Moroccan Foreign Policy Pivots South
Morocco has recently signaled a renewed interest in building linkages with sub-Saharan Africa as it seeks to harness economic, cultural, and political ties. In the past year, King Mohamed VI has bid to re-join the African Union (AU), signed an agreement to build the Trans-African Pipeline agreement, announced new trade agreements with Tanzania and Rwanda, enabled the establishment of an Ethiopian embassy in Rabat, and increased Morocco’s leadership role in areas of continental security and climate action. At the same time, ongoing disputes within supranational entities such as the Arab League and the Arab Maghreb Union and rifts with the European Union have reinvigorated and strengthened Morocco’s cooperation with sub-Saharan African countries. In doing so, Morocco is tapping into strategic partnerships at a time of rapid industrialization and infrastructure development in the region. As the fifth largest economy on the continent, Morocco’s foreign policy shift offers both an opportunity for the country to benefit from fast-growing economies to its south and for the continent to benefit from African-led models of development.
Morocco’s pivot to sub-Saharan Africa is largely a result of geopolitics. Situated at the crossroads of Europe, the Arab world, and Africa, Morocco has held active memberships in several political entities including the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the Arab Maghreb Union, and the Arab League, all of which have recently undergone a number of setbacks. The Arab Maghreb Union has long suffered from internal disputes that have stymied cooperation, and tension has continued to mount between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara dispute. Additionally, Morocco froze relations with the European Union in 2015 and in February 2016 declined to host the 2016 Arab League meeting. To be sure, Morocco has maintained close relations with West African countries, notably Guinea and Gabon. However, King Mohammed VI has also renewed efforts to diversify the country’s partnerships and alliances by building linkages with East African countries Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Rwanda—countries previously outside Morocco’s traditional sphere of influence.
This pivot could not be more timely, given anticipated reduced US involvement in the region. This re-aligned foreign policy strategy has not only sought to gain support for Morocco’s bid to rejoin the African Union, but also to capitalize on increased development opportunities and private sector growth in targeted countries. For example, recent official state visits to Tanzania and Rwanda—both of which have forecasted growth rates of 7.2 percent for 2017—resulted in 22 and 19 new trade agreements, respectively. These extended relations with sub-Saharan African countries are quickly cementing Morocco’s role as a regional hub between Europe and Africa. Morocco also hosted the 22nd Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Marrakech in November and convened African heads of state for the Africa Action Summit on the sidelines of the conference.
Morocco is well positioned to form mutually beneficial alliances with a larger portion of the region at a time of rapid industrialization and integration. With selective investments, Morocco’s new alliances will be able to tap into key industries, sectors, and economies and allow the North African country to serve as both a model for development and as a hub for trade between Africa and Europe. The breadth and depth of the newly signed agreements, leadership positions, and stated foreign policy objectives constitute an unprecedented increase in Morocco’s involvement in sub-Saharan African affairs.
Multiple countries stand to benefit economically from Morocco’s broadening and deepening continental alliances, particularly given the anticipated decrease in US investment and involvement and deteriorating political alliances between supranational entities and unions. Additionally, Morocco’s strong focus on renewable energy and infrastructure and its development leadership will be critical as African cities plan for a period of rapid urbanization and economic growth in key sectors.
Morocco’s foreign policy shift has the potential to drive economic development and facilitate regional integration in Africa. At a time when 80 percent of the growth expected to occur in Africa will take place in the continent’s urban centers, Morocco’s forward-thinking renewable energy policies and urban planning can provide a model for achieving sustainable development. Coupled with the explosion of Africa’s youth population—the demographic of 15-24 year olds is on track to grow faster than any other region by 2050—Moroccan development models can serve as replicable examples of how to address often competing challenges such as achieving economic growth while balancing rising unemployment, urban poverty, and access to services.
Michelle DeFreese is an Academic Think Tank member with the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS) and is a member of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). She completed her Master’s degree in International Relations at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) and is an Africa Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.
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