There’s a saying in Morocco which they attribute to the late king, Hassan II: “Morocco is a tree with its roots in Africa and its branches in Europe.” Historically, Europe has been the country’s largest trading partner. However, since 2008 and the economic crash in Europe, large Moroccan groups have increasingly looked at exporting their services south to their African partners, and this has been reflected by Moroccan investments throughout the continent. On a recent visit to South and Central Africa, the current ruler of Morocco, King Mohammed VI, was accompanied by a large business delegation, with an emphasis on strengthening business ties. Olivier Deau reports
It was a long but fruitful journey. Over the course of 28 days in March, an exceptionally long time by any standards, King Mohammed VI visited four sub-Saharan African countries. Morocco has long had strong ties with African countries, especially the French-speaking ones in West and Central Africa, but this visit seemed to have a special significance. “This is about strengthening our partnerships with our closest circle of friends in Africa, showing what Morocco can do when it applies itself,” explained a Moroccan diplomat, who was part of the entourage during this long stay in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Guinea. These official visits to Africa, eight in the space of two years, are becoming one of Moroccan diplomacy’s signature moves. The Head of State strongly favours these official outings on the continent, which are becoming real tours. Accompanied by a large delegation of the country’s businessmen, representing the best of Moroccan capitalism and entrepreneurship, as well as his advisers and ministers, Mohammed VI has multiplied his African visits in the past year, recalling the early years of his reign, during which he frequently travelled the continent. “The royal visits to Africa, particularly these latest ones, bring to mind the long caravans of men and merchants who have always crossed the Sahara between the Magreb and the Sahel,” commented a historian from Rabat. The King would open the door and it was up to the business community to seize the opportunity.
This time means business
A diplomat, who preferred to stay anonymous, commented that Morocco has always been deeply committed to the African continent, more so than some of its neighbours in North Africa. “Historically, politically, and geographically, we are Africans,” a diplomat from Rabat explained. “But this latest visit had a true business purpose.”
Morocco was one of the founding members of the African Union. It was King Mohammed V, the current King’s grandfather, who hosted the Casablanca conference which founded the nucleus of the African Union. They also remind foreign visitors that this nucleus, apart from the King of Morocco, included Ben Bella of Algeria, Modibo Keïta of Mali and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana among others. The relationship with the AU soured in the eighties when the AU agreed to admit a Saharawi delegation. But that did not dampen the strong bilateral ties that had been established. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hassan II had deepened his African connection by keeping close to the most pro-Western French-speaking heads of state, like Léopold Sédar Senghor, Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Omar Bongo. It is said he was influential in Omar Bongo converting to Islam, which paved the way for Gabon to be admitted to OPEC, the cartel of oil-producing countries. In the Moroccan political system, the King is Commander of the Faithful. Sufi preachers who preached Islam in West Africa mostly came from the Maghreb and prayers in Timbuktu were said on behalf of the Sultan of Morocco. Among these proselyte saints, Sid Ahmed Tidjani, the most celebrated of them all, was buried in Fez and his tomb has become a sort of African pilgrimage to which followers travel from all over West Africa.
“In his visits, King Mohammed VI has prioritised not only business partnerships but also deep spiritual links which unite Morocco and the rest of Africa,” our Moroccan diplomat explained. “He has taken his time to understand the needs of his partners, as a sign of respect but also to show his commitment for deep and long partnerships, and this has helped [us] win hearts,” he continued. The country’s receptiveness to African affairs has helped it to score points on the continent. For two years (2011–2013), the country sat as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, giving it a front-row seat to all international crises, and providing a voice for the whole continent. “For several years, Morocco warned of the security destabilisation in the Sahel–Saharan region, and its presence on the Security Council put it centre-stage during the Mali crisis,” explained an official from the French Embassy in Rabat. Given its active role in helping resolve the Mali crisis, Mohammed VI was invited at the inauguration of Ibrahima Boubacar Keïta, the new President of Mali. The King’s presence helped the country to seal a deal to train 500 Malian imams in Moroccan training institutions for religious scholars. “We share the same Maliki rite and the strong influence of Sufism in our beliefs. This agreement is a manifestation of Morocco’s support for enlightened Islam in our country,” the Malian Ambassador in Rabat explained.
But it is really in terms of business and economic cooperation that we have seen Moroccans take a lead these last few years and the signs are that Moroccan companies will be increasingly looking south in terms of growth. “Moroccan companies have been involved across a diverse number of sectors, finance, telecoms, infrastructure, you name it,” according to Alioune Gueye, a Senegalese-Moroccan businessman. The Office for Electricity and Drinking Water, Maroc Telecom, Attijariwafa Bank, BMCE, Banque Populaire, OCP, all of these names are now familiar in the African countries close to Morocco.
Mohamed Kettani, the CEO of Atijariwafa Bank, partially explained the secret behind these African success stories, offering tailored solutions, operating in a way which is both global and local, “When we set up a branch in Africa, we do not confine ourselves to operating in the centre of the capital city and collect the savings of the rich. We reach out to the smaller middle classes and provide products designed for them. In Africa, we are focused on the long term with formulas similar to those which have allowed Morocco to increase the rate of its banked population.”
Today, Moroccan companies are the second-largest African investors in Africa, after South Africa. And more interestingly, when it comes to external investment Moroccan companies direct two thirds of their FDI intra-Africa. “After record years in 2008 and 2009 with $3–4 billion invested in Africa, the level of investment was maintained at one billion a year, which is a strong performance given the size of the country but also in the context of the ongoing global economic crisis [which impacted Morocco due to its economic ties with Europe],” explained a financial analyst from a Casablancan bank. “And think that these investments are essentially directed towards countries on the continent which are politically closest to Morocco, which shows you the scope for growth,” a European diplomat in Rabat added.
There was a celebratory mood at OCP, a parastatal company operating in mining and agribusiness and the world’s main producer of phosphates. The royal visit saw the launch of a strategic partnership between the King and the President of Gabon, an industrial-size fertiliser project: “With ammonia from Gabon and Moroccan phosphate, we will be able to produce two million tonnes of fertiliser, a key input, to help realise the dream of a green revolution in Africa,” an OCP executive explained. “This is a new generation of African partnerships. Ten years ago, no one would have imagined two African countries would one day sign such ambitious development partnerships,” he continued.
The Moroccan International Cooperation Agency has not shied away from the task either. This quiet agency is located in brand-new buildings close to the student district. When asked about his operational budget, its director tends to reply with the same smiling quip, “We are funding 7,000 sub-Saharan African students in Morocco; that’s my budget.” The number of bursaries granted, much like the map of Moroccan investments, reflects with almost the same intensity the political relationships between Morocco and her African friends. “Africa must be built by the Africans,” the King hammered home during his speeches to various occasions on the continent. Morocco has invested all its political, cultural and economic soft power in order to prove that it is more in touch with its roots than ever. Moroccan diplomats on the continent keep a worried eye on multilateral partnerships which link the African Union to other continental giants, but Morocco has managed the feat of keeping her place as an important business and political partner in Africa.