Analysis |

Morocco’s King Is Rich, but His Country Is Poor

Mohammed VI is not a monarch in the mold of the Persian Gulf countries, and after 21 years in power, the Moroccan king is considered one of the Arab world’s liberal leaders. Now he has agreed to normalize ties with Israel

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

In 2016, King Mohammed VI of Morocco gave President Barack Obama a fine set of gifts, including a diamond bracelet, silver earrings and a watch, of a combined value of more than $100,000. About two years later, it turned out they were comparatively modest from the king’s standpoint.

In 2018, the monarch was seen wearing a much more expensive timepiece from watchmaker Patek Philippe valued at $1.2 million – and that wasn’t the most expensive watch in his drawer. And then early this year, 25 people including a woman who worked as a maid at the royal palace in Marrakesh were tried for stealing 36 watches, the least expensive of which was valued at about $20,000. Beyond the damage to the prestige of the security detail in charge of the royal palaces, disclosure of the theft sparked public outcry over the king’s profligate lifestyle at a time when about a quarter of his 35 million subjects live at or below the poverty line.

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In a speech in 2015, the king wondered where the country’s wealth had disappeared to and who was enjoying it. The sarcastic response came on social media: “Where did the wealth go? The king stole it.”

The truth is that Mohammed VI can allow himself his lifestyle due to his personal wealth estimated at more than $8 billion, which is in addition to the budget for the royal court, which is thought to be several hundred million dollars a year. This makes him the richest monarch in Africa and the fifth richest in the world.

All of this isn’t even to hint – perish the thought – that, with the resumption of diplomatic ties between Morocco and Israel, a new channel for gifts has opened for the Israeli royal court at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.

But Mohammed VI is not a monarch in the mold of the Persian Gulf countries. After 21 years in power, he is considered one of the Arab world’s liberal leaders. He began his reign with a series of economic and civil reforms that put Morocco on track towards rapid progress and the development of its economy. That made the king popular among may sectors of Moroccan society, but also made him a target of criticism in religious circles.

He gave women new guardianship rights to their children and the right to divorce, although the divorce provisions don’t ensure them economic equality in the division of joint property. The king also consented to limit his political powers.

Unlike in the past, the Moroccan prime minister is chosen from the party that receives the most votes from the electorate. For the first time, the king has also allowed a religious party, the Justice and Development Party, to join the government and even to form it, after it won a majority of the vote in the last election. The European Union, which is Morocco’s largest trading partner, is involved in overseeing the human rights situation in the country, and in contrast with the situation with Turkey, the EU has encouraged and sometimes even dictated legislation drawing on the foundations of customary European law.

But Morocco’s road to the status of a developed nation is still a long one. Its complete reliance on foreign oil, the fact that about half the population makes a living from farming and the vagaries of tourism, which accounts for about 11 percent of the country’s GDP – along with an illiteracy rate of about 45 percent – require wide-ranging economic reform. The reforms need to include the structure of the economy and the education system if Morocco is to better integrate into the global economy.

According to a 2019 poll by the Arab Barometer research network, about 70 percent of Moroccan young people between the ages of 18 and 29 expressed a desire to emigrate. The figure should come as no surprise considering the country’s 12 percent unemployment rate. Among young people, the rate is about double. That age group is also of the greatest concern as a source of unrest and revolt, as was seen in 2015 and 2017, when thousands of people from the Rif region took to the streets to protest economic distress and the lack of government assistance.

The protests quickly spread to other parts of the country, even prompting concern that Morocco, which had weathered the Arab Spring relatively well, was facing a dangerous civilian uprising. Security forces managed to control the protesters, hundreds of whom were arrested, tried and imprisoned, and the rebellion was quelled. But unrest still remains, requiring the regime to dispatch tens of thousands of agents to spot sources of potential rebellion, in actions reminiscent of a police state.

Signs of protest can still be found on social media, in political cartoons and in rap and North African-style rai music that is harshly critical of the government, but not the king, because criticism of the king and the royal family are illegal and subject to long prison terms.

At the same time, the king, who has almost complete control of the Moroccan economy, has channeled billions of dollars into investment in infrastructure to make his country attractive to foreign investors. Among the projects completed over the past decade were construction of hundreds of kilometers of railway track, and now, for the first time, the country has a fast train service. About $9 billion has been invested in solar power stations as part of the Noor project that is to provide solar electricity to some 42 percent of the country’s consumers. When completed, it is expected to be the largest project of its kind in the world.

Casablanca, MoroccoCredit: Morocko/Shutterstock.com

Although some of these large-scale projects are funded by grants, they have siphoned off a large chunk of the government budget, which has a deficit of $6.6 billion. They also push up the national debt, which stands at about $77 billion – about 66 percent of Morocco’s GDP.

With the king’s consent to normalizing ties with Israel, which will include direct flights and the opening of trade missions and perhaps full diplomatic missions down the line, President Donald Trump has pledged to invest some $3 billion in tourism, banking and energy in Morocco. It is unclear, however, over what period the investment is to extend, under what conditions it will be made and whether Trump has the authority to make such a pledge. A similar commitment was made to Morocco by the United Arab Emirates, whose crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, was among the mediators of the agreement between Morocco and Israel.

This is certainly good news for the Moroccan economy, which has been battered this year by the coronavirus, which has taken the lives of some 6,500 of the 400,000 Moroccans who have been infected. That news is coupled with a national achievement in the form of American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Over the weekend, media outlets in Morocco celebrated the American policy shift and viewed it as a personal achievement of the king. The ties with Israel were reported somewhat less extensively and far less enthusiastically.

It merits noting that the many news outlets in Morocco are under tight government oversight and receive considerable government funding that enables them to survive in a country where advertising is limited and the pool of potential readers is small. Freedom of expression may be guaranteed by the Moroccan constitution, but newspapers still must demonstrate loyalty to the homeland, meaning to the royal court.

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