While Africa offers a wide range of strategic opportunities, Morocco’s foreign policy still encounters considerable challenges that hinder the realization of its ambitious objectives.
In recent years, Africa witnessed a boom in economic growth leading to Morocco’s keenness on finding new investment opportunities in the continent; relying primarily on its double-edged diplomacy that combines economy and religion. However, this approach encounters a number of political, security and economic challenges mainly in how to develop consensual policies with major players in Africa, like the Republic of South Africa, as well as engage non-African partners in implementing financial and economic commitment with some African countries. The other main challenge is the Western Sahara, which is in fact a political and diplomatic issue that may hinder the free movement of Morocco in the continent due to regional competition from neighboring countries that try to curtail Morocco’s movement in Africa.
In recent years, Morocco has increasingly given more attention to Africa. Morocco’s new policy has been culminated in some significant achievements in the last two years; especially the accession to the African Union (AU) at the beginning of 2017; membership in the AU’s Peace and Security Council at the beginning of 2018; the application to join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); and the expansion of investment projects in several African countries. In 2015, 40% of Morocco’s foreign direct investments went to sub-Saharan African countries.[i] These investments mainly focused on banking, telecommunications or industrial sectors and real estate. Additionally, trade between Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa has been steadily growing at about 12.8% a year between 2000 and 2015.[ii] This has made Morocco one of the biggest investors in Africa along with Kenya and South Africa. These achievements have been realized through persistent and diligent diplomacy reliant on the support of major economic and investment tools, such as OCP Group, Maroc Télécom, Attijariwafa Bank, BMCE, and RAM.
In this respect, however, the question is whether Morocco really has an African “Grand Strategy” outlining long-term objectives, or whether its foreign policy merely focuses on short-term objectives? A “Grand Strategy” means building a foreign policy based on combined and complementary dimensions — political, economic, military, cultural, which constitute a comprehensive and integrated plan, and not merely an amalgam of unrelated policies. Also, how can Morocco carry out its African policy in the light of international traditional and emerging powers’ increasing interests in the continent? Will be there a conflict of interest between Morocco and its traditional allies, for instance France, or will they complement each other?
Diverse Objectives Require an Integrated Strategy
Morocco’s African policy is not only determined by its major planned objectives but also by Africa’s enormous diverse potentials and opportunities. Though some parts of the continent still suffer from poverty and underdevelopment, Africa has promising potential that gives a great deal of hope for a prosperous future. In the language of figures, among the twenty most growing economies around the globe, we find merely 11 economies from Africa, while the annual rate of growth in the continent exceeded 5.4% between 2000 and 2010.[iii] Despite the instability of this growth and its slow rate, following the collapse in commodity prices, in addition to the political crises in some North African States, Africa is expected to keep an annual average growth above 4.3%[iv]. Moreover, Africa teems more than one billion and two hundred million consumers[v], who spend approximately $1.5 trillion annually. The volume of this consumption expenditure is expected to rise to $2 trillion by 2025[vi]. As a result, major international powers, and even emerging economies, no longer see Africa as the continent of poverty, underdevelopment and conflicts; rather they regard it as a continent of opportunities because of its investment and trade potentials. Additionally, Africa is rich of natural and agricultural resources that qualify it to be one of the world’s main providers of food, energy and minerals. In this regard, Africa contains 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land[vii], 30% of the global reserves of minerals, 10% of the world’s oil reserves and 8% of the world’s natural gas[viii]. All these indicators reflect the bright future of investments in Africa and explain, to some extent, Morocco’s tireless determination to regain its position in the continent.
One of Morocco’s major political and geostrategic objectives is to strengthen its political and economic influence in the African continent. The significance of this objective does not only lie in the fact that its forms the platform for other objectives of Morocco’s African foreign policy, but it also in its impacts that go far beyond the African continent. The reinforcement of Morocco’s position and influence in Africa will ultimately strengthen its overall foreign policy. In this respect, Morocco cannot negotiate with its allies, namely with the EU, from a stronger position without having an active presence in Africa. Moreover, any potential menace to the balance of power with Algeria may lead the latter to hinder Morocco’s new African policy and maximize its support to the Polisario Front. Thus, Morocco needs to pursue its objectives realistically and progressively, taking into account the vested interests of its competitors.
In this regard, South-South cooperation represents one of the main pillars of Morocco’s new African policy. This cooperation is not merely a political and propaganda activity, but it is a new concept of relations with developing countries based on a win-win principle and aimed at achieving mutual interests. Such an approach might be difficult to achieve in most cases, as some African countries’ capabilities differ from one to another in an effort to keep the balance of interests with Morocco. However, Morocco would always strive to find a common ground that helps in achieving balanced partnerships. It should be noted that this cooperation combines economic, political, cultural, military and security components. Consequently, Moroccan policy makers are requested to consider the development of a comprehensive and inclusive strategy that embraces all the aforementioned components.
However, when it comes to the Western Sahara – which has been a top priority of Moroccan foreign policy for a long time – Moroccan diplomacy has been gradually freeing from the burden of this issue, especially in Africa. On this matter, Morocco developed a new policy based on long-term objectives rather than short-term ones or daily reactions. This policy aims at strengthening Morocco’s active presence in Africa on various levels. Such policy will likely impact the issue of the Western Sahara in favor of Morocco by isolating the Polisario Front and containing its rivals, mainly Algeria.
Additionally, the failure of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) and its current stalemate compelled Morocco to seek new alternatives in Africa and beyond. In fact, AMU’s stalemate is a product of the strained relations between Morocco and Algeria, and their ongoing conflict over regional influence and leadership, but most importantly their cold conflict over the Western Sahara dispute, which dates back to the earliest days of Algeria’s independence. This might explain Morocco’s willingness to join the ECOWAS instead of reviving the AMU as before the development of its new African policy. Morocco tirelessly sought the revival of the AMU for many years and called upon Algeria on many official occasions to reopen their land border. However, because the current regime in Algeria is not willing to take a such decision, Morocco turns its focus towards sub-Saharan Africa.
Besides the aforementioned objectives, which are material in nature, Morocco aims to advance its “soft power” in Africa, which would form an important cornerstone of its new African policy. In this respect, the training of Imams and augmenting the number of African students in the Moroccan universities are two main components of this “soft power”.
High Ambitions and Limited Capacities?
Recently, the volume of Morocco’s economic and political initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa questions its ability to commit to the implementation of such initiatives. Firstly, because Morocco is a relatively small country with a low annual growth rate, and should therefore avoid any possible misconception that it has the ability to easily achieve its intended objectives or solve Africa’s major problems. Africa is a giant continent and still suffers from tremendous structural problems. Here, Morocco can mitigate the disparities between its limited abilities and big ambitions by relying on two main strategies: First, developing a consensual policy with the major powers in Africa, namely the Republic of South Africa. Though Morocco enjoys the necessary potentials to be a major player in the African scene, there are also other major players to be taken into account. Thus, it is not necessary to have mutual interests with them, but rather to have complementary interests far from any conflict of interest. Second, engaging its non-African allies, mainly the Gulf States, in the implementation of its major economic investments in Africa. However, this choice may encounter some difficulties given the fluctuation of relationships between Morocco and these states. The paradox of these relations is that, though Morocco has strong traditional ties with the Gulf States, they are vulnerable and subject to change due to any differences in political views. Therefore, they shouldn’t be taken always as reliable partners if they are engaged in these projects.
Furthermore, among the main challenges suffered by Africa are the high rates of unemployment and the difficulties related to job creation opportunities that meet its fast-growing population. This problem underlies a number of social and security issues and contributes to the increase of irregular immigration, where Morocco represents a transit point to Europe and recently a destination country. Therefore, how can Morocco contribute to the solution of the social and economic problems, when it itself suffers from the same problems?
The commitments of Morocco’s African policy are based not only on the economic component, but also on the military and security components, especially with its traditional allies. Since the political and security stability is a prerequisite for development, Morocco’s African policy should primarily focus on the importance of peace and security promotion in Africa; the lack of stability and security in the continent shall inevitably hinder the progress of Morocco’s projects therein.
In fact, three challenges affect Moroccan diplomacy in Africa – the Western Sahara issue, the lack of political and security stability in Morocco’s neighboring countries, and the Algerian-Moroccan competition – and may therefore hinder the achievements of its outlined objectives and limit its ambitions. In this regard, the regional rivals of Morocco are expected to hamper the implementation of some of its policies. For instance, Algeria may take the Moroccan movement in Africa as a menace to its interests in some countries, which used to be its proper field of activity, therefore it will restore no effort to block the progress of Moroccan diplomacy on the shifting sands of Africa.
On one hand, this new African policy will put Morocco in direct competition with many international actors, including some of its traditional allies such as France. On another hand, it is assumed that this Moroccan policy will be viewed favorably by some other European countries, especially Spain and Germany, which will consider Morocco as a promising business and investment partner.
The long absence of Morocco in some African countries, which added to its weak presence in some others, was an opportunity for its rivals and competitors. However, restoring its position in these countries will not be a difficult thing for Morocco as only a few years are needed to regain its full position once again. In this regard, while Algeria spent billions of dollars to finance its activities in these countries, it was unable to realize the influence it was opting for. The internal political stalemate and the implications of “The Black Decade” led to the decline of the Algerian influence in Africa.
The strong point of Morocco’s new African diplomacy lies in the fact that its implementation does not only depend on the personal relationships with African leaders, but also on consistent and sustainable development projects, namely the gas pipeline project that will connect Morocco and Nigeria as well as some other West African countries to Europe. While personal relationships with African leaders can be useful temporarily, they remain unstable not only because one cannot be sure about the intentions of these leaders, but also because it is difficult to predict the political future of most African countries. Thus, Moroccan foreign policy makers should always rely on consistent and stable factors in developing any future vision of Africa.
Despite the richness of Africa in terms of its economic and geopolitical opportunities, the exploitation of these potentials contains a number of risks. As previously mentioned, Africa is constantly changing and scores of its countries are not stable, therefore Moroccan policy makers should take into consideration these factors and their underlying risks. In fact, they need to create alternative plans and scenarios to in effort to counter arising security crises. Regardless of these risks, Morocco has no option but to move towards sub-Sharan Africa. This orientation should not focus only on the imminent benefits achieved from this new policy, but it should also respond to the imperatives of history and geography, which represent fixed determinants of states’ foreign policy. It should be noted that Morocco is not the only country interested in Africa, but major world powers are also seeking to establish and increase their presence in the continent. Therefore, Morocco may confront some of them due to the conflict of interests, namely countries like China, Turkey, Iran and India. This conflict of interest may extend even with Morocco’s traditional allies, especially France, which has redefined its new African priorities. Consequently, Moroccan foreign policy makers should develop consensual and complementary strategies with the rest of economic players in Africa.
[i] Rim Berahab, “Relations entre le Maroc et l’Afrique subsaharienne : Quels potentiels pour le commerce et les investissements directs étrangers ?,” Policy Brief, OCP policy Center, PB-17/04, February 2017.
[iii] Acha Leke and Dominic Barton, “3 Reasons things are looking up for African Economies,” World Economic Forum, May 5, 2016, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/05/what-s-the-future-of-economic-growth-in-africa/ (Accessed February 10, 2018).
[v] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2017), p.1.
[vii] Wim Plaizier, ،2 Truths about Africa’s Agriculture’ World Economic Forum, January 22, 2016, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/how-africa-can-feed-the-world/ (Accessed February 10, 2018)
[viii] The World Bank, “Extractive Industries,” September 29,2017, http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/extractiveindustries/overview (Accessed February 10, 2018)