The Great Potential of a U.S.-Moroccan Relationship

Rabat can help Washington tend to its complex interests in the Sahel.

The West faces a serious dilemma on the African continent as French forces begin the process of withdrawing troops from Mali in April. As the New York Times noted this week, French troops were critical in routing Al Qaeda-linked militants from the northeastern part of the country, where the extremists had managed to conquer a territory the size of France itself and subject the population to a reign of terror. The enclave was fast becoming a bastion of support for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other affiliated groups below the Sahara—whose growth on the African continent poses one of the most grave terror threats to global security today.

The reason for Western concerns about French withdrawal is that the coalition of African armies with whom they are now allied lack the capacity to hold the territory on their own. “No amount of exercise or training in the next couple weeks or months can, in itself, prepare African forces for their new role in Mali,” U.S. counterterrorism specialist Benjamin P. Nickels told the Times. And so at precisely the time when most Western governments wish to reduce their military commitments abroad in light of trying economic circumstances, they face pressure to do the opposite.

This problem, in turn, is only part of a larger challenge Europe and the United States face in Africa, a continent which, though formidable, poses opportunities as well as risks. As Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson noted in a statement earlier this year, “It is my firm belief that Africa represents the next global economic frontier. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to weather the global economic crisis more successfully than other regions, and is home to six—and soon to be seven—of the ten fastest growing economies in the world.” Yet he also noted in substance that American entrepreneurs lack the knowledge base and network on the continent to take advantage of the opportunity.

Meanwhile, elites in the U.S. private sector have observed that foreign direct investment in Africa, while promising in terms of its potential to develop and enrich the continent and investors, could easily be reversed through capital flight should Al-Qaeda gains imperil the security of multinational installations.

In order to scale back military commitments, strengthen indigenous military capabilities, and benefit from the business opportunities Africa poses, the United States would do well to find a local partner that can facilitate all three. A strong candidate to play this role is a staunch US ally, the Kingdom of Morocco: Since Muhammad VI assumed the throne in 1999, the country has worked to establish goodwill, political and economic ties, and a strong security footprint across the continent—both north and south of the Sahara.

King Mohammed VI visited three countries in sub-Saharan Africa last week: Senegal, Gabon, and Ivory Coast. As in forays to seven other African states since February 2005, he brought along teams of intelligence, political and cultural advisors, as well as Moroccan entrepreneurs. This mixed portfolio, unleashed in a series of working sessions with counterparts in each country, reflects the monarchy’s approach to building ties deep into Africa while bolstering continent-wide security as well.

King Mohammed appears to believe that security in any developing country rests on a combination of military operations, intelligence work and policing on the one hand, and anti-poverty measures, the promotion of religious tolerance and opportunity-boosting political reforms on the other. This is the approach he has employed in his own country since a 2003 triple suicide bombing rattled the kingdom. It was recently consolidated by a new constitution that grants sweeping domestic authorities to an elected chief of government, mandates equal opportunity for women and minorities, and democratizes domestic security by establishing a consultative security council bringing the monarchy and elected officials together.

In accordance with these principles, Morocco has established goodwill in much of Africa through a series of development projects. Among the more prominent examples, the kingdom’s National Office of Electricity is now electrifying rural areas along the Senegal River, affecting 550 villages and 360,000 people. Along the way, the venture trains Senegalese experts in techniques honed inside Morocco, thanks to a homegrown project that brought electricity to 98 percent of villages countrywide.

Other Moroccan-led ventures are improving health services on the continent. For example, the kingdom’s pharmaceutical giant, Sothema, was tapped to establish a branch in Dakar which now makes and exports affordable drugs to treat cholera, malaria, and diarrheal diseases in Africa’s poorest countries. These projects, along with the Moroccan private sector’s investments in many sub-Saharan states, are facilitated by a Moroccan banking network spanning 20 African nations. Human resources for the work are typically drawn from a combination of indigenous talent and Moroccan expatriate communities across the continent who lend their bilingual, bicultural skills to these bilateral ventures.