Jean R. AbiNader
July 19, 2018
In a stunning and thoughtful article, Anouar Boukhars writes frankly about the demise of even the vision of the Maghreb Arab Union (AMU), its obituary announced both continent-wide at the African Union and at an international conference with the EU by no less than King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Despite a rejoinder from the Algerian Foreign Minister supporting the vision of the AMU, Boukhars writes, “The depressing truth, however, is that the King’s lament on the demise of the AMU is simply a reflection of the mood of resignation increasingly palpable in the Maghreb as well as rising frustration with the hypocrisy of those who preach the gospel of regional integration while doing nothing to bring it to fruition.” Even Tunisia has turned its attention to building bonds to the south where, like Morocco, it has distinct advantages of language and cultural affinity, as well as development experience, that is in demand.
The notion that this is just political rhetoric that has no ‘juice’ once the elder generation of Algerian leaders are gone, does not consider, as Boukhars put it, ”[It] is a reflection of growing concern within Maghrebi intellectual circles that the unrelenting enmity between Morocco and Algeria risks spiraling out of control.”
Tensions at sports matches and other popular venues cannot be confined within a country’s borders. “At an age where the internet and social media are bringing people together, Maghrebi youths are not only becoming more disconnected from each other but also wholly unaware of the common history that once tied them,” Bouhkars explains.
There seems to be no pushback against this trend as civil society, the business community, and NGOs join their governments in reciting age-old accusations against the other. The people of the region suffer the most from the lost opportunities. “The absence of regional integration has been costly to the Maghreb. By some estimates, the region loses about 530 billion Dollars each year as a consequence of trade restrictions and legislative barriers. The lack of trade complementarity, the mirroring similarities in the structures of trade and low export diversification have also had major negative impacts on intra-Maghrebi trade, which in 2015 accounted for only 3.6% of the region’s total trade and contributed a paltry 2.05% to the countries’ combined gross domestic product (GDP).”
While Morocco is initiating a range of complementary projects with its African neighbors, there have been few opportunities to do the same with its Maghrebi counterparts, robbing them of opportunities for economic growth and badly needed jobs. It is difficult to picture a strategic region-wide solution as long as the two key players, Morocco and Algeria, continue to see the other as existential threats over the Sahara and political leadership in the region. You can link to the entire article here.
EU reaffirms its commitment to Morocco’s economic development through initiation of the EU External Investment Plan, designed to support a better business environment and foster economic growth. In a press release, the EU reaffirmed its commitment to encourage investments promoting inclusive growth, job creation, and sustainable development, according to its press release. The Commissioner for Enlargement Negotiations and European Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn commented: “The European External Investment Plan will help leverage significant private funds into key sectors of Morocco’s economy. The plan will in turn empower local entrepreneurs and create jobs in the country. This new and innovative approach will also help carry out big sustainable development projects, which otherwise would not have been possible at all or would have been significantly smaller.”
Tunisia asserts its leadership in technology start-ups with at least seventeen tech hubs and a large number of funding and mentoring programs, Tunisia is one of the more dynamic locations for startups on the African continent. In November 2017, Tunis was selected as the location for the African Union’s planned Digital African Excellence Center, which will be in charge of training African government officials and private-sector managers in the digital sector,” according to an article in Sada published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
While there may be divisions on political and macro-economic issues, Tunisia set off on this path several years ago and is now gaining recognition and funding for its efforts. The aim of the 64 targeted projects is “To strengthen the digital sector as a future cornerstone of the Tunisian economy, which currently largely relies on agriculture and tourism.” The recently passed Startup Act aims to reduce obstacles to starting new tech companies, open access to longer term financing, and clear out regulatory and legal hurdles that impede business development.
But as the article concludes, “The Startup Act is only a first step toward a flourishing digital economy. Far-reaching reforms in areas such as monetary and financial policy and the education system will also be necessary.” Its vision and implementation may well be models for other countries in Africa and the Middle East to emulate.