Morocco is not just a favourite holiday destination for Brits; it is also the UK’s principal trading partner in the Maghreb region of North Africa. And there is a strong determination to grow this relationship further, as Jonathan Fryer discovered at the first ever Morocco British Trade Day.
For the past decade, Morocco has been enjoying an average five per cent per annum economic growth rate – a figure the British government can only envy. But that growth started from a relatively low base: it will be a generation or two before Morocco joins the ranks of the ‘developed’ nations. This fact undoubtedly contributed to the polite refusal of the Moroccan government’s application to join the European Union back in 1987. The official reason was that Morocco is part of Africa, even though its separation from Spain is a matter of only a few kilometres across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Nowadays, however, Morocco’s geographical position is seen less as a handicap than as something that can be turned to the country’s advantage. As Dr Afnan Al-Shuaiby, Secretary-General of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce (ABCC), pointed out at the recent Morocco British Trade Day in London, Morocco is aiming not only to boost its own commercial links with the EU but also to become a hub for European trade with the rest of Africa. The EU-Morocco Association Agreement came into force in 2000, and the special relationship that Morocco has developed with Europe was underlined earlier this year at an EU-Morocco summit in the Moorish Spanish city of Granada – the first ever summit between the EU and an Arab or African nation.
The Morocco British Trade Day – organised by the Moroccan Embassy in partnership with the ABCC, the Financial Times and Maroc Export – was hailed by HRH Princess Lalla Joumala Alaoui, Morocco’s Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, as ‘a milestone in the consolidation of ties between the two kingdoms’. She highlighted the fact that although Britain is only Morocco’s seventh most important trading partner (way behind France and Spain, for example), Morocco is Britain’s main partner in the Maghreb region, and consequently the potential for expanding bilateral commercial ties is enormous.
‘What we need is more familiarity between our people,’ Ambassador Timothy Morris, the Princess’s British counterpart in Rabat, commented. ‘I am confident that this will lead to more business. UK exporters are looking for new markets.’
Alistair Burt MP, Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office with special responsibility for the Middle East and North Africa, reminded attendees that the first annual Morocco Investment Conference was held last year at the Mansion House in the City of London, where guests included four Moroccan government ministers. In a similar vein, Dr Al-Shuaiby emphasised that ‘Morocco’s business environment has been made more attractive to investors through diversification and privatisation.’ Bureaucratic red-tape has been reduced, while Morocco’s privileged status with the EU has facilitated bilateral trade considerably.
Indeed, Britain is already the fourth most important investor in Morocco. And the opportunities are growing: Ambassador Morris believes particularly promising sectors for British investment include renewable energy, oil and gas exploration, industrial machinery and clothing. Furthermore, following a successful visit to Morocco in 2008 by then Lord Mayor of London Ian Luder, there is growing British interest in the potential of Morocco’s financial services sector and the possibility of City co-operation with the Casablanca Stock Exchange.
Though Britain’s exports to Morocco have always been diverse, Morocco’s exports to Britain have traditionally been in a limited number of sectors, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, textiles and leather. The country’s early growing season gives it a market advantage in crops such as tomatoes and strawberries, and its warm climate is perfect for citrus fruits. Though much of this produce is sent fresh to the UK, food processing is becoming increasingly important.
Morocco has an ambitious plan to boost its export trade. Dubbed ‘Maroc Export Plus’, it envisages not only the consolidation of traditional products and priority markets but also the development of new products and new markets. Electronics and related products are slated to grow in significance, as are automobile parts, which are projected to become the country’s single most important export item over the next decade.
These new export sectors reflect Morocco’s growing industrialisation. When many Britons hear the name ‘Casablanca’, they still tend to think of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman acting out their love story against a backdrop of colonial decadence and international intrigue. But Morocco’s largest city is now an industrial powerhouse, making it significant as a potential generator of export revenues as well as employment opportunities (youth unemployment being a huge problem right across the Maghreb). The Maroc Export Plus scheme predicts that export-led growth will create 200,000 new jobs by 2015 and 380,000 by 2018.
One of the reasons trade between Morocco and the UK has tripled over the past decade is British consumers’ growing preference for organic foods. Traditional farming methods not only use fewer chemicals and other artificial inputs, but they also result in tastier produce. Similarly, the quality and authenticity of Moroccan seafood – including tinned sardines, of which Morocco is the world’s biggest exporter – have helped boost that sector’s market share.
Whereas colourful, hand-woven textiles are what catch the eye of British tourists visiting Morocco, exports of ready-to-wear clothes and hosiery are in fact far more important contributors to the Moroccan economy. The textile sector is currently repositioning itself, moving away from sub-contracting to co-contracting and focusing more on fashion and ‘fast fashion’ goods with higher added value.
High added-value products are also central to development plans in the leather industry, with a particular emphasis on footwear. Morocco has a long tradition in the leather sector, as any visitor to the historic city of Fes quickly realises, which means there is already a highly trained and competent workforce in place. At the same time, the industry now complies with international standards of environmental protection.
Abdellatif Maazouz, the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Trade, who also spoke at the event, nominated other sectors for development including pharmaceuticals, information technology and offshore activities. Mr Maazouz went on to underline the importance of Tangier as a major container port and Morocco’s strategic position between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. ‘King Mohammed VI has promoted South-South initiatives with sub-Saharan Africa,’ he said, emphasising how Morocco hopes to develop new niche markets around the world while consolidating its privileged access to Europe.
Though tourism was not a sector that figured prominently on the agenda at the Morocco British Trade Day, a sumptuous slide show projected behind the speakers was a constant reminder of the country’s rich potential as a tourist destination, replete with a diverse cultural legacy as well as a wide variety of beach and mountain destinations. Winston Churchill famously chose Marrakech as his winter hideaway, extolling its warmth and light and the variety of subjects he could paint there. Increasing numbers of Britons are going to Morocco, not just on holiday but also to settle and even start small businesses of their own, often in the hospitality sector.
Morocco is aiming not only to boost its own commercial links with the EU but also to become a hub for European trade with the rest of Africa.