Why India should engage with Morocco?
Two vignettes stand out from a recent trip to Morocco- one, a smartly-dressed woman police officer flags down an errant male driver at a busy Rabat intersection and ticks him off for a traffic violation; two, the arresting spectacle of the setting sun dancing behind undulating sand dunes as one glides down an ultra-modern highway system that can compare with the world’s best. Both fly against the conceptual stereotype of an Arab Muslim nation that is part of the Arab world but shares none of its puritanical conservatism; is part of the African continent and is yet one of its most developed nations.
A trip to Morocco is an eye-opener, in more ways than one, a peek into a country that is traditional yet modernising, where women enjoy a refreshing degree of freedom in both dress and movement that is unusual for a Muslim nation; a country that has maintained its rich cultural heritage while being comfortable with a strong influence of Western lifestyles, a synthesis of Arab, African and indigenous Berber streams, a country that has cleverly positioned itself as a gateway to West Africa, Southern Europe and even the US.
In the past decade, Morocco has launched large-scale projects aimed at elevating its infrastructure to international standards, the chief among them being the Tanger-Med port, one of the largest in the Mediterranean region and Africa, with connections to 130 ports in 65 countries; a modern highway and expressway network connecting all the major cities, 15 international airports, high-speed railway projects connecting some major cities and a wide network of integrated industrial platforms and free zones.
‘Morocco can be a real partner for India in pushing its products and skills into Africa, particularly West Africa,’ says Mamoune Bouhdoud, the junior minister in the ministry of industry, trade and investment, small enterprises and digital economy, adding that Morocco was one of the few countries where foreign investors enjoyed the same facilities and privileges as local investors, including in purchase of property.
Bouhdoud, 32, who was educated in London and worked as an investment banker for Morgan Stanley, is emblematic of the new breed of Moroccan leaders who are out to carve a bold new image for an ancient country and are seeking to leverage on its strategic location at the crossroads between the east and west, north and south. They share with their monarch, King Mohammed VI, a vision for Morocco that the North African country ‘should reach the highest peaks and catch up with the most advanced nations’.
Its traditional partners for years have been France and Spain to its north, its one-time colonial powers, its Maghreb neighbours (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania) and a little beyond to western Africa. But with Morocco advancing faster economically than all its traditional African partners, and distancing itself from some of the regressive and repressive social and political policies of many of its Arab neighbours, it is now looking to countries in Asia and Latin America to forge business, trade and strategic partnerships.
In a speech on 20 August, marking 15 years of his reign, Mohammed VI remarked the country’s ‘development model has reached maturity and deserves to join the group of emerging nations once and for all’.
Many in the kingdom have talked of building closer ties with India, the biggest importer of its phosphates, Morocco’s main export, and of the country being a springboard for Indian exports and investment not just into southern Europe and west Africa but to the US as well. Morocco is the only African country to have a free trade agreement with the US, besides having 22 FTAs with African nations.
According to Forbes, which examined the country’s rise, Morocco is seeking to position itself as ‘the next African superpower, just behind South Africa and Nigeria’. It has been trying to diversify its economy, beyond its phosphate exports, by broadening its manufacturing base to include automobiles, aeronautics and an offshoring hub, and its movement south is ‘to reduce its dependence on European markets, including its historical partners, France and Spain’.
Morocco, despite dire forebodings of many Western analysts, did not become an Arab Spring domino and had been spared from the kind of large-scale unrest that has swept some neighbouring Arab states, largely due to the foresight and prompt action by the king, who quite early on recognised the need to meet people’s political aspirations, coopted the Islamists in the system while reforming the family code to give equal rights and freedom to women, a significant step in the Arab world.
Even as demonstrations began in some parts of the country, King Mohammed VI announced constitutional reforms, boosting the powers of parliament and guaranteeing human rights. ‘The winds of Arab Spring were channelled by Morocco to expand and consolidate democracy and accelerate the pace of political reforms,’ said Larbi Reffouh, Morocco’s Ambassador to India and one of the country’s most experienced diplomats.
India’s ties with Morocco have so far been phosphate-centric, as the country that has two-thirds of the world’s phosphate reserves- a key component of fertilisers- accounts for 60 per cent of India’s phosphate needs. But with the country opening out to the world, expanding its tourism industry, marketing itself as a major shopping destination with a combination of modern retail stores and ancient souks selling a dazzling array of merchandise at competitive pricing, with Marrakech holding one of the most successful Bollywood fests abroad for the last two years under royal patronage, it is time New Delhi looked at Rabat not just through the food security lens but as a strategic global partner that can be its springboard to a larger market and a key supporter of its big-power aspirations.
India-Morocco ties date back to the 14th century when the Moroccan explorer Ibn Batuta travelled to India, spent a decade in the country and wrote extensively about his experiences in his epic Rihla. Seven centuries later, it is time for both India and Morocco to script a new chapter in mutual discovery and stir the imagination of peoples of both the countries once again in a modern, mutually beneficial partnership.