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What Morocco’s Apparent Pivot to Sub-Saharan Africa Means

An African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, May 25, 2013. US Department of State/Wikimedia Commons

For decades, Morocco’s foreign and economic policies have focused on Europe. But now, the kingdom is increasingly looking south. On January 30, Morocco was re-admitted into the African Union. And it wasted no time in applying for full membership in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-member bloc with a combined GDP of $735bn.

The roots of Morocco’s pivot to western Africa hark back to the early Trans-Saharan trade. The kingdom also has linguistic and religious commonalities with the region with which it now seeks closer ties. Morocco shares a common language with eight francophone members of the economic community, as well as an ancient Sufi tradition with Muslim-majority countries in West Africa. These links may facilitate Morocco’s co-operation with bloc members at the political and security levels.

Since his accession to the throne in 1999, King Mohammed VI has emphasised stronger economic links with the region, signalling a long-term economic strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa by undertaking an annual diplomatic tour of Africa, and signing multiple bilateral agreements across the continent. The early stage of this strategy involved developing a series of public partnerships in infrastructure-related areas, such as electricity, sanitation, and telecommunications. Rabat also gave its backing to private investments in sub-Saharan Africa through pro-active economic diplomacy and treaties to avoid double taxation with eight West and Central African states.

These policies helped increase trade and foreign direct investment between Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, from 1999 to 2014, trade flows have seen an average annual growth rate of 14.7%. Meanwhile, Morocco’s foreign direct investments in sub-Saharan Africa has represented about 63% of the kingdom’s total outward direct investment between 2008 and 2013. The past 15 years have also seen Moroccan banks expand their continental network to 11 sub-Saharan African countries, making Morocco a prominent financial hub in the region.

However, despite this, there are several impediments to the kingdom’s regional trade relations. Also, Morocco believes its ties with the sub-Saharan Africa remain far below potential. Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa represents only 2.7% of Morocco’s total trade flow, and, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the country is only ranked 45th on the list of the region’s trade partners.

Such disappointing results are due to various internal and external factors, such as the lack of efficient transport infrastructure throughout the region, Morocco’s insufficient diversification of its export production, and the country’s incomplete adaptation to sub-Saharan African demand. The absence of an effective and comprehensive legal framework, and the persistently high level of protectionism among sub-Saharan countries are also to blame. Moreover, Morocco has to reckon with strong international competitors increasingly attracted to fast-growing African markets.

A willingness to address these issues has recently led Morocco to enter the third phase of its African economic strategy, which is to enhance deeper regional integration in West and Central Africa. Morocco’s ECOWAS application can, therefore, also be understood as an attempt to consolidate its sub-Saharan economic policy in a changing global context characterised by Europe’s economic sluggishness, energy insecurity and political instability.

Meanwhile, Rabat’s moves on the economic front also seem to be influenced by geopolitical and security concerns. The kingdom sees the resurgence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb _ in Mali and the broader Sahel region _ as a serious challenge that warrants greater, multilateral security collaboration with West African countries. Membership of the economic community will also give Morocco an important framework to expand its diplomatic and security interests in Africa.


Gathering of Sahrawi troops, near Tifariti (Western Sahara), celebrating the 32nd anniversary of the Polisario Front in 2005. US Department of State/Wikimedia Commons

For Morocco, the Polisario Front, an armed group that seeks independence from Rabat in Western Sahara, remains a key national issue. Through membership of the economic community, the kingdom seeks to counter-balance the influence of countries that back Polisario in other African institutions such as the AU and its Peace and Security Council.

Morocco’s recent moves towards the continent may indicate that it is no longer willing to let the Western Sahara conflict define its Africa policy. Instead, Rabat is trying to gradually consolidate its narrative on the conflict through multilateral security and economic regional co-operation.

Subsequently, the kingdom’s integration into the ECOWAS would be an important step towards overcoming the multiple diplomatic, economic, and political challenges it faces in sub-Saharan Africa.

However, Morocco cannot dispense with substantial internal efforts to expand and diversify its manufacturing base, and develop an export production adapted to sub-Saharan realities.

A version of this article first appeared in The National on March 7, 2017.