Morocco consolidates links with sub-Saharan Africa


The Moroccan executive branch consists of the monarch, who is the head of state, and a government – the head of which is appointed by the king but must be led by the party that gained the most votes in the most recent legislative elections. The government has to command a majority in the lower house of Parliament and currently consists of a broad coalition. The kingdom has a bicameral Parliament, consisting of the Majlis Al Nuwab (House of Representatives), and the upper house, Majlis Al Mustasharin (House of Councillors or Advisers). The 325 members of the Majlis Al Nuwab are elected by universal suffrage in elections held every five years; 305 members are directly elected to five-year terms, and the remaining 90 seats are filled by members elected at the national constituency level, with 60 seats reserved for women and 30 for people under the age of 40. The 120 members of the Majlis Al Mustasharin are indirectly elected by local government representatives, trades unions and professional associations.


The current king, Mohammed VI, came to power in 1999 and is the third monarch to rule Morocco since it gained its independence from France in 1956. The Moroccan royal family is known as the Alawite dynasty, which traces descendance from the Prophet Muhammad. King Mohammed VI instituted a number of liberalising reforms when he succeeded his father, King Hassan II, who ruled from 1961. He put in place further reforms in 2011 against a backdrop of regional unrest and domestic political protest. These included requirements stipulating that the party which wins the largest share of the vote lead the government. Nevertheless, the monarchy is widely regarded as the ultimate arbiter of political power in the kingdom (see analysis).

Party Politics

The political scene – and, as a consequence, its Parliament – was fragmented for much of its post-independence history. This began to change somewhat in the late 1990s, when King Hassan II allowed the left-wing former opposition figure Abderrahmane Youssoufi to lead a government. More recently, the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (Parti de la Justice et du Développement, PJD) has emerged as a party that not only has an identity independent from the monarchy’s policy agenda, but also has a substantial popular support base, winning more than a quarter of seats in each of the last two elections, a much higher proportion than any party gained in previous Parliaments. The PJD has led two governments, heading coalitions of other parties, many of which have much more constrained identities and independence from the government.


The current government dates from early 2017, having been formed in the aftermath of parliamentary elections held late the previous year. It is a coalition of six parties, led by the PJD, with 125 seats in the Majlis Al Nuwab, whose leader Saad-Eddine El Othmani is prime minister. The PJD also led the previous government, from 2011 to 2016, under a different PJD prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane. Benkirane had initially led the coalition negotiations to form the government after the 2017 elections, but was unable to come to agreement with coalition partner the National Rally of Independents (Rassemblement National des Indépendants, RNI), a right-leaning party with strong ties to both big business and the palace, and which is the fourth-largest party in Parliament. This disagreement gave rise to six months of deadlock until Benkirane was replaced by El Othmani, who acceded to the RNI’s demands regarding which other parties should join the coalition. In addition to the PJD and the RNI, the other members of the ruling coalition are the Popular Movement, which draws most of its strength from predominantly Berber rural areas; the Party of Progress and Socialism, a small left-wing party; the left-leaning Socialist Union of Popular Forces; and the right-leaning Constitutional Union. The RNI had insisted that the last two of these be included in the coalition, despite the coalition already having a parliamentary majority without them. Other major parties include the Authenticity and Modernity Party, the second-largest party in Parliament and largest opposition party; and the conservative, Arab nationalist Istiqlal ( Independence Party), which was the main driving force for independence in the years leading up to 1956, the dominant party in the early post-independence years.


Morocco did not witness the large-scale unrest and violence that occurred in many Arab countries in 2011 and beyond during the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, it did see substantial protests organised by the 20th February Movement, to which the monarchy responded with a package of liberalising constitutional reforms that somewhat reduced its power in relation to the elected government. The reforms also included new anti-corruption measures, addressing another of the major complaints of protesters. The movement petered out in subsequent years, however.

The country nevertheless saw an outbreak of significant political unrest in late 2016, concentrated in the north-eastern Rif region and surrounding areas, known as the Hirak Rif, or Rif Movement. The protests, which continued well into the following year before eventually losing momentum, began after the death of a fishmonger in the north-eastern city of Al Hoceima. The region has long had a somewhat strained relationship with the state, partly due to its strong Berber identity and, more recently, over perceptions that it is particularly socio-economically disadvantaged. In the wake of the unrest, the king blamed the government for various socio-economic failings, firing several ministers in late 2017 and giving speeches calling for additional measures to address employment, such as stepped-up education and training. This has been reflected in a government commitment to promote greater socio-economic investment, shown for example by an emphasis on social issues in the 2019 Finance Law, which lays out in detail the government budget for the year.

Regional Relations

In 1975 Spain withdrew from its former colonial possession, the Moroccan/Western Sahara, a desert territory on the north-west Atlantic coast, sandwiched between Morocco and Mauritania, having faced a guerrilla war waged by a local independence movement known as the Polisario Front. The kingdom and Mauritania then divided up the territory, Morocco taking the northern two-thirds and Mauritania the southern third, though the Polisario succeeded in expelling Mauritania from its portion, which Morocco then claimed. Fighting between Morocco, which annexed the territory, and the Polisario continued in subsequent years. In 1991 both sides agreed to a UN ceasefire agreement, based around a plan to hold a referendum on independence. However, subsequent disputes over the terms of the vote eventually saw the referendum rejected. Over the last decade Morocco has proposed giving the territory enhanced autonomy over its internal affairs. Despite this, the conflict has remained frozen. Recent years have also seen the dispute evolve in relation to several decisions by the European Court of Justice, in response to lawsuits brought by independence activists.

However, in December 2018 the kingdom’s minister of foreign affairs met with members of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (the state in exile of the Polisario) and representatives of Algeria and Mauritania for two days of round-table discussions, convened by special representative of the UN secretary-general, Horst Koehler. These were the first such direct talks on the dispute in six years. The participants did not achieve any significant breakthrough at the negotiations but agreed to meet again in early 2019, and the talks were widely qualified as having been productive.

Morocco has had frosty relations with its neighbour Algeria ever since the two gained their independence from colonial power France in the mid-20th century. The rivals fought a brief border war in 1963. With similarly sized populations, and having taken contrasting stances during the Cold War, the two have competed for influence in the region. Their land border has been closed since 1994 though flights run between the two countries. The dispute has been one of the main factors that prevented the Arab Maghreb Union, a projected regional trade bloc, from getting off the ground. This failure has contributed to keeping intra-Maghreb trade levels very low. However, in November 2018 Mohammed VI made a speech calling for the creation of a mechanism that would allow for talks to improve relations with Algeria, and reiterated previous statements that Morocco was willing to work to reopen the border between the two countries. Morocco otherwise has broadly cordial relations with the rest of the Arab world, and close ties with the fellow Arab monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In 2011 the GCC announced that it was to provide $5bn in financial support to be split between Morocco and Jordan.

International Footprint

Further afield, Morocco has long had close political ties with Western Europe, in particular France and the US, having served as an US ally in both the Cold War and the so-called War on Terror. Both are effectively supportive of the kingdom within institutions such as the UN Security Council. In the economic domain, Morocco has a free-trade deal with the US and an association agreement (effectively an industrial free trade agreement) with the EU, as well as agricultural and fisheries agreements. However, plans for the elaboration of a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, which would likely see more regulatory alignment with EU standards, an increase in investor protections and a liberalisation of trade in services, have effectively stalled. In recent years Morocco has been working to strengthen its ties with, and its influence in, sub-Saharan Africa. “The broader demand for actionable economic intelligence is strong and growing in Morocco, as an increasing number of companies based in Morocco expand into other parts of the African continent. They need to understand and evaluate the risks accompanying these opportunities,” Driss Benomar, CEO of Alomra Group International, told OBG. In 2017, meanwhile, the kingdom re-joined the African Union, having left the organisation more than 30 years previously over its recognition of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Since late 2016 King Mohammed VI has been undertaking regular visits to sub-Saharan countries. These have led to a number of significant economic and business agreements, among them ambitious plans for the construction of a 5660-km gas pipeline from Nigeria to the kingdom. Morocco was also a signatory of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement in early 2018, alongside 44 other states. This aims to establish one of the world’s largest freetrade areas. “Morocco has highly developed logistics infrastructure, a strategic geographic position and free trade agreements that give it tariff-free access to 1.3bn potential consumers,” Hicham Boudraa, acting CEO of the Moroccan Investment and Export Development Agency, told OBG. “These elements put the kingdom in a strong position when looking at the investment map.”


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