RABAT – Three years after the Arab Spring revolutions, the democratic world appears more confused than ever about how to respond. US Secretary of State John Kerry has re-launched American mediation efforts in the Middle East at a time when his country’s most reliable partners are estranged: Egypt’s military rulers resent the West’s early support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in his presidential tenure, and Saudi Arabia fears that an Iran that talks to the US may prove to be an even more ambitious regional hegemon.
It was against this background that Morocco’s King Mohammed VI recently convened a high-level meeting of the Al Quds Committee, which he chairs. The Palestinian Authority’s president, senior diplomats of the countries involved in the Palestine-Israel peace process, and the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation all attended the two-day summit. Taking place at a critical moment for this sensitive region, the meeting constituted an effort to contribute to the renewed negotiations and build on Kerry’s efforts to revive the peace process.
Morocco is an ideal setting for regional diplomacy. Its strategy of gradual reform, economic modernization, and social development has made the country an oasis of stability in a region rife with violence and strategic rivalries – and thus a reliable partner for Europe and the United States as they seek to influence events in North Africa and across the Middle East. Indeed, with Morocco’s proximity to Europe making it a gateway to Africa, its full economic and geopolitical potential has yet to be realized.
By contrast, the Egyptian government’s struggle to suppress the banned Muslim Brotherhood is fueling seemingly endless turmoil. And Tunisia is still without a prime minister to head a caretaker government, further delaying the “national dialogue” that the Tunisian General Labor Union has agreed to mediate. Three years after the start of their revolutions, neither country has been able to draft a broadly acceptable constitution.
Meanwhile, Algeria is preoccupied with the presidential election in April, in which the incumbent, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, will stand again. Mauritanian politics is polarized, with the government unable to restore confidence. Libya stands on the brink of civil war and de facto partition. Farther afield, Syria is experiencing only bloodshed and sorrow.
Morocco’s evolutionary approach to improving the country’s well-being – quietly and resolutely building on the political, economic, and social reforms launched more than a decade ago – is backed by an overwhelming majority of citizens. A new constitution, proposed by the king and adopted in a referendum in July 2011, has already generated robust political competition. Meanwhile, a new National Initiative for Human Development is helping to end poverty and social exclusion among Morocco’s most vulnerable citizens, especially women.
Rising living standards and a broad political consensus have provided the stability needed to allow the economy to grow strongly and diversify. Slowly but surely, national income is becoming less dependent on agriculture, thereby reducing Moroccans’ vulnerability to poor rainfall and failed harvests. The country is developing a strong processing industry, especially in fertilizers, based in part on having the world’s largest phosphate reserves. And the textiles industry, recovering from a slowdown caused by the European crisis, is penetrating new export markets. A similar story can be told about tourism.
Indeed, Morocco can be proud of its export strategy. Despite the weak global economy, Morocco sells its goods worldwide, with strong exports to France, the US, Brazil, the Gulf states, and China. The country has free-trade agreements with Europe, Turkey, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Tunisia, and – unique in the region – the US.
Morocco boasts solid infrastructure, a robust banking system, sound public finances, low inflation, and manageable unemployment. Despite capital flight from much of the region, foreign investment continues to flow in.
Clearly, Morocco is benefiting from being a stable country in a combustible region. But its longer-term interests lie in having politically stable neighbors that embrace similar economic reforms, thereby opening the way for a free-trade area that would benefit the entire region.
This regional perspective has been promoted ever since Mohammed acceded to the throne in 1999. One important part of his strategy has been to encourage intra-African economic relations. Morocco already provides expertise in finance, telecoms, energy, agriculture, and food security across the continent; indeed, it is now Africa’s second-largest investor, after South Africa.
The king’s familiarity with the region’s cultural and spiritual life makes him an invaluable adviser, especially regarding the role of Islam in a modern society. For example, Morocco helps train imams in a form of open Islam, which currently is helping Mali move on from its recent bloodletting. This principle of regional solidarity extends to Morocco’s deployment of military hospitals not only in Mali but also in other conflict zones, such as one in Jordan that serves Syrian refugees.
Morocco is well positioned to promote security and development across northwest Africa and beyond. Its political stability, open economy, and balanced international relations are increasingly aligned with the regional interests of the US and Europe. Moreover, Morocco is a loyal and longstanding US ally. The West would do well to start cultivating a natural partner in such a dangerous and complex region.