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Testing the Waters of Morocco’s Link to Africa – Jean R. AbiNader

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

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

Jean R. AbiNader, MATIC
November 4, 2013

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.”

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.

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

Co-published with Fair Observer (www.fairobserver.com)

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