Update 08/03 14.50: After writing this story, the Moroccan government announced on Tuesday, March 7, it is applying to join the Economic Community of African States, a West-African regional economic bloc.
A piece by The Diplomat this week highlighted the recent efforts of Morocco to court Chinese investment and closer ties, claiming Rabat hopes to position itself as ‘China’s gateway to Africa.’ The author does a good job in outlining the various initiatives between the two countries and the course of their fast improving relations, and makes a convincing case for why the bilateral relationship seems to have a rosy future ahead.
However, the attention-grabbing claim Rabat would actively be pushing to serve as the entrance for China to Africa is considerably less substantiated, as the article mainly focuses on the development of Chinese-Moroccan political, economic and people-to-people relations rather than on Morocco’s role in Africa. Which is disappointing, since Rabat’s recently sparked interest in Beijing (and vice-versa) cannot be understood without understanding Morocco’s recent re-positioning within the community of African nations.
Morocco’s re-entry to Africa became most visibly apparent to outsiders about a month ago, as the North-African country rejoined the African Union (AU) after a 33-year long absence, with 33 votes in favor and 9 votes against (out of 55 members). The re-admission of Rabat to the continental union, after it had left in 1984 in protest at the body’s recognition of the Western Sahara (which has been occupied by Moroccan forces since 1975), was not a first step towards an embrace by Morocco of the African continent but rather the culmination of a diplomatic and economic strategy spanning the past 10-15 years.
Stepping up its engagement with sub-Saharan nations, in particular West African and Francophone African countries, proved to be the “key to the turn-around in Morocco’s relations with the AU.” Rabat actively courted the continent in recent years for diplomatic support through a significant increase in economic activities and investments. Billions of dollars have flown to sub-Saharan countries in the past years. The president of Africa’s Development Bank (AfDB) hailed Morocco’s commitment and importance to the continent during a visit to the country last year, with 85% of its foreign direct investment directed towards Africa. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has toured through sub-Saharan Africa countless of times in the past two decades, having signed hundreds of co-operation agreements to lay an economic foundation on which Morocco was able to build regional support.
As one analyst noted, by regaining membership of the AU, Morocco hopes “to become a major economic and political player in Africa,” aiding the country in “capturing markets” and “eroding and subverting the political influence of SADR [the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic which disputes Morocco’s claims over Western Sahara] and its Polisario Front.” Morocco’s membership in the AU balances out Algeria’s influence in the community (Algeria is SADR’s main ally) over the Western Sahara question and will, according to a different analyst, also help in its attempt to become the intersection point between the West and West Africa.
Notable in the context of Morocco’s push for economic leadership and gateway-function between the West and West Africa (and China and Africa), is the development of Casablanca as Africa’s main financial center. The 2,700-year-old Moroccan port city has recently dethroned Johannesburg as the highest ranked financial center on the African continent (30th globally, followed by Johannesburg on place 59), following King Mohammed VI’s Casablanca Finance City initiative, launched in 2010.
The initiative aimed to draw and attract international companies and investors by offering benefits like tax incentives and exemption from currency controls, in order to raise Casablanca’s status to Africa’s main financial business hub. With great success, it appears, given Casablanca’s meteoric rise as a financial center on the continent. It is no surprise, therefore, that Chinese banks have shown an increased interest in the North-African country. The Bank of China opened its fifth office in Africa, and first in Morocco, last year in the port city.
Following the news of Morocco’s re-admission to the AU, King Mohammed VI announced he would continue his travels across the continent by visiting Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Kenya, Mali, and Zambia, further consolidating South-South relations and deepening Morocco’s ties with sub-Saharan Africa. Morocco has signed nearly a thousand agreements with African countries since 2000, a trend which is unlikely to stop as Europe’s economic prospects are still weak and African countries continue to boost impressive growth rates.
A new and important chapter has been added to the Morocco-Africa book with its re-admission to the AU, and more are likely to follow as Rabat expands its economic and political reach on the continent. A development which will not go unnoticed in Beijing. The state-owned Global Times went ahead already three weeks ago, naming Morocco the “best potential destination in the world.”