Morocco: the King talks about development and inequality

Summary: the King has spoken of the need to reduce regional and social inequalities but it’s more difficult in Morocco than it needs to be. Freedom of the press could be key. 

We are again grateful to Greg Shapland for the posting below. He is a writer on politics, security and resources in the MENA region. He was Head of Research Analysts in the FCO from 2010-13 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

The King’s speeches

King Mohammed VI has now been on the Moroccan throne for 20 years. When he came to power, the King made it clear that internal development would be one of his priorities. (His father, King Hassan II, had paid little attention to this question.) In terms of macro-economic statistics, the effort can be counted a success. Morocco is undoubtedly more developed today than it was in 1999, with the country’s overall GDP almost three times what it was then. GDP per capita has risen too (though not to the same extent, because of population growth). In 2018, it stood at just under $3,400, compared to $1,500 in 1999. This makes Moroccans, on average, slightly richer than Filipinos. Twenty years ago, 15% of Moroccans were classified as poor; now the figure is just 4%.

These figures do not, however, tell the whole story, as Mohammed VI himself recognised in his annual Speech from the Throne on 29 July. In that speech, the King accepted that his country’s development model had failed to satisfy the needs of some citizens and had not reduced social and regional inequalities. On 20 August, the King gave another speech, marking, on this occasion, the 66th anniversary of the Revolution of the King and the People (against the French colonial authorities). In this speech, the King announced the creation of a commission that would be mandated to produce a new development model aimed at addressing the shortcomings of its predecessors.

Regional inequalities

In any developing country of any geographical size, some regions will do better than others. (Developed economies frequently exhibit the same phenomenon, of course, although there the cause tends to be the decline of traditional manufacturing and extractive industries and the growth of new ones.) In Morocco, these regional inequalities have become quite marked.

The part of the country which has done particularly well is the coastal strip between Casablanca (the commercial capital) and Tangier (the main port for Europe) and including Rabat, the political capital. New industries such as the manufacture of cars are located here too: Renault has factories in Casablanca and Tangier, while Peugeot has just opened a new factory in Kenitra. (Morocco is now the leading car maker in Africa, having overtaken South Africa last year.) Farming is more advanced here than elsewhere and benefits from good connections to its main markets, both at home and abroad. The economic dominance of this stretch of Morocco’s coastal strip is symbolised by the high-speed train between Tangier and Casablanca which began operations 10 months ago.  Elsewhere, places that have been successful in attracting tourists have also prospered economically, with Marrakech a notable example.

As the King noted in his August speech, rural areas have generally not done so well. (A group opposed to the high-speed train calculated that the money invested in it could have funded the creation of 25,000 rural schools.) The banlieus (the “suburbs” of the main cities, though the term has a very different connotation – one of deprivation – in French) have also not benefitted much. These districts, often inhabited by migrants from the countryside, are sometimes little or no better than shanty-towns.

The far north of the country – the Rif mountains, with its Berber majority – is prominent among those parts of Morocco which have been left behind. The Rif started, in 1999, from a low base, King Hassan having (it is said) willfully ignored it for the duration of this 38 years on the throne, regarding it as an untrustworthy and disloyal part of his realm. (While still Crown Prince, he had to suppress a rebellion in the Rif in 1958.) The region may have done a little better since 1999, but not much. The city of Tangier has benefitted from the creation of a new port (Tanger Med) and from improved communications links to Casablanca and Rabat but the effect has not spread to the wider region.

As a result of its relative poverty or its distinctive Berber identity (or probably both), the Rif has continued to be restive. Hirak al-Rif (the Rif Movement, also known as al-Hirak al-Sha’bi, the Popular Movement) has channelled the region’s discontents; its campaigning has been met with repression, as previous posts have reported. (See, for example, “Morocco – protest repressed”, 17 May 2019.)

Social inequalities

Various international bodies would agree with the King’s statement that his country needs to do more to help disadvantaged members of society and to reduce inequality (although in terms of its Gini coefficient, the internationally-accepted measure of inequality, Morocco does slightly better than the US). For example, Oxfam produced a report in October last year that ranked Morocco as 98th out of 157 countries in terms of its commitment to reducing inequality. (The Oxfam rankings were based on social spending, taxation policy and labour-market policies.) Morocco also did poorly in the UNDP Human Development Index: last year, it came 123rd out of 189 countries.

Morocco generally does even worse in terms of gender equality, an area to which donors such as USAID are paying attention. The government has, however, been praised by Ivanka Trump for its efforts to ensure gender equality in inheritance.

A new development model

The commission announced by the King in his August speech has not yet been appointed. When it has been, it will no doubt produce an elegant report with plausible recommendations – as many Moroccan commissions staffed by well-qualified individuals have done in the past, on a variety of subjects. The test of such endeavours is, of course, whether those recommendations are implemented. Here, the record is not encouraging. As one analysis points out, implementation has been lacking, with the most important reason cited being “the pervasive corruption that has seen funds that have been earmarked for development projects being siphoned off or wasted”.

Supporters of journalist Hajar Raissouni outside court on Sept 9. Photo: Touria Aziz

Exposing such corruption is a daunting business in a country in which press freedom is as constrained as it is in Morocco. In a report published in April this year, the organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that it was “very difficult” to practise journalism in Morocco and noted that journalists faced “judicial harassment”. In the latest such case, Hajar Raissouni, a Moroccan journalist has been put on trial for having sex outside marriage and for having an abortion. Both these activities are illegal under Moroccan law but there is a suspicion that Raissouni has in fact been targetted for writing articles critical of the authorities and for interviewing the father of one of the imprisoned Hirak activists.

Without the freedom necessary for the conduct of investigative journalism, corruption is likely to continue to undermine the King’s efforts to reduce inequality in his country. (Parliament is not strong enough to call the executive to account on such matters.) His Majesty may therefore find himself talking in future speeches about a lack of equality, perhaps with a genuine feeling of puzzlement as to why he is having to do so.

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