Relatively unscathed by turbulent recent history, Morocco is intent on building a modern economy driven by technology. It would be a unique regional feat but the changes needed to achieve it will test the limits of the nation’s new freedoms.
Arriving in Nouaceur on the outskirts of Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, it is hard to believe that an unassuming industrial park has become the jewel in the economic crown of the Moroccan kingdom. Chickens roam on the lawn outside one of the grey hangars but behind the corrugated walls is the heart of the country’s most competitive and sophisticated sector: aeronautics.
“There has been something of a snowball effect here,” says Christophe Delqué, a floppy-haired, laidback Frenchman who is the Morocco site director for US-based supplier UTC Aerospace Systems. “Ten years ago there were fewer than a dozen aerospace companies here, with a workforce of around 2,000 people. Now more than 100 companies employ around 12,000 people in total,” he says. Global aeronautical-engineering names such as Boeing, Bombardier and Airbus are among the big names in Nouaceur, hiring graduates from a government-funded aeronautics academy.
UTC’s 120 employees are assembling and testing some of the most sensitive cockpit equipment, including control sticks and speed pedals, which are then supplied to Airbus. “Within five years this has become a centre of excellence for us; now we are looking to grow the business,” says Delqué.
When the company was planning its expansion in 2007 both Morocco and Vietnam were under consideration. When Morocco was chosen in 2010 it was more than just its proximity to the Airbus headquarters in France that gave the kingdom the edge. “The costs were lower in Vietnam,” says Delqué. “But there was no training or effort by the Vietnamese government to promote the sector. Here we have an open door with top-level officials. The country is really making an effort to create an ecosystem and has hired more people with a real understanding of the industry.”
Until recently tourism, phosphate, textiles and agriculture were the backbone of the Moroccan economy. But in a speech last year the Moroccan king announced that he wanted the country to progress in order to become an emerging economy and emulate the growth of countries such as Turkey and Malaysia. Given Morocco’s economic problems – it’s still ranked as a lower-income country – the challenge facing it is huge but the ambition is unique in the region. Algeria is governed by an ailing elite in their seventies and eighties and remains reliant solely on oil and gas; Tunisia has been paralysed by terrorist attacks and has made little progress in reforming its outdated economy. Further east, Libya’s wealth and infrastructure have been destroyed by a civil war with no end in sight. Egypt, meanwhile, is firmly in the grip of a military dictatorship that shows little willingness to respond to the economic demands that fuelled the revolution of 2011.
“We have always been entrepreneurs, we like to work,” says Moulay Hafid Elalamy, the Moroccan minister for industry, trade, investment and the digital economy, who has been tasked with spurring private-sector growth and investment. “But Morocco also overcame the challenges of the Arab Spring. It’s rare for an African, Arab and Muslim country to be considered stable.”
Elalamy is one of Morocco’s most successful businessmen. He is dressed in a sharp blue suit; modern art is hanging on the walls in his office in the ministry. He now wants to emulate the boom in the aeronautics business with success in the car industry. “In 10 to 15 years, Morocco wants to be an emerging economy. We have a path to get there and are now developing an industrial tissue,” he says. He oozes confidence that the Moroccan sales pitch of comprehensive reforms, proximity to Europe and easy access to the growing African market will woo international investors. His deputy, a former London-based investment banker, has just returned from a trade mission to Tokyo. The message: unique political and financial stability, tax breaks, low inflation and an infrastructure geared towards speedy export.
Open criticism by the media or in public is hard to come by in a country where, despite a gradual political opening after the Arab uprisings, Moroccan law still prohibits any criticism of King Mohammed VI.
But not all Moroccans are convinced that their country will be able to fulfil its economic ambitions. In a new bar in the business district of Casablanca, Jihane Barik and her friend Hanane Amer are relaxing over a glass of wine. Both are smartly dressed, middle-class working mothers in their thirties but they have doubts that stability and a gradual opening will bring the economic development their government is talking about. They acknowledge that people live well in the big cities such as Casablanca and Rabat but point out that, in rural areas, “it’s a different ball game altogether”. The pair say they spend about 40 per cent of their salaries on private healthcare and education because public institutions “are inept”. Their priorities are the need for more political accountability and for the issue of corruption to be addressed.
Concerns that the poor quality of Morocco’s education and health systems will hamper its economic development are more than just anecdotal; it is estimated that a third of the country’s population are illiterate. And while economists agree that Morocco is making progress in terms of improving its infrastructure and business climate, they warn that in order to attain higher growth rates the country still has a long way to go in terms of improving the quality of its justice system and educational structures.
“The previous king didn’t prioritise education, which led to a crisis in the 1990s,” says Jean-Pierre Chauffour, the lead country economist for Morocco at the World Bank. “Now the country has almost achieved getting boys and girls into school, physically at least. But that is not enough if, in the space of one generation, this country is to become more advanced. They need to improve the quality of the education and parents need to be more involved. It’s a problem that cannot be solved overnight.”
Elalamy readily acknowledges that the country is still short on human capital but he insists that the government is working on the issue. “We do agree that education is a problem and we need a complete overhaul that prepares our children for the job market,” he says. “We have been educating people to be unemployed; it’s a catastrophe.
“The Arab Spring was also about economic opportunity and jobs. Nobody is going to finish school if they don’t have faith that eventually their education will result in some kind of meaningful employment for them.”
Whether the planned education reforms will result in a greater number of young Moroccans capable of joining the modern job market is difficult to predict. Meanwhile, administrative procedures are being overhauled as well. “After a fairly smooth political transition after 2011 there has been a real change of administrative elites and a renewal of public figures,” says Philippe de Meneval, Jean-Pierre Chauffour’s colleague at the World Bank, who has been advising the Moroccan government on how best to improve the country’s investment climate and increase competitiveness.
One of the units that has been tasked with driving business-friendly changes within the administration is located in a shiny new office in Rabat. The building looks more like the home of an advertising agency than a North African government bureau; the smell of fresh paint and new furniture still hangs in the air of the conference room. A task force of a dozen senior civil servants, mainly in their thirties and from a variety of backgrounds are hoping to bring a new dynamic to the administration. Attached to the prime minister’s office, the team includes a number of professionals with private-sector experience and its aim is to help implement administrative reform while co-ordinating between government departments and the private sector.
The feel of the office is slick and professional. The task-force members laugh at the suggestion that in most other countries in the region, governments would consider their thirty-something citizens to still be children. Thami Maaroufi, the 42-year-old head of the group and a computer engineer by training, hopes this kind of work can become a model for the region. “We are starting to change the rules here in Morocco,” he says. “We need to be more interested in competence than in age or gender. We want this to be the norm, not the exception. We can never pay private-sector salaries but we can make this a rewarding experience.”
His colleague Siham Omrana, a 30-year-old financial risk analyst and mother of two small children, says that for her the key to successful reform lies in implementation. “Changing mentalities: that’s the biggest challenge. We need to change the way we work and get people to stick to deadlines and international standards. But we are moving and want to be pioneers in the Arab world,” she says, before heading to a meeting with representatives of the EU.
One new measure designed to help simplify time-consuming business procedures can be seen in action inside a small building at Casablanca’s sprawling port. This waterfront is Morocco’s largest import hub and, with support from the task force’s logistics expert Wahib Lhoussaine, the government is trying to simplify the process of bringing goods into the country. The aim is to shift all paperwork involved online to reduce time, cost and bureaucratic headaches. It’s an ambitious project that’s still being rolled out but, since its inception last year, the amount of time it takes to clear a container has already been reduced to an average of seven days. That figure may not seem so impressive, until you hear that in 2007 the same process took 40 days.
Many of the everyday procedures that make Morocco tick were adopted under French colonial rule and never reformed after the country won independence. Now the task force is looking for inspiration further afield; it has already visited the UK, Chile, Denmark and eastern Europe to gain some new perspectives on how to legislate for a more dynamic ecomomy. “We have had structural problems since we gained independence but the heritage of the French administration didn’t exactly help; on the contrary, it has been stifling,” says Lhoussaine.
It is not hard to see how spending less time dealing with the notoriously hair-raising procedures in the region, as well as battling myriad obscure regulations, would increase productivity. As if to prove the point, port-authority officials were reluctant to give Lhoussaine and MONOCLE access to the port, asserting that paperwork had been handed in too late. “We know that we have problems and we are dealing with them gradually,” says Lhoussaine. “But still we have no time to waste.”