As I remarked in my last blog, there is a new energy in Morocco about the future of the (Western) Sahara as a result of King Mohammed VI’s visit, the extensive projects that were announced, and the commitments he made to the region’s development. Of course, there was the anticipated negative clamoring from the Polisario Front and its supporters, who have done next to nothing to improve the lives of the refugees under their control. It is ironic that they condemned Morocco’s role in the South at a time when the King is ratcheting up the government’s commitment to bring both “deep regionalization” and significant growth to the area.
According to news accounts, these projects will create tens of thousands of jobs, improve local infrastructure, and upgrade access to services for local communities. As importantly, as a result of regionalization, Moroccans living in the Southern Provinces [the South] of Sakia El Hamra Laayoune, Dakhla Oued Ed-Dahab, and Guemim Oued Noon, will have extensive authority running local affairs.
Among the most significant projects are the expansion and construction of a new port facility in Dakhla that will enable greater access by cruise ships to this very attractive area; extension of rail lines from Marrakech to Lagouira (La Güera) south of Dakhla, on the way to Mauritania, opening additional economic links to Africa; enhanced commuter access through new bus facilities; a four-lane highway between Tiznit and Dakhla, opening up the area as a distribution and logistics hub; a centralized training center to support local industries; an entertainment and sports complex; and a new headquarters for the Agency for the Development of the South.
In terms of additional infrastructure, plans include expanded road networks, upgrades to existing air transport facilities, improved community centers, hospitals, clinics, and schools, and a university. The long-term goal is to both enhance the South as a regional center for commerce and industry and make it a viable hub for servicing African markets and projects.
It is estimated that some $7 billion will be spent in the next 10 years in the South, making it a key destination for attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), especially given the country’s preference for private-public-partnerships (PPPs) as a vehicle for large-scale projects – utilizing both technology and finance from reputable partners.
King Speaks to the People and the World
In his speech, King Mohammed was clear about his intentions. “We want to make a radical break with the manner in which Sahara issues have been dealt with so far: a break with the rentier economy and privileges, a break with poor private sector involvement and a break with the mentality of centralized administration.”
He attributed this shift in strategy to a realization that the status quo was not sufficient to achieve the full potential of the South. “I am keen to make sure we provide our fellow citizens in the southern provinces with all the necessary means to enable them to manage their own affairs and show they are capable of developing their region.” The King was clear that his vision for the South transcended politics and would build a strong business-based identity for the region, “to enhance the influence of the Sahara region as an economic hub and a crucial link between Morocco and its African roots.”
Among other projects, the King listed “major solar and wind energy projects,” and connecting Dakhla to the national grid – a critical ingredient in rationalizing the cost of power and the capacity to link to projects in Africa.
Other major projects that were included in the King’s remarks were “major seawater desalination plant in Dakhla and the establishment of industrial zones and facilities in Laayoun, El Marsa and Boujdour,” supported by the necessary legal framework that is business-friendly, encourages local and international investors, and attracts financing needed for these large projects.
He also addressed those who complain of Morocco’s use of resources in the South: “I should like to stress, in this connection, that revenue from natural resources will continue to be invested in the region, for the benefit of the local populations and in consultation and coordination with them.”
The King called for legislation that outlines the reciprocal responsibilities of the national and local governments and “to ensure citizen participation through platforms and mechanisms for permanent dialogue and consultation so that the citizens may fully subscribe to programs and be involved in their implementation. I therefore expect the inhabitants of our southern provinces and their representatives to live up to their responsibilities, now that we have set in place the institutional and development-related mechanisms for them to manage their affairs and cater for their needs.”
This is revolutionary stuff for Arab countries…struggling to recast the social contract that for generations defined the relationship between government and citizens. The King is advocating for a substantive recalibration of citizen participation within the framework of a responsive and accountable government. And he is backing up his vision with concrete steps that will change the face of the Sahara within an economic, social, and political framework that augers well for the future of Morocco.
Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center