Some 400 years ago, the sultan of Morocco, Ahmad Al-Mansour, became increasingly aware of Spanish control and influence over the Mediterranean. He decided to launch a bold expedition southwards to conquer the Songhai Empire in what is now northern Mali, a land renowned for its riches and its resources. Al-Mansour’s venture was, more importantly, a way of reasserting Moroccan influence on the other side of the Sahara, and of controlling the historic trade routes that had made Morocco’s fortune since time immemorial.
It was the first time that a central power in Morocco promoted a southward agenda. Although the south had been ruled by some important dynasties, like the Almoravids, historically it was never seen as an objective in regard to territorial expansion or geopolitical concerns. It was more of a potential rear base and provided strategic depth for the regimes in Marrakech and Fes. Until Al-Mansour’s expedition, the eyes of Moroccan rulers invariably looked north or east.
It is this kind of strategic reassessment that Morocco needs right now. Since the country’s independence, France and Spain have been the main economic partners of the kingdom. According to the French Ministry of Foreign Trade, in 2012, France was Morocco’s main client, providing 12.5% of the imports and purchasing 22.6% of the exports. Overall, Europe absorbs 58% of Moroccan exports and supplies around fifty percent of its imports. Moreover, Europe is a crucial source of money as numerous western European countries host large Moroccan diasporas who regularly send back their savings to their country of origin.
However, the year 2012 witnessed a 4% decrease in these remittances—a sign of Europe’s current woes. Europe’s current crisis is already having an effect on Morocco as the growth prospects are increasingly pessimistic. This situation could provide for Morocco an opportunity to reassert its long-term strategy and to definitively close the post-colonial chapter of its history. Four hundred years ago, nascent Spanish power forced Al-Mansour to consider Sub-Saharan Africa. Today, Europe’s apparent economic decline may force Morocco to look with a new gaze at its Saharan shore.
In truth, there were already signs of Moroccan interest in Sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade, evident from various investments and joint ventures. A clear illustration of this renewed interest has been the launch of several flights between West African capitals and Casablanca, the economic centre of the kingdom. But now, there must be a clear political framework to catalyze and embolden Moroccan involvement in Africa. Bilateral agreements and, more importantly. regional organizations promoting and easing cooperation and trade should be encouraged.
This shift in strategy should also be accompanied by a shift in the economical dynamics of the country. The connection of Morocco to its former colonial masters created a rent economy where innovation and creativity were completely thwarted. The offshoring model hailed by Moroccan and Western specialists as a path towards development further entrenched Morocco’s peripheral condition in the global economy and echoed the Mexican experience with the Maquiladoras, the Mexican name for manufacturing operations in a free trade zone. By exploring new opportunities, the Moroccan economy will necessarily have to revamp itself and give more credit to innovation and value-added ventures.
Meanwhile the Arab Spring changed several foreign policy and security related issues in the Sahel region and Africa at large. Morocco, which has been long isolated due to the Western Sahara conflict, might take advantage of Gaddafi’s demise to gain weight in the region as a possible conflict resolution player. There has always been an Arab state enjoying some kind of influence in Africa, from Nasser’s and Boumediene’s third world militant approach to Gaddafi’s recent cash-backed influence. The crisis in Mali has the potential to be the launch pad for a new cooperative diplomacy wherein Morocco could use its historical prestige in the region to build up its economic clout.
In many ways, Morocco is an entity with two shores: one in the north, linking it with Europe through the Mediterranean Sea, and another in the south, linking it with Africa through the Sahara desert. Naturally, the former has been promoted and the later discarded as a natural barrier. Perhaps it is now time to treat the desert like we treated the sea.