Why you should care

Here’s everything you need to know about this fascinating country at a pivotal time.

Throughout November and December, OZY is providing a spotlight on five compelling countries, in which we profile prominent figures in politics, business and the arts. This week, we’ve been to Morocco. It’s a pivotal time for this North African kingdom — while others in the region have experimented with revolution, this 33-million-strong land is trying evolution. Its economy is booming; its politics stable. And it could become Europe’s new bridge to the Middle East and North Africa.

To learn more, we spoke with Alice Morrison, OZY’s reporter based in Essaouira, Morocco, for this special global edition of Reporter’s Notebook.

How is Morocco navigating the 21st century?

People are very much steeped in their traditions, but of course the internet made a massive change in this country. It opened everything up; you can go to the tiniest village and people are on their phones. Young people often look to western fashion, but at the same time they value their own culture. When you look on the street, people are driving big foreign cars, they’re wearing foreign clothes, but at the same time you’ll see many people wearing traditional dress and on their bicycles. So it’s a land of contrast.

Morocco seems to be a land of unprecedented opportunity right now — who’s winning in this shift?

The good news is that poverty rates are falling, so the poor are benefiting from the economic growth. There is also a growing middle class — those who are better educated, with a decent income and with aspirations toward a good education for their children. But those from old money, the French-educated, often the people based in Fez, still hold most of the economic and political power.

One person that jumps out is Salwa Idrissi Akhannouch and her husband. They’re Morocco’s golden couple; I guess you could compare them in influence to the Kennedys. They both come from old money and are billionaires in their own right, and now, between them, they own two of the biggest companies in the country. Salwa is the founder of an enormous retail empire and runs one of the largest malls in Africa with all the big consumer brands in it. So they symbolize both new money and old money.

Does Islam still play an important role in Moroccan culture?

Islam is Moroccan culture. You cannot separate the two. It infuses the history, but also daily life. I hear the call to prayer five times a day; when I say hello to someone, they will often answer me in the name of God. One of the interesting things here is that the Arabs were actually invaders, and the indigenous people are Berbers (Amazigh in the local parlance), so Berber, not Arabic, is many people’s first language.

What is the source of the country’s stability?

At the root of the country’s stability is the king, Mohammed VI. He controls the military, the judiciary and foreign policy. He appoints the prime minister. Criticizing or directly opposing the king is punishable by prison, and people are even legally obliged to have a picture of the king in their place of business. But he is well-loved; he is seen as someone who loves his people, who is the father of his people and who works for his people.

When the Arab Spring spread across the Arab world, there were protests in Morocco, but the king gave up some of his powers. He used to appoint all the high posts like ambassadors and the CEOs of state companies, but he gave that role to the prime minister, and now he can only appoint a prime minister from the largest party in Parliament.

So what is the relationship like between the king and the prime minister?

Saadeddine El Othmani, the prime minister, is an Islamic scholar, an intellectual and a psychiatrist. Everyone describes him as a moderate man, a man of consensus. So when the king appointed him, it was seen as a clever move, because they’re both moderates and both focused on progress.

What are some of the major policy priorities of the government?

There have been six months of riots in the north, in Al Hoceima, after a fishmonger was crushed to death when he jumped into a rubbish cart to retrieve his fish that had been thrown away by the police. The riots have become a cry for help from the poorest parts of society. The king has now stepped in: He dismissed a number of ministers and has asked the prime minister to replace them. This will be a real test for the government.

One of the more interesting things that is happening in Morocco right now is that they are stepping up to have a lead role in Africa. They have just rejoined the African Union after 33 years away, and the king made a long speech saying they were putting Africa first, and Morocco is perfectly positioned to play a lead role there.

What’s a recommendation of something people can do today to get a taste of Moroccan culture?

I would recommend you watch the film Much Loved; it’s on Netflix. It’s about four women who live as sex workers in the country, and the exploitation of prostitutes by pimps and the police. When it was released it caused a massive furor here — the lead actress received death threats, it was condemned by the religious authorities and it was actually banned. But it has meant that the country has finally had a discussion about sex!

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