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Beating drum for regional integration – again

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Center for Trade & Investment

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American  Trade & Investment Center

MATIC, by Jean R. AbiNader (Washington, DC, Feb. 14, 2013) —  This past week, yet another regional conference was held promoting economic integration in the Maghreb/North Africa. Despite all of the splintering tendencies emerging from the Arab uprisings, there is still a strong pull among leaders for greater cooperation and coordination that goes beyond security arrangements to attack the root causes of economic stagnation.

The twin economic shocks of the Arab uprisings driving away tourists and potential investors and the decline of customer markets in Europe have greatly affected rates of growth throughout the Maghreb. Greater economic cooperation, particularly to access new markets and achieve greater economies of scale, would appear to be obvious, but then intraregional politics excels at obfuscation, not innovation.

At the 4th Paris Economic Forum – Casablanca Round, Tunisia’s former finance minister, Jaloul Ayed said that the lack of a working Maghreb Union linking Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya is costing each country between two and three percentage points of growth. “I stress once again the absolute need for the Maghreb Union… a Union which would facilitate shared prosperity for all peoples in the region.”

Arab Maghreb Union

Arab Maghreb Union

His remarks were echoed by Morocco’s finance minister, Nizar Baraka, who noted that in order to “seize opportunities in a time of crisis, efforts needed to be pooled at the regional level. The democratic enthusiasm in the region should be harnessed and consolidated as democracy can only be meaningful if it translates into job creation, the restoration of social mobility, and improvements in citizens’ lives.” Minister Baraka, who was named by The Banker as the “best Minister of Finance in the Middle East” and “Minister of Finance 2012-Global Award,” speaks from hard fought experience in steering fiscal policy through the turbulence that has buffeted Morocco over the past two years. “This is why, for us, economic integration is essential and could be achieved through a cross-Maghreb growth pact with a shared ambition and a unifying aim: shared prosperity for all and the creation of a society of trust in North Africa,” he said. Baraka added that a competitive bloc needed to be created, so that it could position itself as a partner to the European Union.

While the economic benefits from a robust Maghreb Union may be somewhat obvious, as important in the long run is the positive impact on job creation, foreign direct investment, coordination of commercial regimes across borders, and the strengthening of the productive capacities of small, medium, and large enterprises at various stages of the value chain through competition, integration, and greater focus on competitive advantages. It would also have a salubrious impact on workforces throughout the region, focusing skills and capacity-building within competitive sectors to increase available pools of talent. All of this would engender greater regional stability to complement what is happening in the security realm.

Former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn spoke about Morocco’s economic potential as well as the difficulties facing the region. “We have moments in history where we must make difficult decisions that allow us to locate and seize the positive,” Moroccan daily L’Economiste quoted Strauss-Kahn as saying. A sharp warning was given by Claire Spencer, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the UK think tank Chatham House. She pointed out that about 75 percent of the region’s population falls between 18 and 30, which provides challenges and opportunities for the region’s economic recovery as there is an accessible workforce in the Maghreb that is well positioned to provide growing services to its neighbors in Europe whose populations are ageing. The countries of the Maghreb must make full use of this asset, Spencer said, adding that it was essential for the aspirations of the youth to be realized.

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One of the commentators at the conference, economist Mehdi Zariri, highlighted the fact that the countries of the Maghreb are experiencing the same social and economic problems and must therefore come together to establish common strategies. “It’s vital to capitalize on the ways in which the economies of Maghreb nations complement one another, as they could form a strong economic unit in Africa,” he said.

It is this historic regional complementarity that holds the greatest promise for spearheading the economic growth critical to meeting the needs of the restive populations. Moving beyond rhetoric to concrete agreements that result in regional projects across key sectors—IT, transportation, value-added agricultural products, banking, specialty manufacturing, and renewable energies—is energizing private sectors to challenge business practices that under serve the needs of the Maghreb. The drums are beating.

Jean R. AbiNader is Executive Director of the Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center.

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