Morocco in the early 21st century is a confident country, increasingly sure of its role as a stable link between Europe, Africa and the Arab world, and a place that welcomes tourists and investors alike. It sailed through the Arab Spring unscathed, and while the perennial question of Western Sahara shows no sign of resolution, the nation is taking big steps to cement its role as a regional player, and a leader in renewable energy and responses to climate change.
The tourist dirham
Tourism remains a key plank of Morocco's vision of the future. Tourism – through both direct and indirect jobs – is responsible for almost 18% of GDP and 16% of the nation's jobs. Around eight million tourists visit Morocco every year, a number that's doubled in the last decade, and would undoubtedly be higher were it not for the global economic downtown.
Newly refurbished airports continue to attract low-cost European and Gulf airlines, while the 'Plan Azur' has seen the number of coastal resorts, aimed at servicing the increasing popularity of Morocco as a destination for Arab as well as European travellers, greatly increase – a sign of traditional Moroccan flexibility in adapting to changing global travel patterns.
On the geopolitical front, the unresolved conflict in Western Sahara has continued to make headlines. Morocco briefly threatened to expel the UN peacekeeping mission there after the UN secretary general used the word 'occupation' in relation to Morocco's presence in the disputed territory. Tensions flared further in 2016 when Morocco deployed new troops to the border with Mauritania, ostensibly to crack down on smuggling but raising protests from Saharawis.
Despite this, Western Sahara may no longer be the stumbling block to Morocco's regional ambitions that it once was. In July 2016 Morocco asked to rejoin the African Union, the regional body it had left in protest in 1984 when the Western Saharan government-in-exile was admitted. This move reflected Morocco's desire to flex its economic muscles in the region, and build on its growing economic influence in West Africa.
Part of Morocco's economic plan is to become Africa's flagship for green energy. The government has invested heavily in renewable energy, and Morocco has both the continent's largest wind farm and solar power plant, powered by Atlantic breezes and Saharan sun respectively. These credentials were at the forefront when Marrakesh hosted the UN climate change conference in November 2016.
The construction of the high-speed TGV train line between Tangier and Casablanca has been Morocco's flagship infrastructure project, with the first trains due to start rolling out in 2017. It's part of the building boom that has occurred over the last 10 years, and seen major towns and cities receive much-needed facelifts, but while the train reflects an aspirational vision of the future, some Moroccans have criticised it as an extravagance when a sizeable proportion of the population scrape along near the poverty line with poor access to education and healthcare.
Unemployment hovers around 45% for youth, while the regular blocking of internet communications apps such as Skype and WhatsApp by telecommunications companies speaks to a disconnect between the authorities and the populace (as well as the easy skirting of such regulations by an innovative populace). Although there have been modest improvements on free speech issues, social, Islamist and human-rights organisations have faced continued hurdles to operate without restriction, and direct political criticism of the palace remains a deep taboo.
As Morocco's economy has slowed – an important issue in the most recent parliamentary elections – the statistic that around 40% of young Moroccans would emigrate if they were given the chance – continues to sting. As Morocco attempts to redefine itself for the 21st century, the challenges – and opportunities – are myriad.