Morocco is often described as the gateway to Africa, an apt description given its proximity to Europe and its geographic location at the north-eastern tip of the continent. At its narrowest, 13 km of the Strait of Gibraltar separates Point Cires in Morocco from Point Marroquí in Spain. The country is neighboured by Algeria to the east and Mauritania to the south.
Morocco’s population is rapidly growing: according to the most recent census data, it almost tripled from 11.6m in 1960 to 33.4m in 2014. As of February 2020 the kingdom was home to roughly 35.8m people, according to the Higher Planning Commission.
The country’s largest city, and its business and economic centre, is Casablanca, located 85 km from Rabat, the kingdom’s political capital. Other historical and economically prominent cities include Marrakech, Fez, Meknes and Tangier.
Morocco is divided into three geographic zones, separated by four mountain chains. The northern coastal plains are the location of much of the kingdom’s agricultural activity, as well as its most densely populated areas. Within these lowlands is the Gharb plain, north of Rabat, which is known for its citrus production. To the east and south are semi-arid and arid areas, where mountains blend into the Sahara Desert.
Morocco’s territory is dominated by the mountainous central regions. Running parallel to the Mediterranean Sea is the northernmost mountain range, known as the Rif, and to its south lies the Atlas Mountain range, comprised of three sub-ranges: the Anti-Atlas, the High Atlas and the Middle Atlas. Within the High Atlas, near the city of Marrakech, is Jebel Toubkal, the country’s highest mountain at 4165 metres above sea level.
The country’s climate can vary substantially from region to region, although it can be roughly divided into two climatic zones. Western and northern Morocco are characterised by a subtropical climate similar to the Mediterranean region, with hot, dry summers and mild winters. Average daily temperatures in Rabat vary from a high of 17°C in January to 28°C in August, and average daily rainfall ranges from 106 mm in December to 0 mm in July.
In contrast, the south experiences much drier and warmer weather. For example, Ouarzazate, home to the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant, sees an average daily high of 18°C in January and 38.9°C in August. The city experiences virtually no rainfall throughout the year, with an average high of 25 mm during November.
Like many other countries, Morocco is already beginning to see the impact of climate change. Droughts have increased in both frequency and intensity. The country launched a strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change in 2008, known as the Green Morocco Plan, aimed at conserving natural resources and strengthening agricultural resilience. The plan, alongside other initiatives such as the solar plant at Ouarzazate, have bolstered Morocco’s status as a global leader in environmental sustainability and renewable energy. Despite ongoing measures to combat climate change, the kingdom experienced a severe drought during the 2015-16 harvest, which significantly reduced agricultural yields and, by extension, economic performance. GDP growth fell by 1.1% in 2016, but it rebounded to 4.2% in 2017 due to improved conditions.
Morocco’s economy has traditionally been dominated by agriculture, which is one of the most strategically important sectors. It is responsible for approximately 30% of the country’s employment, 20% of GDP and 35% of exports. Top agricultural exports include citrus products, sugar and olive oil. Despite its significant economic weight, the agriculture sector’s performance is highly dependent on rainfall and weather conditions. For example, in 2015-16 production of cereal, one of the country’s major crops, fell by approximately 70% as a result of that season’s drought.
Although it remains a vital part of the economy, the sector’s contribution to GDP has been gradually falling, accounting for around 13% as of mid-2019. At the same time, other sectors have been increasing in importance. The industrial sector, for example, has gradually transitioned to higher value-added production. Its share of GDP has risen from an average of 19% between 1985 and 2016 to 25% in 2017. The sector’s contribution remained unchanged as of early 2019, according to the African Development Bank. In recent years, the kingdom has focused on developing export-oriented products and services, with an emphasis on segments such as aeronautics and motor vehicle manufacturing. The mining sector, meanwhile, contributes around 10% of GDP and 20% of the country’s total exports.
Morocco maintains several trading relations, particularly with European countries due to its close proximity to the continent. In 2018 exports to Europe accounted for 66.4% of the kingdom’s overall trade and 70.1% of exports, according to the most recent figures from the Office des Changes. Within Europe, Morocco’s main trading partners were Spain and France. Western Europe is also a major source of tourism revenue, remittance payments and foreign direct investment (FDI).
Asian countries, including the Middle East, were Morocco’s second-largest trading bloc in 2018. Asia accounted for 16.2% of the kingdom’s overall commercial trade. Notably, in November 2017 Morocco signed a memorandum of understanding with China, pledging its involvement in the country’s Belt and Road Initiative. Although trade with Middle Eastern countries represented 3.4% of overall trade, Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE were significant sources of FDI and financial aid.
Morocco has the largest phosphate rock reserves in the world, accounting for 50bn of the 70bn tonnes of global reserves. Moreover, the kingdom is the second-largest producer of phosphate, producing an estimated 33m tonnes in 2018. The government-owned phosphate producer OCP Group, formerly known as the Office Chérifien des Phosphates, maintains a 31% share of the global phosphate market.
Although it lacks major hydrocarbons reserves unlike other countries in the MENA region such as Algeria and Saudi Arabia, the kingdom is nevertheless undertaking efforts to attract funding for exploration and production projects. In September 2019 UK-based Europa Oil & Gas was awarded a new exploration permit for an offshore area in the Agadir Basin. Another UK company, Sound Energy, in partnership with US-headquartered Schlumberger, expects its first natural gas by 2021 after being awarded a production concession in 2018.
Given its climate conditions, the kingdom is also well positioned to develop its solar power capacity. In 2016 the first phase of the Noor Ouarzazate concentrated solar power complex was completed, which has a total capacity of 580 MW. Moreover, plans are under way for a second solar generation project near the town of Midelt, which will have a capacity of 800 MW upon completion.
Language & Ethnicity
Although Morocco is a member of the Arab League and Arabic is one of its official languages, the kingdom has taken significant steps to preserve its non-Arab heritage. For example, the 2011 constitution made Amazigh, a standardised Berber language, the second official language. It is estimated that at least 40% of the population, located primarily in rural and mountainous areas, speak one of three Berber or Amazigh languages, which were the region’s native languages before the Arab conquest in the 7th century.
Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) – a standardised language based on classical Quranic Arabic – is the formal language of primary and secondary education, government and news media. However, like other Arabic-speaking countries, Moroccans generally speak a colloquial form of Arabic known as darija, which differs significantly from MSA and other Arabic dialects. French is the primary language for higher education and is widely used in business dealings. Spanish is also common in north-eastern parts of the country that were under Spanish rather than French rule prior to independence in 1956.
The 2011 constitution states that Islam is the official state religion. The majority of Moroccans follow the Maliki school of Sunni Islam, which is common throughout much of north-west Africa. The Moroccan royal family, known as the Alawite dynasty, traces its descent from the Prophet Muhammad. The king is the country’s highest official religious authority, bearing the title of Amir Al Mu’minin, or Commander of the Faithful. There was also a substantial Jewish population until the mid-20th century, when most Moroccan Jews emigrated to France.