building strong civil societies.

While Morocco has been able to launch its reforms more quickly than Tunisia and enjoys a stronger internal security apparatus to counter terrorism, both countries are committed to moderate, liberalizing policies as the backbone of their national strategies. Morocco has been active in helping Tunisia in the transition, offering expertise and lessons learned from their own experience. Still, both countries also look for continued support from the US in order to fully achieve their democratic aspirations. Given the challenges in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel, US policy makers are stretched to consistently provide assistance in whatever form to its friends in the region.

Credit: Morocco World News

Credit: Morocco World News

There is much to be gained from combining US efforts with Morocco’s knowledge to support Tunisia in achieving their ambitious vision for the future. US agencies have global experience to share and are able to provide critical funding. Morocco is continually gaining insights in democratization and empowering civil society, while Tunisia shares with both countries a vision of moderation and progress for the region but is still defining its governing dynamics.

First, let’s focus on the needs of Tunisia. The facts are well known: Tunisia is home to the Arab Spring; it is struggling through a transition to a parliamentary democracy that featured assassinations and jockeying between Islamists and secularists to form a working coalition government; and it is now poised at a juncture that threatens its emerging democracy by subjecting it to security measures that could suborn human and civil rights.

As argued in a recent Atlantic Council paper, there is no guarantee whether the future will see either a return to a more autocratic regime or sufficient stabilization of the political and security situation for the government to take steps to solidify its governing role and move aggressively to meet the needs of the country at large. It is these uncertain prospects for Tunisia that prompted the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa to hold a hearing on July 14.

As subcommittee chair Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen commented in scheduling the hearing, “Tunisia’s future is still far from certain, but it remains in the national security interests of the U.S. to see the North African country complete its transition toward democracy and to adequately address the threat it faces from violent and radical extremists, like ISIL and other terror groups. This hearing is an important opportunity to assess Tunisia’s current state of affairs and to identify areas in which the United States can help secure Tunisia’s democratic future.”

Panel Testifying at Hearing, IRI, NDI, WINEP, IFES. Credit IRI

Panel Testifying at Hearing, IRI, NDI, WINEP, IFES. Credit IRI

The expert panel included representatives of US agencies concerned with democracy development—Ambassador Mark Green of the International Republican Institute (IRI); Les Campbell of the National Democratic Institute (NDI); William Sweeney, Jr, from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES); and Aaron Zelin, a terrorism expert from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

The day of the hearing, Ambassador Green, Mr. Campbell, and Mr. Sweeney co-authored a blog in The Hill “Tunisia needs US support for democracy to succeed,” in which they argued that “Tunisia is still in a state of political transition that can be quickly reversed. Difficult problems…are still unresolved and fuel the appeal of extremist groups…Solutions to these problems lie in the delivery of good governance, redress of underdevelopment in certain regions, greater accountability and inclusivity, and increased access to opportunity.”

These messages were reiterated during the hearing, in which three themes emerged. Tunisia has pioneered the development of a moderate, democratic regime in the region, starting with a very difficult political transition since the ouster of President Ben Ali, and is struggling with internal and external forces that could destabilize the country. While security is the most visible concern, the country has yet to implement needed political and economic reforms that reduce the threat of instability due to internal discontent and lack of opportunity. Finally, the US still has a proactive role to play in supporting Tunisia’s road to a stable, secure, prosperous democracy.

What is clear from the remarks of the members of Congress who were present and the expert panel is that Tunisia has emerged from a very difficult period only to face even more challenges due to regional instability in Libya and on the Algerian border, as well as the need to make effective strides in reforming its economy.

So what can be done about this, and, more specifically, is there a way to leverage expertise of Morocco to complement US assistance to Tunisia? Morocco has not been passive in supporting Tunisia. In addition to the training of imams in moderate Islam as part of a common counterterrorism effort, Morocco recently signed eight agreements with Tunisia during a visit between the heads of government. These covered public housing, social development, education, women and children, youth and sports, higher education and scientific research, and technical cooperation in the field of transport.

Members of the committee and the panel noted the importance of US assistance in supporting Tunisia’s transition and security needs. There was also sentiment expressed that regional players like Morocco, which has common interests with Tunisia and the US, can be helpful in enabling regional aspirations for greater stability, security, and prosperity. Progress will require vigilance and commitment from all parties.

The panel identified security, elections, governance, civil society, and the economy as the most important issues to look at in the next few years. Why shouldn’t Morocco, the US, and Tunisia meet on a regular basis to discuss when and if there is way to leverage each other’s strengths to help create the common vision that is shared by all three nations? If we want to help meet the aspirations of Tunisia, then we should start by working together with our friends in the region to coordinate and maximize our efforts.


Threats to US Security Interests in the Mediterranean Call for Multiple Strategies

German Marshall Fund Policy Brief Outlines Complexities

Last month, The German Marshall Fund of the United States published a Policy Brief “The United States and the Future of Mediterranean Security: Reflections from GMF’s Mediterranean Strategy Group.” Reading it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the multiple foreign policy challenges facing the US in the Mediterranean Basin as well as the surrounding countries. This is likely the most severe drawback of being a superpower that tries to invoke and promote a value-driven foreign policy agenda that incorporates both hard and soft power diplomacy – “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

While there may be disagreement about what our interests are in that swath of countries stretching from Morocco to Lebanon and southern Europe, we cannot avoid the reality that the US is still the dominant player in the region and consequently the direct or indirect target of choice for militant non-state actors that now proliferate there. As the sources of threats grow, US attempts to mobilize active friendlies on its behalf have grown beyond the historic ties to NATO to include allies that share our interests in a more secure, stable, and prosperous Mediterranean.

Credit: Facebook

Credit: Facebook

One of the points made in the paper that struck a strong chord is focusing on the new dynamics at play in regional security. “The strategic environment in the Mediterranean is increasingly shaped by forces emanating from outside the region: for the Levant and the Eurasian and African hinterlands, from the Black Sea, and from the Atlantic Basin north and south. The new result of these shifts has been the progressive globalization of Mediterranean security [emphasis added].

Perhaps no place is this more evident than in Morocco, bordered by truculent Algeria to the east, and sitting astride the Sahel, which borders a number of ungoverned areas. Morocco is connected in many ways to security concerns elsewhere; whether it be jihadist fighters returning from the East, or terrorist cells in the country, or spillover from terrorist attacks in Europe, there are challenges that continue to emerge.

The GMF paper calls attention to the fact that “The potential for the spread of extremism…to other parts of the Mediterranean…is likely to shape the Mediterranean security environment for some time to come. State failure and dysfunctional rule could have an isolating effect on a region badly in need of economic and political development.”

Looking around the Mediterranean, the policy brief addresses the impact of instability and conflict in West Africa and the Sahel as “drivers of insecurity for the Maghreb and Europe.” It points out that “Algeria’s enormous geographic expanse and poorly monitored borders make the country a front line state in relation to West African risks. The memory of Algeria’s descent into violence in the 1990s, and the opaque nature of the regime, cause neighbors such as Morocco and Tunisia, and Europe, to cast a vary eye on the country’s stability and regional policies. Algeria’s uncertain future is one of the key open questions for Mediterranean security.”

Among other challenges mentioned are trafficking in drugs, weapons, and money from Latin America; competition for energy and commodity resources; the continuing waves of economic and political refugee migrants; and the reality that “human security” is a time bomb issue that has negative connotations for the countries of transit as well as the intended refuges in Europe.

 Who Stands with the US?

In examining America’s history of security engagement in the region, two major points stand out in the brief – the US has been there a very long time, from opposing the Barbary pirates to forward basing during World War II; and yet, despite this history, the US has not had a vision of the Mediterranean as “a coherent strategic space.” Within the US government, the region is treated differently: the State Department divides “the Mediterranean along geopolitical lines, with a fairly strict bureaucratic and intellectual division…The notable exceptions…have been in the U.S. military commands.”

In this regard, Morocco has decades of cooperation with the US and NATO militaries focusing on national, regional, and international concerns. For example, the entrance to the Mediterranean is a critical route to US bases in the region as well as the exit point for ships transiting the Suez Canal. Over-flights permitted by Morocco are also important in stabilization programs in Mali and surveillance of militants in the ungoverned areas of the Sahel.

This month, the US, Morocco and allies from Europe will take part in the second phase of African Lion, “an annually scheduled, bilateral U.S. and Moroccan sponsored exercise designed to improve interoperability and mutual understanding of each nation’s tactics, techniques and procedures. It is the largest annual US military exercise on the continent,” according to an article posted on Defence Web.

Phase one in February brought together contingents from neighboring countries Tunisia, Mauritania, and Senegal, as well as Germany and England, to collaborate on building operational proficiency in areas such as disaster relief, humanitarian aid, mission communications, and related command concerns.



In May, around 2,500 personnel from more than five countries will continue joint training exercises involving communications and close air support and aerial refueling. According to General Richard L. Simcock, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF),
“This exercise allows the U.S., allies and partner nations to strengthen our relationships with our Moroccan hosts and improve how we will work together in the future.”

In a region beset with political, military, and economic challenges, the capacity to project US interests is in many ways dependent over the long run on the caliber and resilience of its allies that share its interests and values. Morocco’s ties with the US have endured for more than two hundred years, and its commitment to taking a regional leadership role for stability, security, and economic growth has become stronger as the bilateral relationship continues to grow.


”Morocco’s Success Is Our Success”

Dentons Selects Casablanca Finance City for Regional Africa Office

Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, will officially launch their African headquarters in Morocco in April,. After a series of mergers over the past five years—most recently with the largest law firm in China—the firm now boasts more than 6,500 lawyers and professionals in more than 50 countries across the globe, including 18 in Africa.

With so many offices around the continent, why did they choose Morocco rather than other countries in West and Central Africa?

According to Dentons partner and head of the Africa practice Thomas Laryea, “There are three reasons that support this decision. First of all, we took a look at financial flows for investment in Africa and saw the amount of transactions through Morocco to Africa. This has broad business and legal opportunities for Dentons. Secondly, the commitment by King Mohammed VI to Africa is real. In addition to the many agreements signed with countries in the region, a really good signal was the decision by the Africa 50 Fund to locate in Morocco. Finally, we took a look at what can be done through Morocco to Africa, ranging from the infrastructure network to financial services and IT investments. Morocco is tied very closely to the region we want to serve from this office.”

Thomas Laryea Heads Dentons Africa Practice

Thomas Laryea Heads Dentons Africa Practice                    Photo Credit: Twitter

“Make no mistake,” he said. “Morocco’s success is our success. We are fully committed to this strategy for Morocco and for Africa and believe that we can play a key role, through our global offices, to find the right business partners anywhere in the world.”

Laryea identified a number of sectors in which Dentons thinks it can be helpful, both in terms of its legal services and in bringing together resources across borders. “I’m particularly interested in the power sector since there is such a huge need, [and] therefore opportunities. Power Africa, the Administration’s blueprint for what can be done, overlooks the need for localized solutions, ones that take into consideration all three factors defining a power project – construction, fuel, and access to a grid for storing and distributing power.” He would like to see more effort devoted to defining off-grid, regionally focused solutions that can be done more quickly, cheaply, and overcome the obstacles posed by a constrained national power system.

Laryea is also optimistic about other sectors including manufacturing, renewable energy, and infrastructure, where cross-border partnerships can meet financing and technology needed for projects. Dentons is bullish on Morocco because the country has demonstrated its seriousness in building regional partnerships and opportunities in many sectors, from tourism and social housing to healthcare and manufacturing. And Dentons believes that it can play a role in supporting how Africa moves ahead to meet its development needs.

What’s at Stake in 2015 for Morocco?

Will the reform agenda, growth targets, and regional security goals be attained?

In the past few months, I have written several blogs marking the progress of Morocco’s bilateral relationship with the US, including highlights from 2014 ranging from expanded security cooperation and several high level business conferences, to highly visible and successful participation in the US-Africa Leaders Summit and Vice President Joe Biden’s meeting with King Mohammed VI.

While these are useful hallmarks for 2014, they are in some ways benchmarks for viewing challenges and opportunities in the year ahead. There is much to be done if Morocco is to maintain its momentum as a liberalizing and secure country.

When looking to 2015, three key categories of issues stand out. The first of course are issues related to the Western Sahara including the MINURSO renewal, disruptive actions of the Polisario Front supported by Algeria, and the potential for US foreign assistance to be extended to Sahara to advance human development.

Closely related to this are regional security and stability concerns including combating violent extremism through internal and external efforts; counteracting the ISIS threat inherent in militants returning from war-torn areas in the Levant; and supporting stronger regional economic ties to boost employment.

Finally, Morocco has quite a diverse domestic reform agenda, which includes legislation addressing key constitutional issues and continued efforts to expand its commercial and investment opportunities, promote entrepreneurship, and advance its role as a business platform for Africa.

Although the agenda is quite complex and requires heightened cooperation and collaboration among government, the private sector, and civil society, the seeds have been planted for potentially beneficial outcomes. And regardless of what some pundits claim, Morocco alone, among the Maghreb countries, has the domestic leadership stability to take risks to advance its agenda.

Western Sahara

The annual renewal of the MINURSO mandate by the UN Security Council, required to enable it to continue its mission as observers in the Western Sahara in support of a sustainable resolution to the conflict, is anything but routine. Despite recent attempts to impose a human rights monitoring role on MINURSO, Morocco has been able to demonstrate that it takes its role in the territory quite seriously and extends human rights protections throughout all of Morocco. This has enabled Morocco’s friends on the Security Council to promote extensive collaboration between Morocco and UN agencies on this issue and avoid inserting a human rights monitoring role in the MINURSO mandate.

Despite Morocco’s steps to improve the lives of the people in the South, the Polisario Front, fully supported by Algeria, continues an extensive campaign to challenge Morocco’s presence in the area, with some of its members aligning themselves to trafficking, smuggling, and militant elements who are a significant threat throughout the region. Algeria plays its part by maintaining the closure of its border with Morocco, opposing Morocco’s diplomatic initiatives, and refusal to engage in broader conversations on security and economic development.

Perhaps the prospects for positive results from hydrocarbon exploration in the area will encourage the parties to seriously engage in dialogue regarding how to best insure the future of the southern region, which depends on support from Rabat for its economic, social, and infrastructure growth. A significant step by the US government, which mandates US foreign assistance funding in the Sahara, may prove to be a catalyst to promoting the long-sought acknowledgement by Sahrawis enclosed in the Polisario camps in Algeria that their futures are better secured in a thriving, committed Morocco.

Working on a Secure, Stable Future for the Region

Secretary John Kerry meets with Morocco's King Mohammed VI

Secretary John Kerry meets with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI

King Mohammed VI has repeatedly called for a multidimensional approach to combating violent extremism at home, including job training, family counseling, and emphasizing religious moderation. This same approach defines Morocco’s approach to regional security and stability – training imams in moderate religious discourse; broadening economic growth to be more inclusive and sustainable; and working with governments and private sectors to support greater attention to enfranchising marginalized and excluded minorities.

Morocco’s role in the coalitions against ISIS and al-Qaeda demonstrates the strong position that the country has taken to challenge extremism and militants bent on destruction and mayhem. Hosting coalition meetings, sending forces to the UAE for military technical assistance, and participating in airstrikes against ISIS are a few of the more visible steps taken by Morocco this past year.

As importantly, the government of Morocco, under the King’s leadership, has entered into more than 80 agreements with its African neighbors to expand economic opportunities and diminish the attraction of militant recruitment.

Growing the Region, Changing Lives for the Better

Domestically, Parliament and the government have a full slate of bills that will implement significant changes in how the country operates. Chief among these is the restructuring of the judicial system to make it independent of outside forces. Other efforts of note include finalizing the new law on associations, which will define guidelines for registering civil society organizations and other associations; and passing the law that eliminates the use of military tribunals for political offenses.

Mourchidate working in community center

Key 2015 Event: Local Elections

Another event to watch is how the government and political parties conduct themselves in the upcoming local elections. Heralded as a concrete step towards regionalization, the elections are already contentious since Parliament has not yet passed the empowering electoral law for the elections to proceed, the myriad possibilities of alliances among parties, the role of  international organizations encouraging a more competitive and open process, and the implications of the various results scenarios.

Hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) was only the latest showcase in Morocco’s commitment to domestic and regional economic growth. The country is moving to maximize its parallel strategy of growing investments in diverse sectors while promoting workforce education and training that results in market-ready labor. Where Morocco is getting it right is emphasizing programs beyond IT to agriculture, hospitality and financial services, skills trade, and special efforts for youth and women.

2015 can be another breakout year for Morocco. Falling energy prices are reducing the drag of energy imports on the economy. Subsidies are being phased out or re-targeted for maximum savings and impact; and the business environment continues to improve for both domestic and international companies. The year may be long and difficult, full of domestic, regional, and international challenges. Yet there seems to be a growing commitment to see the future as an opportunity, which is the key ingredient for success.

Morocco’s Progress Makes Regional Integration Even More Vital

European Union Supports Greater Cross-border Cooperation

A recent article in Magharebia, “Morocco: European Union Backs Moroccan Reforms,” focused on the latest grant from the EU in support of a wide range of ongoing reforms. Yet the subtext of the article, emphasizing the need for greater regional collaboration, hints at the EU’s concern for sustainable economic growth as the strongest antidote to radicalism.




The story starts by noting that “The grant is aimed at three [programs] improving governance and rule of law, jobs and sustainable growth, access to basic services, and support for civil society.” As the EU continues to redefine its social, economic, and political links to its southern neighbors, its emphasis has shifted from funding good intentions to rewarding positive outcomes. This “results” focus has reshaped how the EU determines what kinds of and how much assistance it will extend, moving it away from platitudes and vague notions of accountability to a more realistic set of metrics for determining the targeting and impact of programming.

The agreement with Morocco, signed November 5, makes Morocco the largest recipient of EU programs and signals, along with the EU’s growing support for Tunisia, that the EU is quite serious about seeing direct benefits to the citizens of those countries. Moroccan Finance Minister Mohamed Boussaid told Magharebia that the funding shows that Morocco is making the right, if difficult decisions across a range of policies, from subsidies and pension reforms to revisions proposed for its judicial and media laws.

Rupert Joy, EU Ambassador to Morocco  credit:

Rupert Joy, EU Ambassador to Morocco

Rupert Joy, the EU Ambassador to Morocco, echoed Minister Boussaid’s sentiments. “These new grants for the period 2014-2017 represent the EU acknowledgement of the uniqueness of its partnership with Morocco.” They “reflect EU determination to support the Moroccan government in its efforts to meet people’s aspirations and to turn the reforms initiated in 2011 into tangible progress,” the ambassador added.

Analysts were quick to point out that the EU is using its support programs to nudge the North African countries towards greater cooperation and cross-border economic integration. A Peterson Institute study in 2008 showed the promise of regional integration; since then, a number of additional studies by European and international organizations indicate the benefits to be had from closer economic cooperation.

The broad outlines of the future are taking shape daily. The Maghreb countries are complementary in terms of their core economic strengths (Morocco and Tunisia in services, tourism, agri-business, and manufacturing; Libya and Algeria in hydrocarbons/energy; Mauritania in mining and transportation). The future prospect of a region-wide consumer market fueled by a growing middle class is evident as private sectors play a larger role in both human and economic development across borders.

Ahmed Charfi, a noted economist, told Magharebia that greater regional integration will speed up the pace of development in all of the countries and generate even greater opportunities to meet their needs. “There are two things that are fundamental to development: democracy and promotion of the regional economy,” he said. “If the countries of the Maghreb combine their efforts, they can jointly tackle social problems such as unemployment, regional and social inequalities and poverty . . . Together, they can make rapid progress.”

Morocco does not see its progress in isolation from its neighbors. From the World Bank’s latest report lauding Morocco’s sustainable development strategy, to recent agreements with Tunisia that bring the countries closer together across a broad range of development initiatives, to its growing role as a platform for business in Africa, Morocco has truly transformed its mission from one of domestic growth and stability to becoming a key player in the security and stability of the region. Objective policy analysts agree that only a vibrant economic Maghreb union will have the resilience and strength to meet the aspirations of the region.

What Makes Business Better in Morocco?

Changing Business Perceptions One Company at a Time

I recently attended a rather thoughtful business conference on US-Arab Business, aptly titled the “C3 US-Arab Business Summit 2014.” C3 stands for collaboration, community, and commerce, and its founder, Ransel Potter, has developed the summits for the “sharing of best practices in an effort to advance ‘commercial diplomacy’ between the two regions.”

The sessions moved beyond the usual “how-to” guides and success stories to focus on issues such as the impact of water, advocacy, and cultural ethnicities on regional relationships; the importance of intellectual property protection; opportunities in infrastructure development; and the insights into how women can become more integrated into a country’s economy, ably presented by spokespersons who have practical experience in promoting women in the workforce.

Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE

Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE

This year, several topics highlighted issues that continue to challenge governments as well as private sectors: for example, why corporations should consider local human capital development in their strategic planning, the importance of knowledge transfer in the health and sciences sectors, and how to communicate with Gen Y.

For me, there is great sensibility in this type of program approach that explains business opportunities within the larger context of the regional and cultural environment. Yet I found that, true to the line in the movie Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money” was also a driving force, as the great majority of presentations dealt with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries whose enormous energy-export driven sovereign wealth funds and pool of experienced local companies overwhelm market opportunities in non-energy exporting countries.

Business Sense

Addressing the market prospects in a smaller economy like Morocco’s is a challenge I often face in these kinds of forums. And I was quite alone. The only other country from the Maghreb was Tunisia, whose representatives focused on social, educational, and cultural issues. So where does one start? The first step is to move beyond the “Casablanca” effect and Rick’s Café and describe the wholesale changes that Morocco has made in its business environment in the last 15 years. Companies are surprised to learn that more than 100 US firms are active in Morocco, and some of the giants of the industry, like Cargill, Boeing, and GE, have a significant presence there.

Morocco is rapidly expanding its industrial base

Morocco is rapidly expanding its industrial base

More importantly, Morocco is not just a market of some 32 million people but actually serves as an effective and efficient platform for driving business into west, central, and Atlantic Africa stretching to Nigeria. With its infrastructure, networks, cultural understanding, and long historical ties, Morocco is well positioned to enable US firms to navigate three challenges in opening new markets: finding the right partners, dealing with local governments and regulations, and minimizing risk by making informed choices.

I have worked in the GCC so I can understand and appreciate the attraction of the glitter, but doing business there is not for the faint of heart. As Danny Sebright, President of the US-UAE Business Council remarked, for small firms, one trip to the Gulf may consume their entire year’s market research budget. When one considers that the GCC itself is heavily invested in Morocco, then the benefits of investing in a smaller, regionally focused market become clear. Gulf countries appreciate Morocco’s stability, keen appreciation for business partnerships, and recognition that it can only thrive through global commerce – these are at the center of the country’s commercial ethos. So if one is intent on following the money, then it makes sense to look at opportunities in Morocco across a broad range of sectors, in the country and throughout the region.