King Mohammed’s 20th Anniversary: The Glass is Half Full – Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)

During his first official visit to the United States, His Majesty King Mohamed VI of Morocco is escorted by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and into the Pentagon on June 21, 2000. Photo: R. D. Ward [Public domain]

Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)
July 29, 2019

Twenty years after King Mohammed VI succeeded his father to the throne, opinions are bound to circulate on how successful he’s been as the leader of Morocco. Having served as US ambassador to Morocco from 1997-2001 and an adviser to the King for 15 years, these observations reflect a rather distinct perspective.

It’s a story filled with both achievements and continuing challenges, resting mainly in the hands of the King. Given the mostly ill effects of the “Arab Spring,” while at the same time observing the progress of the country, one can only conclude that Morocco must be doing something right, although challenges still lie ahead. This article examines one of the King’s earliest speeches in which he set forth a vision for his country, and compares it to his achievements twenty years later.

King Mohammed VI’s Speech, August 1999

In one of his first speeches– following his enthronement as King on July 30, 1999 – King Mohammed said in August 1999, “How can we hope to achieve progress and prosperity when women, who make up half of society, see their interests flouted….” He immediately caught his audience’s attention with this bold statement and went even further in providing an insight into his future vision for his country by calling for the formation of an Independent Arbitration Panel within the existing Human Rights Advisory Board. The Panel was established within days of his enthronement to examine mistakes and injustices made by the Moroccan state and determine compensation owed to victims.

King Mohammed then discussed democratization in his country, endorsing the foresight and inspiration of King Hassan in promoting a constitutional democracy. He said, “[King Hassan] crowned…this remarkable position of Morocco, by his modern and innovative political thought, materialized by the institution of a constitutional monarchy advocating consultation with the nation, and the association of it with the exercise of responsibilities through elected councils, and through regional decentralization while being fully aware of each other’s rights and duties.” The King went on to “encourage adherence to the declaration of universal human rights and the resulting international charters.”

He called on his government and people “to respect the provisions of the rule of law within the framework of the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution of individuals and organizations,” and discussed the concerns for the economic wellbeing of Morocco’s citizens. He opined, “How [do we] achieve global development while our rural [areas] struggle with problems…in the absence of an integrated development strategy…in the absence of the interest that must be given to housing and education, improving basic facilities, limiting exodus by implementing a plan that takes into account the promotion of rural communes, the creation of new development hubs in city centers…?”

On the issue of education, he asked, “How can we achieve scientific progress and be in tune with the advanced world, when contingents of our educated and skilled young people are unemployed and find the doors closed in front of them…without training…and skills?” And he ended this thought addressing Morocco’s disadvantaged, “How can we ensure equal opportunities for all, if the physically disabled are marginalized and excluded from the areas for which they are trained and prepared…?”

The King ended his speech by stating, “We do not hold a magic wand by which we claim to solve all these problems and many others, but we are firmly determined to face them…with the means at our disposal, the moral potential in which we draw… solidarity and sacrifice, sincerity, dedication and awakened conscience that must be ours, all conditions without which true citizenship cannot be expressed, progress cannot be made, and faith itself would be lacking.” This first speech following his enthronement would prove to be the roadmap for significant changes in Morocco’s history.

My Speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, September 1999

In September of 1999, I traveled to Washington to give a speech on the new king to the Council on Foreign Relations. The hall was filled with many of Washington’s foreign policy experts who were anxious to learn more about the new King. I described King Mohammed VI as “determined to implement the wide-ranging economic and political reforms initiated by his late father King Hassan II…. These reforms represent a cutting-edge experiment in the Arab world to consolidate democratic and market reform through consensual and progressive change.”

I further stated, “Our reading is that the Moroccan Government has what it takes – the vision, the will, the popular support, and the backing of the King – to narrow the gap between rich and poor and to create the conditions for Morocco’s economic take off. Over the past year, we have witnessed a deepening in the reform process, acceleration in the pace of privatization, and a much-needed focus on transparency, judicial reform, and social development.”

I ended my speech by stating that, “No one seems more qualified to carry on his father’s vision than King Mohamed VI. Some commentators have voiced concerns that the King may be inexperienced and unprepared for his new responsibilities. I strongly disagree with this assessment. I know King Mohamed VI to be a man of tremendous intellect and seriousness. He possesses a great understanding of the needs of his people.”

Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

How has the King done these past twenty years?

We now take for granted the regular, fair, and free elections held in Morocco on time and without incident. Little more than two decades ago, this was not the case. The election of the first opposition government of Alternancein 1998 marked a new era in the country’s history, with free and fair elections held every election cycle thereafter.

By 2003, a new law protecting the rights of women, hailed at the time as the most progressive in the region, was enacted. It included the establishment of the responsibility of both spouses, the end of the matrimonial guardianship, a major restriction of polygamy, as well as the increase of the legal minimum age of the marriage.

In January of 2004, the King would create the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER) to examine the mistakes made during the reign of King Hassan II, the first truth commission established in the Arab world. It spent 23 months investigating enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and sexual violence. It resolved 742 cases of enforced disappearance and provided compensation to 9,779 victims. The IER held seven live, televised, public hearings in six regions to establish the historical truth, and submitted its final report in November 2005, recommending individual and community reparations in 11 regions. It also recommended strengthening constitutional protection of human rights, as well as other legal and judicial protections.

By 2006, the National Human Development Initiative (INDH) was announced, tackling the economic and social issues of 600 of the most vulnerable urban and rural areas in Morocco. And since then Morocco joined the 193-member United Nations General Assembly in formally adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adding more objectives to its longstanding commitment to promoting sustainable human development.

The 2030 UN Agenda, which includes 17 goals and 169 targets to “wipe out poverty, fight inequality, and tackle climate change over the next 15 years,” aims to build on the 2000 Millennium Development Goals aimed at improving access to education, gender equality, maternal and child health, and environmental sustainability.

In taking a look at Morocco’s performance in achieving the Millennium Development Goals over the past 15 years, it is clear that it has been largely successful: extreme hunger and poverty have been virtually eradicated; universal primary education is within reach, with 98.8% of children attending primary school; child mortality has been reduced by over 60%; on gender equality, while much remains to be done, the statistics map real changes with regard to health, education, and empowerment, including maternal mortality rates and girls enrollment in primary school; access to improved drinking water reached 85%, and access to improved sanitation reached 76%.

Since 2005, the INDH has improved the living conditions of citizens, reduced poverty in urban and rural areas, assisted the most vulnerable groups in society, and supported families in difficult economic situations. According to the World Bank, Morocco has made substantial progress in reducing poverty over recent decades. In 2007, 8.9% of its population was considered poor, compared to 16.35% in 1998. As of 2014 the poverty rate fell to 4.2%. During this time, the INDH undertook more than 18,600 projects benefiting 4 million people, for a total amount of $1.4B.

Economic diversification has been among the country’s biggest successes. Tangier and Marrakech little resemble their appearance in 1995. I remember when traveling to Marrakech in 1998 the first thing I saw were plastic bags strewn across dirt-tracked streets. Tangier was not even considered safe to walk around at night. Today both cities are clean, green, and bustling with industry, tourism, economic opportunity, and social life. Morocco’s tourism has increased five-fold during King Mohammed’s reign, and it will get 50% of its electricity needs from renewables by 2030, a grid that now reaches nearly 100% of its citizens.

In 2011, understanding the needs and demands of Morocco’s citizens, the King pressed for a new constitution, further empowering government and reducing the absolute authority of the monarch. As part of this process, he proposed to decentralize government and advanced a local democratization process that put the economic, social, and financial decisions of each region and community in the hands of local decision makers and civil society.

Agriculture in 1999 made up nearly 20 percent of the GNP, and manufacturing was non-existent, outside of phosphates. Today, agriculture makes up about 15% of GDP, Morocco is the largest producer of cars in Africa, and is a hub for advanced technology in carbon fiber, contributing to the burgeoning manufacturing of renewables and airplane components. It has also signed important free trade agreements; including one of only 20 US trade agreements, which positions it as a hub for trade and investment between the US, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

When I first arrived in Morocco twenty years ago, the only four-lane road, which had just been completed, connected Casablanca to Rabat. Today, a network of highways connects Tangier, Rabat, Fez, Oujda, Casablanca, Marrakech, and Agadir, and will soon expand to other cities further south, eventually reaching the Mauritania boarder. The US is still struggling to build its first high speed rail, while in Morocco one can travel from Tangier to Casablanca in the high speed “Al Boraq” in an hour and twenty minutes.

Morocco had one major port in Casablanca twenty years ago. Today it boasts new and modern ports in Casablanca, Tangier, and Laayoune, and plans for more in the coming few years. The Tanger Med Port is now the busiest in the Mediterranean. New dams are being built and old ones modernized. Morocco is rated among the most successful of all developing countries on infrastructure development.

Most importantly, the King worked closely with the United States to move away from a winner-take-all referendum on the Western Sahara question, and instead took the brave step in the first year of his reign to embrace a win-win solution for Morocco and the people of the Sahara to grant them large autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. This decision by the King, a few short months after his reign, overturned a position held by King Hassan for nearly 20 years. It has been endorsed by the international community as serious, credible, and realistic.

And while King Mohammed deserves most of the credit for the many remarkable changes in Morocco, he has more work to do. Budget deficits are on the rise, and GDP, although significantly higher and more consistent, has averaged just under 4%, which is short of meeting the needs of the growing population.

Education is also woefully deficient in Morocco, despite the fact that it represents nearly a quarter of Morocco’s budget. Educational levels, literacy, and technical skills are among the lowest in the region. Health care is a major problem as well, and those who can afford it go to other countries for their care. Both are two areas that the government must step up to address, as these are massive bureaucratic machines that require leadership of the government, and not just the King’s intervention.

Freedom of the press is not free in a country where political dissent has its limits. It is argued that, to keep the country strong, there are certain freedoms the people are not ready for, and that the country is right to slow down in its reform agenda, otherwise it will be destabilized. This argument is not sustainable. Demonstrations are a regular part of the democratic process emerging in Morocco, but jail sentences for dissidents and unfair interrogations create an image of Morocco that sullies its stature. The Palace needs to take a hard look at why freedom of expression is stymied, and should push faster in creating an independent judicial system, separate from the influence of the elite.

At the local level, rule of law is weak, corruption still exists, and the justice system lacks independence from local officials. The country’s judges need to be properly trained, and those who break the law need to be brought to justice. Perhaps the King should set up an independent “whistle blower” function that encourages and protects aggrieved persons to bring their case without retribution, and be given a chance to fairly adjudicate their claims and report illegal governmental actions, without outside interference or pressure.

My conclusion is that the glass is half full. I can think of few developing countries with as positive a track record as Morocco. King Mohammed was right when he said in August of 1999 that he “does not hold a magic wand,” but anyone who’s worked with him can attest to his kindness, care, and competence, and he has dedicated his life to the improvement of his people. More has to be done, but Moroccans are fortunate to have such a leader determined to take the next steps in making their country a singular success story in the coming years.


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