Morocco developing stronger international diplomatic partnerships

Although the kingdom’s foreign policy choices have always been driven by pragmatism, Morocco has lately become more audacious in the way it projects its international profile. Much of this has been the result of its successful ventures into sub-Saharan Africa, where the country is increasingly becoming an important economic player, as well as closer cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – in part a result in the North African kingdom’s trade strategy, which has sought stronger links with faster-growing markets. Furthermore, the Moroccan government is also seeking increasingly close ties and economic collaboration with traditional partners such as France and other European partners.

The EU

The EU as a whole remains Morocco’s most important economic partner. Trade between the EU and Morocco totalled €29.2bn in 2014, according to figures from the European Commission. Cooperation accelerated in 2000, when the two signed an association agreement that established a free trade area between the EU and Morocco. Although the deal primarily covers industrial products and manufactured goods, it has allowed for EU imports from the kingdom to rise an average of 11.2% between 2009 and 2013, according to European Commission figures. Cooperation was further enhanced in 2008 when the kingdom became the first country to be given “advanced status” within the European Neighbourhood Policy, which seeks closer relations with non-accession countries within the EU’s regional sphere. Despite growing ties with the EU as a whole, Morocco has nonetheless built strong relations with individual European states as well.

France

Chief among the country’s European partners has been France, a traditional ally whose ties to Morocco stretch back centuries. Although 2014 marked a shaky year in relations between the two countries, after a court in France attempted to question the head of Morocco’s domestic intelligence during a visit to Paris, over allegations of torture, both countries have since attempted to mend relations. In early February 2015 King Mohammed VI met with French President François Hollande in Paris. The meeting focused on the strengthening of judicial cooperation between the two countries, particularly in terms of fighting terrorism, and came on the back of a previous visit in 2012, when the Moroccan monarch was the first chief of state to be received at the Elysée by the current French president.

In 2013 French investment in Morocco reached Dh14.6bn (€1.58bn), according to a June 2014 report by the French embassy in Rabat, making it the single most important foreign investor in the kingdom, accounting for 36.9% of foreign direct investment. French investment in the kingdom rose 15.3% in 2013, and an accumulated 64% from 2011 to 2013. Morocco is the most important destination for French investments in the Maghreb, with Morocco accounting for four times the stock of French investment in Algeria, and 12 what Paris has invested in Tunisia.

Spain

The second most important EU partner is Spain, with which the kingdom has been solidifying economic relations, despite a minor dispute related to Spain’s control over the Ceuta and Melilla territories, claimed by Morocco – not unlike Spain’s claim to Gibraltar. In 2013 Morocco was Spain’s largest African market, with Spanish exports to Morocco rising by 4% to reach €5.5bn.

The Spanish market is also becoming increasingly relevant for Moroccan exports, which reached €3.5bn in 2013, a 17% increase in comparison to 2012 numbers, according to figures by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The African Way

A considerable amount of Morocco’s diplomatic energy continues to be channelled towards Africa. Much of this has specifically centred on the French-speaking countries of West Africa, most of which are grouped within the Economic Community of West African States, where Moroccan companies started expanding quickly in the 1980s. Those expansion efforts have started to bear results. According to a 2014 report by UK-based Arabia Monitor, Moroccan exports to West Africa have increased eightfold over the last decade, reaching $865m, and the kingdom has become the most prominent trade partner with West Africa among MENA region countries. This has already impacted the country’s business sector, with the activities of several large Moroccan companies in sub-Saharan Africa reflecting very positively in their financial results. As of mid-2014, 85% of Morocco’s foreign investments were focused on the continent.

New Direction

Since his accession to the throne, King Mohammed VI has visited several African capitals, and efforts to strengthen Morocco’s profile in the continent persist. In early 2014 a tour that lasted several weeks resulted in the singing of over 80 bilateral agreements with Mali, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon. Deals focused on important sectors such as agriculture, industry, banking, tourism and housing, in which the kingdom has gained useful experience in recent years. In May and June 2015 the king carried out a second African tour.

Gabon has been an increasingly closer partner. Relations between Rabat and Libreville go back several decades, but repeated visits by the current monarch have allowed cooperation in health care and education, as well as the establishment of faster Customs procedures. His latest visit in May 2015 was a follow up on the previous visit in March 2014, when Moroccan and Gabonese officials signed a $2.3bn deal regarding the building of two fertiliser plants, in a partnership agreement between Morocco’s Office Chérifien des Phosphates and the Gabonese government.

The Gulf

The oil-rich monarchies of the GCC have also become a source of increased economic cooperation for Morocco over the years. Not only have several GCC members contributed with donor support and investment in the kingdom, but Morocco has welcomed an increase in vacationers from the Gulf, with GCC tourists spending $418m in 2013. The potential to increase cooperation with Gulf countries became especially clear in 2011, when the GCC, which currently includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, invited Morocco and Jordan to be part of the regional grouping. Although Morocco has not joined the GCC so far, it has made efforts to get closer to several of the region’s economic powerhouses. This gesture of political support was followed in 2012 by a $5bn aid envelope offered to Morocco by four GCC members.

Guarantor of Peace

Concerns over regional security in the Middle East, combined with Morocco’s relative stability, have allowed for the kingdom to become a key contributor in multinational intervention and peacekeeping missions. In December 2014, for example, Moroccan Air Force F-16s participated in bombing raids against Islamic State (IS) positions in Iraq, under the umbrella of the international coalition against IS. Morocco has long sought to address security and terrorism concerns domestically, and while the country has suffered from a few deadly incidents over the past decade, including a bombing in Marrakech in 2011, the government has been largely successful in reducing the risk of extremism. In August 2014 the Ministry of the Interior announced it had dismantled an IS cell operating in the north of the country attempting to recruit fighters to join the movement in Syria and Iraq.

As of mid-2014 the Moroccan government stated there were up to 1200 of its nationals fighting with IS and that an additional 100 had been arrested on their return to the kingdom. Despite its challenges, the country’s increasingly open approach to international partnerships is set to continue to put Morocco in an excellent regional position. Forging profitable relationships with countries in both the northern and southern hemispheres will allow the kingdom to benefit from strengthened political ties across its main regions of interest on the globe.

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