Over the past two weeks, several stories seem to indicate that Morocco is on the right track for economic growth in 2013. As with the other Maghreb countries, Morocco faces many challenges ranging from quality of labor to a somewhat confusing regulatory environment in attracting foreign investment. Yet, tourism is up over last year, the EU has launched talks for a free trade agreement, a major Moroccan bank has signed a trade finance credit line with the Europeans, and, at least on the economic side, most analysts believe that GDP growth will exceed 3 percent.
Reuters carried the story on the EU’s intention to negotiate a free trade agreement with Morocco as part of the EU’s response to the Arab uprisings. It is significant in that the first treaty will be negotiated with Morocco, another indicator of its perceived stability and commitment to opening its markets further. Trade between Morocco and the EU topped 24 billion euros in 2011, and the EU is hoping to further expand its activities in the services sector as well. The EU’s goal was well stated by Marielle De Sarnez, a French member of the European Parliament, “Smooth negotiations of the free trade agreement are crucial because they serve as an example for other countries in the southern Mediterranean…this agreement will also allow in the long term greater regional integration for the Maghreb countries.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Vice-President of the European Investment Bank (EIB), Philippe de Fontaine Vive, on the sidelines of the EIB’s annual review. He noted that Morocco is the first recipient under a new program of the FEMIP (Facility for Euro-Mediterranean Investment and Partnership) that commits nearly one billion euros of financing “to support the transition to a new form of innovative and more inclusive growth in Morocco.” More than a dozen major projects were funded in 2012, in areas as diverse as transportation infrastructure (including the extension of rural roads), agriculture, technological innovation, solar energy, education and health sectors, in addition to the medina renovation programs in Fez and Meknes, and coming to Casablanca. He went on to say that “This shows both that the EIB is there to support the process of democratic transition and that Morocco has the capacity in diverse sectors to be able to mount innovative projects, the most emblematic in the year 2012 has been the solar project at Ouarzazate, for which we coordinated the European funding.”
It is the capacity of local agencies and institutions that is the focus of a $75 million trade finance facility between the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and Banque Marocaine du Commerce Exterieur (BMCE Bank). The financing line is to support international and intraregional trade transactions with both guarantee and cash advance facilities. It will support trade activities by “facilitating the distribution of imported goods and contribute to the overall growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).” How this growth is perceived in-country was the focus of an article in the Financial Times by Chris Wright that highlighted the perceptions of fellow travelers on the train from Casablanca to Rabat. Comparing the views of a Brit, a Saudi, and a Moroccan leaves one with the impression that while Morocco is doing better than others affected by the Arab uprisings, it still has many challenges ahead before its recovery and growth are assured.
A key insight into what needs to be done came from Oussama Romdhani, former Tunisian minister of communication. In an article in the World Affairs Journal, he proposed that “A durable recovery will require far-reaching policy reforms addressing the chronic mismatch between educational training and the job market. In this particular concern, US advice and assistance could help North African countries modernize their inefficient higher education and vocational training systems.” The gap between jobs and skills in Morocco continues to draw the attention and resources of both the government and the private sector. It is difficult to attract foreign direct investment without an available qualified workforce that operates within a relatively open and free labor market. The government has initiated a series of programs that address the skills side but still lags behind in freeing up its regulatory environment to facilitate a more dynamic labor sector. Hopefully, as the growth prospects continue to improve, there will be time to address the structural reforms needed in the labor market that will accelerate the trend towards greater prosperity.