Catching Up With Morocco’s Future – 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 11, 2013

My agenda included economic and social development issues, reform and regionalization, relations in the region, human rights, and any new developments on Morocco’s progress on advancing the Western Sahara conflict resolution.

Covering so many topics in a week was itself a challenge but thankfully, with a little help from logistics mavens, I visited Casablanca, Rabat, and Dakhla for five solid days of meetings and site visits.

Casablanca is always a good starting point, both because it is the economic heart of the country and has great opportunities for people watching and random meetings that end in very interesting conversations.

After visiting Rick’s Café, I started the next day with a briefing at CGEM (Confédération générale des entreprises du Maroc), the Moroccan employers association, which represents all of the business sectors in the country, from micro and SMEs to the largest public and private corporations.

For more than 60 years, they have been the primary change agent for advancing the interests of the private sector.

We discussed their advocacy efforts with the new government, programs to support entrepreneurship and training, and their goals for enhancing the business environment in Morocco.

CGEM also reinforced a message heard throughout the trip – that with the decline in European business partners, Morocco needed to accelerate its efforts to reach out to markets throughout Africa where it has a competitive advantage.

We had a very frank and thoughtful discussion, and CGEM remains a go-to source for a reality check on Morocco’s private sector.

The next visit to the office of Education for Employment (EFE-Maroc) was particularly interesting since EFE is a hands-on training organization that mediates workforce development with potential employers. With a strong focus on job-related and soft skills training, EFE, a US-based NGO, has been able to garner support from foundations and governments to expand their programs in six Arab countries to bridge the gap between education and employment.

The staff was also helpful in describing the range of efforts by which the government has raised its commitment to youth employment with initiatives to strengthen and expand current government vocational and technical training.

A side trip to the seacoast in Casablanca brought me to the swearing-in of the first cohort of  CorpsAfrica volunteers, an AmeriCorps-style program for Africans to do a year of national service in their home countries.

The reception was a remarkable gathering of NGOs and officials including the Minister of Handicrafts, Solidarity, and Social Economy who swore in the volunteers, as well as the volunteers’ sponsors such as OCP Foundation and USAID.

Spirited Dialogues in Rabat

In any of my visits, perhaps the most difficult task is prioritizing meetings.  My first day in Rabat was literally a wish list of contacts: Driss Guerraoui, secretary general of the Economic, Social, and Environment Council (CESE) – a critical stop since CESE is responsible for the report to the King on a multifaceted strategy for the southern provinces, including the Western Sahara; Driss El Yazami, president of the Central Authority for the Prevention of Corruption (ICPC), and several ICPC staff – the country’s anticorruption commission slated for tougher investigative and monitoring powers under the 2011 Constitution; Nadia Bernoussi, at Ecole Nationale de l’Administration, who was one of the experts who drafted the 2011 Constitution;  Manal Elattir, founder and CEO of Anarouz, a social enterprise for women; the Minister of Tourism, Lachen Haddad; and member of Parliament from the RNI Party, Rachid Talbi Alami; among others!

It was quite an exceptional breadth of information, very helpful for both insights into the broad scope of Morocco’s policies on a variety of issues ranging from employment and education, to constitutional reforms, regionalization, and human rights.

On the last topic, there are clearly some strong Moroccan feelings about the harm that is being done to the bilateral relationship with the US by various NGOs and bureaucrats who, the Moroccans feel, are generalizing allegations about human rights into broadsides against Morocco’s overall commitment to enhance its human rights regime.  This theme was a strong component of the King’s Green March speech given this past week and was a constant topic on the next leg of my trip to Dakhla, the tourism center of the Western Sahara.

The Latest News from Dakhla

I went to Dakhla both to refresh my knowledge of the scope of Morocco’s investments in this part of the southern provinces and to interview Sahrawis, many of whom were refugees from the Polisario-run camps near Tindouf, in southwest Algeria.

After a visit to the expanding port facilities, which handle more than 65 percent of Morocco’s daily fish catch, I went to Benis Peche, a high-tech processing facility that is part of the growing private sector presence in the south.

I was told that they hire and train local Sahrawis and are constantly looking for ways to expand in the market, including achieving FDA certification. Their marketing to various countries is very impressive, even down to the color of the cans used for exports. Men and women were working hard side by side and benefiting from the private sector’s growing role in the fishing sector. (Hint: when you go to Morocco, make sure to try the Dakhla oysters…remarkably tasty!)

My final hours were spent at a roundtable with more than a dozen Sahrawis anxious to tell us their stories and concerns about how they are perceived.

“Contrary to what you hear from some international NGOs, we are living normal lives in Morocco, we respect the Constitution, and we enjoy our rights and love our country,” was how a women NGO leader began her remarks. There were definite negative feelings expressed about claims by the Polisario to represent the Sahrawi people, which was characterized as “no party, one man rule, with no rights.”

When asked what could be done, there was unanimity in the response, “We want international organizations to report truthfully and stop propaganda.”

I gained a lot of insight into their optimism regarding the results of the CESE process, which they were unsure of at the start.  Now, having heard the final recommendations, they are even more convinced that the bottom line is that Morocco offers a certain and better future for the Sahrawi people.

Leaving Morocco with so much information and so many impressions only made me more interested in returning again to gain more experience and insights into Morocco and its relationship with the US.

Or it might be that any time spent in the Dakhla kite-surfing lagoon at Dakhla Attitude would make anyone want to return.

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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