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Morocco Boasts Success Fighting Terrorism

Fri, 03/03/2017 - 07:28

DW Germany

In 2003 and 2011 Morocco was targeted by terrorist attacks in Casablanca and Marrakesh – a shock to the country in the Maghreb region. “Morocco was really surprised by those attacks, especially in Casablanca,” says Mohammed Benhammou, an adviser to the Moroccan government on how to fight terrorism.

With his help, the North African country has been pouring its resources into fighting radical Islam and terrorism to make sure such attacks are not repeated.

Investigation continues into marrakesh explosion

One of those instruments is a new law that aims to crack down on terrorism and related activities. Anyone potentially preparing terrorist activities such as traveling to countries like Libya, Syria or Iraq and carrying out attacks either in those countries or in Morocco will face jail. This is where Morocco is going a different way compared to its neighbors, keeping an eye on it nationals not only at home but also abroad.

The Moroccan FBI

To be able to do that efficiently, Morocco launched its own version of the FBI, the Bureau Central d’Investigation Judiciaire (BCJI). Since it started its work in 2015, it has reportedly uncovered 40 terrorist cells and arrested almost 600 people.

The numbers are impressive but, says Benhammou, they come as no surprise. “They work really well together with other countries. That’s important, because terrorism outside Morocco can also be dangerous for us. For example, a little while ago terrorist suspects from Chad and Tangier were arrested because they were preparing attacks there. And we share all our information with European countries, because we all have the same enemy – terrorism,” he told DW.

Indeed, Morocco was one of the countries to warn Germany about the Tunisian man who was behind the attack last year at a Christmas market in Berlin. But now more than ever the BCJI has to focus on it’s own country. Ever since the “Islamic State” (IS) group began expanding in North Africa, Morocco has been facing an increasing threat. According to Adelhak Khiame, director of the BCJI, IS is specifically targeting Morocco by sending people who are not known to the intelligence services to form sleeper cells. “They even try to brainwash young girls on the internet to recruit them for an attack here,” Khiame told DW. The BCJI says it recently uncovered a cell made up of mainly minor-aged girls.

School for imams

Marokko kämpt gegen den Terrorismus (DW/W. de Koning)

Preaching moderate Islam is part of Morocco’s strategy to prevent young people feeling the lure of extremism

The bureau is just one part of Morocco’s strategy. In an attempt to nip the problem in the bud, the country is going back to school. In an effort to stop muslims from becoming extremists, the country has been educating its own imams for the past 10 years. In 2015 they took that one step further and opened an imam school where imams from all over the world can study and teach moderate Islam.

The school in Rabat currently hosts 250 Moroccans (100 of them are women) and 675 students from Mali, the Ivory Coast, France, Niger and French Guinea. Students are taught to accept different opinions and values. “People have different religions and cultures. Therefore, we need dialogue and acceptance from all sides,” the director of the school, Abdessalam Lazaar, told DW.

Marokko kämpt gegen den Terrorismus (DW/W. de Koning)

Students need to be given a perspective in life if they’re not to become susceptible to the “Islamic State” group

But becoming an imam is not a cure-all. A lot of young people who are poor see life as a jihadist as an attractive alternative. The institute therefore tries to counter those developments by offering courses in economics, history, philosophy and French. And those that do go on to preach in a mosque in Morocco are under strict vigilance, says Lazaar. “If someone exceeds the limits of the state’s religious understanding, then he must be excluded.”

Morocco remains vigilant

Vigilance is key in Morocco and people on the streets are aware that it is necessary. “Not only to stop terrorism, but also to protect the monarchy,” a young man from Rabat, who wished to stay anonymous, told DW. “A friend who worked for the police, once told me that I must not talk so much about problems in the country and just do my thing.”

A young woman from Casablanca shrugs her shoulders. “Everybody in Morocco is aware that you are being watched. If they have to do that to stop terrorists, we’re okay with that, we have nothing to hide.” The young man from Rabat agrees, but confesses that sometimes he’s a bit afraid. “I have a friend who has some weird ideas and put them on Facebook. A lot of his friends unfriended him because they – like me – don’t want to be watched because of him. I have nothing to hide – but you don’t know what they think. And here you don’t have the same rights as in other countries.”

Hundreds of Tunisians joining Islamic State

Government advisor Benhammou says Morocco’s methods are working. Aside from the arrests, fewer people from Morocco sign up with IS than from other North African or Middle East countries.

According to The Soufan Group, an international strategic consultancy firm, around 1,200 Moroccans traveled to Syria as of October 2015, while 6,000 came from Tunisia. “And bear in mind that Tunisia is four times smaller then Morocco,” said Benhammou.

Glencore Risks Investor Ire As Partner Resumes Hunt For Oil In Disputed Western Sahara

Fri, 03/03/2017 - 05:20

Telegraph.co.uk

A survey ship has resumed prospecting for oil in Western Sahara.

Glencore risks drawing further ire over oil exploration in Western Sahara after one of its partners resumed prospecting off the coast of the disputed territory earlier this month.

A ship chartered by private firm New Age Energy spent several weeks conducting 3D seismic scans of the sea floor in what it called “early stage” exploration for hydrocarbons.

Glencore owns 18.75pc of the Foum Ognit licence area, with Moroccan state oil company ONHYM holding 25pc, and New Age the remaining 56.25pc.

Many people in Western Sahara want self-determination.

The survey reopens a debate about the sovereignty of mineral rights in the African territory.
Western Sahara’s status is regarded as “undetermined” by the British government. A large part of the country has been occupied by Morocco since 1976, but the local Saharawi people have long campaigned for self-determination.

The UN ruled in 2002 that searching for oil in Western Sahara was not illegal, but that the exploitation of any resulting discoveries would have to respect “the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara”.

A number of pension funds have sold out of companies that explore for oil in the region, on the basis that Morocco does not have the right to bestow licences. In 2015, KLP, Norway’s largest life insurer, announced it would no longer invest in Glencore, saying its activity there ran an “unacceptable risk of violating fundamental ethical norms” and was unlikely to be consistent with international law.

Glencore CEO Ivan Glasenberg Credit: Reuters

Resource companies have argued that helping to develop an industry in Western Sahara is the best way to create jobs and boost its economy, which had an estimated GDP of just $908.9m in 2007.

In addition to its mining operations, FTSE 100 giant Glencore is one of the world’s biggest traders of oil. It acquired parts of two blocks off the coast of Western Sahara to explore for oil in 2014, but has so far not progressed its work. Since an industry downturn two years ago, it has been looking to prune parts of its portfolio.

An industry source said that Glencore was in advanced talks to transfer ownership of its stake in Foum Ognit to New Age, as it was unclear if the block would ever produce oil.

Glencore declined to comment.

Morocco To Withdraw Forces From Western Sahara Buffer Zone

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:20

France 24
Reuters

The standoff in Guerguerat began last year when U.N. troops stepped in after Moroccan gendarmerie crossed beyond Moroccan-controlled areas in what they said was a road clearing operation, prompting the mobilization of Polisario forces.

The Moroccan Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Sunday, that King Mohammed had ordered “a unilateral withdrawal from the zone” in conformation with the U.N. Secretary General’s recommendations.

Polisario forces were not immediately available for a response.

The spokesman for the U.N. Secretary General had released a statement on Saturday calling on all parties to “unconditionally withdraw all armed elements from the Buffer Strip as soon as possible”.

Polisario accused Rabat of breaking the terms of the ceasefire last year by trying to build a road in the U.N. buffer zone. Morocco says it was just a clearing operation that broke no terms of the ceasefire.

U.N. peacekeepers had been stationed between Moroccan forces and a brigade of Polisario troops who were just 200 metres apart in an area between a Moroccan-built earth wall marking Moroccan controlled territory and the Mauritania frontier.

(REUTERS)

Morocco’s Attijariwafa Bank Signs Deals With Ivory Coast Defence Ministry

Wed, 03/01/2017 - 15:37

Reuters
by Samia Errazzouki

Attijariwafa Bank, one of Morocco’s biggest banks, has signed two agreements with Ivory Coast’s Ministry of Defence, according to a statement from the bank.

The agreements includes participating in financing of two new military camps as well as establishing a line of credit to finance housing for members of the Ivory Coast’s Armed Forces.

Like other large Moroccan companies, Attijariwafa Bank has been expanding in Africa. It has subsidiaries in Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Mali, among other countries, as well as branches in Europe.

The bank, controlled by Moroccan royal family holding SNI, said in a statement this week that the two agreements would “improve working and living conditions” for the Ivory Coast army.

No details about the total costs of the agreements were immediately available. The deals come over a month after soldiers in Ivory Coast reached an agreement with the government resolving a dispute over bonus payments that sparked a mutiny.

Morocco’s King has also been on a tour of Africa since last year, campaigning for Morocco to rejoin the African Union, which it did at an AU summit in January. Morocco is pushing its own solution for its Western Sahara dispute with the Polisario independence movement.

Due to problems left over from years of civil war and political turmoil, the Ivory Coast government has failed to bring significant reform to the army, which remains a patchwork of former rebel fighters and troops who stayed loyal to the government during the 2002-2011 crisis.

(Reporting by Samia Errazzouki; editing by Patrick Markey and Louise Heavens)

Morocco: China’s Gateway To Africa?

Wed, 03/01/2017 - 15:26

The Diplomat
By Joseph Hammond

China’s President Xi Jinping (L) and Moroccan King Mohammed VI wave during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of People in Beijing, China (May 11, 2016).

Morocco is actively courting more Chinese investment and closer ties.

It’s the night before Morocco’s 2016 parliamentary elections, yet all one of the kingdom’s most influential bankers wants to talk about is China. Chinese-Moroccan relations have blossomed in the last year, and Brahim Benjelloun Touimi, the director general of BCME Bank and the chairman of the Bank of Africa, hopes to benefit from the change.

Seated inside a restaurant that was once a palace, Touimi enjoyed a traditional Moroccan stew over couscous and offered his views on China. BCME, he said, has over 500 branches in Morocco and recently opened its first full branch in Shanghai. “We are in Asia because of Africa; we opened the Shanghai branch because of Africa. Morocco can be China’s gateway into West Africa and beyond, where Moroccan companies and businessmen are already playing a leading role,“ he said.

Moroccan banks are interested in China, and Chinese banks are interested in Morocco. The Bank of China, China’s oldest financial institution, opened its first branch in Morocco this year. The bank seeks to manage its involvement in various African markets from Casablanca. Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca, is increasingly recognized as an important African financial center. This year Casablanca surpassed Johannesburg to be ranked the number one financial center in the Global Financial Centers Index, a survey of financial centers.

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Other countries such as Mauritius and South Africa have been hailed as China’s gateway to Africa, but few countries have positioned themselves aggressively for the position in the way that Morocco has. Last year, the government of Morocco hosted the first Sino-African Entrepreneurs Summit in Marrakech, where Morocco later hosted the COP22 summit. Similar forums are planned in the future.

The relationship dates back to November 1958, when Morocco became only the second country in Africa to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Ties deepened last year when Morocco’s King Mohammed VI made a state visit to China. It was the second such trip to China during his reign. Mohamed Boussaid, Morocco’s minister of economy and finance, believes that king’s trip in May 2016 played a major role in moving the relationship forward. “His majesty’s visit certainly helped open up business in the development of Tangiers as an export zone but, also in other sectors such as tourism,” Boussaid said.

The trip resulted in the signing of some important agreements, including the signing of a China-Africa investment fund and plans for a $10 billion industrial city to be built in Tangiers, Morocco’s northern hub. China sees in Morocco an opportunity to develop factories for export to the European Union, just across the straights of Gibraltar.

In February of this year, Moroccan-Chinese ties were further cemented when the speaker of Morocco’s House of Representatives, Habib El Malki, announced the creation of a friendship group involving parliamentarians of the two countries. El Malki is a senior member of Morocco’s Socialist Union of Popular Forces.

At the political level Morocco and China see eye-to-eye on some issues, most notably in the policy of non-intervention in state affairs. While the Moroccan press has occasionally reported on the oppression of faith in China, the government of Morocco has largely abstained from commenting on issues relating to China’s “core interests”: Xinjiang, Taiwan, or Tibet. In return, China has not commented on the Moroccan position regarding the Western Sahara.

“I think the Chinese position on the South is very pragmatic. The Chinese have looked at Dakhla and the South and taken economic opportunities where they exist,” said Foreign Minister Delegate Nasser Bourita, referring to one of Southern Morocco’s largest cities in the Western Sahara.

“Though China has contributed a lot of troops to the operation, China has no policy regarding the Western Sahara,” said a senior official UN official based in the Western Sahara. United Nations figures from August 2016 show that just 10 of the 2,639 Chinese soldiers deployed on United Nations missions abroad were in the Western Sahara.

However, the experience there has been memorable, at least for some of the Chinese officers. “In addition to the visible white bones everywhere, the black wind of the Sahara Desert is also impressive,” a Chinese officer wrote in reminiscences posted online by the Global Times.

China’s relationship with Taiwan is complicated by geopolitical rivalry with the United States and China’s territorial ambitions; in a similar fashion, the fate of the Western Sahara is closely tied to Morocco’s longstanding icy relationship with Algeria. Algeria has long-supported POLISARIO, a Socialist party that carried out a guerrilla campaign against Morocco until a ceasefire in 1991. China, for its part, has traditionally had stronger ties with Algeria than with any other country in Northern Africa.

However, the Taiwan-Western Sahara comparison can only be taken so far. In Morocco, one can easily visit and search websites linked to POLISARIO; it is far harder in China to read about Xinjiang or Tibet. That fact reflects that Morocco is a liberalized society and, since reforms implemented by King Muhammad VI, an increasingly democratic one. For its part, the Moroccan press has often reported on China’s lack of freedom of religion and restrictions faced by Chinese Muslims.

While individual Moroccans might grumble about the fate of their co-religionists, that hasn’t stopped the blossoming of ties. In June, Morocco dropped visa requirements for Chinese tourists, marking a new chapter in the long history of travel between the two countries.

In 1325, the famed traveler Ibn Battuta left Morocco for China, which he reached 20 years later after traveling far and wide. Today the journey would be less circuitous, but there are still no direct commercial air links between the two countries. The lack of a direct air link makes the sudden increase in Chinese tourism to Morocco all the more startling.

Some 42,000 Chinese tourists visited Morocco in 2016, an increase of 300 percent year-on-year. The figure is especially impressive given the visa requirement was in place for much of 2016. Before the visa requirement was lifted, Morocco received 1,000-800 Chinese tourists a month; that figure has reached as high as 7,000 per month since requirement was lifted. As such, Morocco’s goal to welcome 100,000 Chinese tourists in 2017 seems achievable. China is doing its part as well; an event held by the state-owned Global Times in February named Morocco the “best potential destination” in the world in a ceremony attended by a representative of the Moroccan government.

Not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of more Chinese tourists. Over the past two decades, roughly 2,000 Chinese citizens have moved to Morocco. The wholesale market in Casablanca’s Derb Omar district is home to many profitable Chinese-owned shops selling Chinese imports. “What does it say about us Moroccans, if Chinese can come here and sell more than us?” said Zaynab Mohamed, a resident of Casablanca. Despite the resentment, the chances of an incident like the 2009 anti-Chinese riot in Algeria remain small.

Ultimately, such relatively minor quibbles will have a minimal impact on Chinese-Moroccan relations.

“We think [Morocco] can be China’s liaison to some opportunities and we offer a stable place to do business,“ said Benjelloun Touimi, the banker. “There is room for everyone in Africa.”

Joseph Hammond is a fellow with the American Media Institute and former Cairo Correspondent for Radio Free Europe. He has been contributing as a freelancer to The Diplomat since 2010.

Reducing Gender Inequality Can Boost Growth

Wed, 03/01/2017 - 08:28

IMF.org

Policies that better integrate women into the economy could help increase overall income and significantly improve Morocco’s growth prospects, IMF study finds.

Jamila is a 12-year-old girl living in rural Morocco. She is still in school when most girls her age are not—about 78 percent of girls between the ages of 12 and 14 are no longer in formal schooling in the country’s rural areas. Her dream is to become a doctor, and if she stays on track with her education she should be able to accomplish this goal.

But significant challenges stand in Jamila’s way—a slowing economy over the past five years, limited job opportunities (22 percent youth unemployment), and fewer women in the workplace as compared to men (25 percent participation rate compared to over 66 percent).

The government has started to implement policies that better integrate women into the economy, but more still needs to be done to help young girls like Jamila achieve their dreams.

Women and the economy

As part of the assessment of Morocco’s economy, we looked at the relationship between gender inequality and growth and found that policies that better integrate women into the economy could significantly improve the country’s growth. For instance, if there were as many women working as men currently are in Morocco, income per capita could be almost 50 percent higher than it is now.

Furthermore, Morocco’s population growth is slowing, and the United Nations projects that the dependency ratio—the age population ratio of those out and in the labor force—will rise by 2040. This means that there is a potential for more people to be out of work over the next few decades. Continuing to implement policies that eliminate gender gaps—such as increasing access to education and improving public transportation (making it safer and easier to get to work) for women, vocational training and literacy programs for rural areas—could offset these negative effects.

Improving women’s rights

The government has already initiated the following steps:

The family code was revised to expand the rights of women in marriage, guardianship, child custody, and access to divorce in 2004.

A constitutional guarantee for equality was enacted in 2011.

Maternity leave of 14 weeks at full salary was introduced in 2004.

The first and most advanced gender budgeting initiative in the Middle East and Central Asia region was launched in Morocco in 2002. Gender budgeting uses fiscal policies and administration, at the national, state, or local level, to address gender inequality and women’s advancement.

More reforms needed

Even with these improvements, our research points out that stronger and better targeted measures are needed to increase female labor force participation and employment, and to address gender gaps in education in Morocco.

For instance, our study found that:

Investing in public childcare facilities could free women’s time, enabling them to undertake more educational and training activities, and join the labor market.

Tax deductions or credits are currently only available to men, who as taxpayers are able to claim a dependent deduction for both spouse and children. A female taxpayer may not claim similar tax advantages unless she proves that she is a legal guardian.

Conditional transfer programs for education, as recommended in the recently-adopted national employment strategy, can promote better access to secondary education for girls. The transfer programs could also support literacy programs for women in rural areas, female entrepreneurship, and vocational training programs for all women.

If all these actions are implemented, there is no doubt that the barriers to Jamila’s economic participation would be greatly reduced, and she would have more opportunities to contribute to a more prosperous and inclusive Moroccan society.

Anta Ndoye and Vincent Dadam, Middle East & Central Asia Department Lisa Kolovich, Strategy, Policy & Review Department

The Oldest Friendship: U.S., Morocco Begin Flintlock 2017

Mon, 02/27/2017 - 08:00

DVID’S
Story by Maj. Nicholas Mannweiler
U.S. Africa Command

Military representatives from the Kingdom of Morocco and the United States held an opening ceremony for Exercise Flintlock 2017, Feb. 27 aboard the Tifnit training base in Morocco’s Southern Zone area of operations.

More than 2,000 military personnel from 24 African and Western nations are participating in the tenth annual iteration of the exercise, set to take place this year from Feb. 27 to March 16 across seven African host nations.

The exercise strengthens security institutions, promotes multilateral sharing of information and develops interoperability between counterterrorism partners from across Africa’s Sahara region. African partner special operations forces and Special Operations Command Africa jointly plan and execute the exercise, highlighting the sense of shared purpose across the continent as partners strengthen themselves and their regional network against violent extremists. For Morocco and the U.S., this partnership’s roots run deep.

Morocco formally recognized the United States by signing a treaty of peace and friendship in 1786 between U.S. Minister Thomas Barclay and the Sultan of Morocco, Sidi Muhammad, in the legendary city of Marrakech, according to the U.S. Department of State website. The relationship matured with the naming of James Simpson as the first American consul in 1797 in Morocco’s Tangier. Sultan Mawlay Suleiman gifted the consulate a building and grounds to use, marking the first property owned by the United States government on foreign shores. In all of American history, no other country has maintained its treaty relationship with the United States for as long as Morocco. Flintlock 2017 is the most recent in a long line of actions and expressions of solidarity between the two nations.

“Morocco plays a key leadership role in Africa and we are honored by the continued partnership and friendship between our two countries. We look forward to working with you over the next few weeks,” said MARSOC’s exercise instructor.

Brig. Gen. Mohammed Benlouali, operations commander for Morocco’s Southern Zone, delivered remarks on behalf of the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces.

“These types of activities, as well as other joint combined Moroccan-American exercises, are a golden opportunity to further enhance the ties of military cooperation between our two countries,” said Benlouali.

“We will stand ready and willing to take maximum benefit from this period of training to further promote our knowledge and know-how in the field of special forces. For these reasons, I urge all FAR SOF company members to take advantage of this experience,” he said.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Marines from Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command will train alongside their Moroccan peers, refining tactics, techniques and procedures across multiple full mission profiles. The two forces will specifically train on small unit special operations forces tactics, weapons training and fire support, lifesaving first aid and trauma care, command and control and force protection. The shared training experiences will develop the two SOF partners’ ability to plan, coordinate and operate as an integrated team and will strengthen the bond between the two countries. The Moroccan Royal Armed Forces have been a resolute contributor to United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world and provide a center of stability and security across the Sahel region.

The threat posed by violent extremist organizations around the world demands proficiency, coordination and enhanced interoperability in order to counter it. While regional security is the main focus of Exercise Flintlock 2017, the lessons learned and investments in relationships will allow us to share the burdens of managing conflicts and improve our ability to provide security solutions that meet threats at their origin.

Morocco Looks To New Markets To Boost Stagnant Tourism

Sun, 02/26/2017 - 19:00

News 24
AFP

Morocco’s key tourism sector barely grew last year amid security challenges, but operators are hoping Chinese and Russian visitors will boost their fortunes in the coming years.

While political turmoil and jihadist attacks have battered the sector in Egypt and Tunisia, Morocco registered 10 million visitors last year, according to the Moroccan Tourism Observatory.

That was a barely perceptible rise of 1.5% from 2015, it said.

But hoteliers in the narrow streets of the capital Rabat’s old city were cautiously positive.

“Last year was better than 2015. And the first two months of 2017 augured an even better year,” said Hanane, manager of a local guesthouse.

Tourists are easy to spot wandering through Rabat’s old city with its craft stalls, Andalusian-style houses and a 12th-century kasbah overlooking the Atlantic.

But while tourism revenues rose 3.4% to $6.3bn in 2016, visitor arrivals to Morocco have fallen far short of an ambitious official target of 20 million per year by 2020.

A growing number of visits by Moroccans who live abroad – counted as tourists when they come home – accounted for much of the sector’s buoyancy.

Foreign visitor arrivals last year were down by 0.9%.

Karim, owner of a travel agency in commercial capital Casablanca, said more work was needed to drum up new business.

“The situation is pushing us to look for new markets outside Europe,” he said.

“But overall, it can be said that there was a slight recovery in 2016.”

Authorities are hoping for an influx of Russian and Chinese tourists, who currently account for just one percent of total visitors.

That is far behind the French, who make up almost a third of arrivals – a figure that includes many of Moroccan origin.

“Europeans still top the list, but the number of Chinese visitors is growing,” Hanane said.

“Since visas for the Chinese were abolished in June, a door has been opened.”

‘Lacklustre’ performance

Tourism remains a vital pillar of the Moroccan economy and the country’s second biggest employer, after agriculture.

The sector accounts for 10% of national income and, along with exports and remittances from Moroccans overseas, it is one of the country’s main sources of foreign currency.

Former imperial city Marrakesh, with its Unesco-listed old town, and the coastal town of Agadir have long been key attractions.

They remain popular – in contrast to Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt, where visitor numbers have plummeted following the Arab Spring uprisings and repeated jihadist attacks.

Morocco has not experienced an attack since a 2011 bombing in Marrakesh’s famed Jamaa El Fna Square, which killed 17 people, mainly European tourists.

Today, security forces stand guard at Morocco’s main tourist sites.

The government, a key security partner of European countries, regularly announces it has dismantled jihadist cells.

But while the kingdom remains safer than other countries in the region, visitor numbers have stubbornly refused to rise.

The local press calls the sector’s performance “lacklustre and disappointing” compared with a 2010 plan to double arrivals.

Back then, “Vision 2020” envisioned creating 200 000 new hotel beds and attracting 20 million visitors a year by the end of the decade.

Since then, “many international factors” had disrupted the government’s efforts, Observatory chief Said Mouhid said.

“We will not reach 20 million in 2020, for sure, but it remains a symbolic figure to mobilise operators,” he said.

He defended last year’s performance as “respectable and positive”.

“We are in a difficult international context, marked by many obstacles to travel,” he said.

“These figures prove the resilience of Moroccan tourism, even if they remain below our ambitions.”

Morocco Says Forces To Withdraw In Western Sahara’s Guerguerat Standoff

Sun, 02/26/2017 - 18:52

Reuters
by Samia Errazzouki

RABAT Morocco on Sunday announced the withdrawal of its forces from a U.N. buffer zone in the disputed Western Sahara territory, where for months they had been in a standoff with troops from the Polisario independence movement.

The move took place days after a phone call between Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and will reduce military tensions in Guerguerat, a remote area in Western Sahara near Mauritania.

The military moves last year were one of the most tense in recent years between Morocco and Polisario, which declared an independent republic in the disputed desert land in the 1970s and fought a guerrilla war with Morocco until a 1991 ceasefire.

The standoff in Guerguerat began last year when U.N. troops stepped in after Moroccan gendarmerie crossed beyond Moroccan-controlled areas in what they said was a road clearing operation, prompting the mobilization of Polisario forces.

The Moroccan Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Sunday, that King Mohammed had ordered “a unilateral withdrawal from the zone” in conformation with the U.N. Secretary General’s recommendations.

Polisario forces were not immediately available for a response.

The spokesman for the U.N. Secretary General had released a statement on Saturday calling on all parties to “unconditionally withdraw all armed elements from the Buffer Strip as soon as possible”.

Polisario accused Rabat of breaking the terms of the ceasefire last year by trying to build a road in the U.N. buffer zone. Morocco says it was just a clearing operation that broke no terms of the ceasefire.

U.N. peacekeepers had been stationed between Moroccan forces and a brigade of Polisario troops who were just 200 meters apart in an area between a Moroccan-built earth wall marking Moroccan controlled territory and the Mauritania frontier.

(Reporting by Samia Errazzouki; editing by Patrick Markey)

Moody’s: Morocco’s Ba1 Rating Changed To Positive From Stable

Sun, 02/26/2017 - 00:00

CPI FINANCIAL
by Jessica Combes

Moody’s Investors Service has changed the outlook on the Government of Morocco’s rating to positive from stable and affirmed the issuer and senior unsecured ratings at Ba1.

The key drivers of the rating action are:

(1) Improving external position reflected in the build-up of foreign exchange reserves in the wake of dynamic new export industries and lower nominal oil imports;
(2) Declining fiscal imbalances, reflecting gradual but steady fiscal consolidation, supported by fuel subsidy and public pension reforms, which in turn increase the prospect of a gradual reduction in public-sector indebtedness.

Moody’s decision to affirm Morocco’s Ba1 rating balances an institutional environment, which is supportive of structural reforms, as illustrated by the country’s industrialisation and renewable energy strategy, against low wealth levels, a volatile and subdued growth pattern, and a comparatively high public debt stock relative to similarly rated peers. The Ba1 rating also captures Moody’s political risk assessment, which is based on the delays in the formation of a new government following the elections in October last year, in addition to potential regional tensions related to the disputed Western Sahara territory.

Morocco’s foreign- and local-currency ceilings remain unchanged, namely the long-term foreign-currency bond ceiling at Baa2, the long-term foreign-currency deposit ceiling at Ba2, and the long-term local-currency bond and deposit ceilings at Baa1. The short-term foreign-currency bank deposit ceiling remains unchanged at NP, and the short-term foreign-currency bond ceiling at P-2.

Ratings rationale

First driver: dynamic new export industries and lower nominal oil imports gradually improving the country’s external position

The first driver for Moody’s decision to change Morocco’s rating outlook to positive is the country’s improving external position in the wake of lower nominal oil imports and resilient export sectors, resulting in the build-up of a foreign-exchange buffer amounting to around 7 months of import cover at the end of 2016, up from 4.1 months at year-end 2012. As one of the most energy-import-dependent countries among Moody’s-rated MENA sovereigns, Morocco is one of the main beneficiaries of the lower-for-longer oil price environment, which supports the preservation of the buffer over the forecast horizon. The forex buffer also represents a necessary precondition for the central bank’s announced strategy to gradually move towards a flexible exchange rate system starting in the second half of 2017.

Morocco’s export performance is supported by the diversification into higher value-added automotive, aeronautics and electronics sectors, which have together overtaken the more traditional exports in the phosphate, agriculture or textile sectors, and which continued to expand at double-digit rates in 2016. Moody’s expects the country’s export performance in these new sectors to remain dynamic in response to their increased integration in the global production chain.

The country’s current account deficit has improved to an estimated 3.8 per cent of GDP at the end of 2016 from a deficit of 9.5 per cent in 2012. Moody’s expects the current account deficit to remain around the 4 per cent of GDP level over the forecast horizon, with oil prices projected to remain in the $40-$60 range. Morocco’s relative political stability has also bolstered foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows, which are mainly geared towards the real estate and the industrial sectors, and which balance nascent FDI outflows toward Sub Saharan Africa in support of Morocco’s regional trade diversification strategy. If sustained at current levels, Moody’s expects that net FDI inflows will remain an important source of funding for the country’s current account deficit, therefore limiting the build-up of external debt.

Second driver: institutional reforms likely to support gradual but steady fiscal consolidation
The second driver behind Moody’s decision to change Morocco’s rating outlook to positive is the country’s improving fiscal performance, reflecting a gradual but steady pace of fiscal consolidation, which is in turn supported by institutional improvements that are likely to reduce implementation risks in the future. The fiscal deficit has declined steadily to four per cent of GDP at the end of 2016 from 7.3 per cent in 2012, driven mainly by the reduction in the energy subsidy bill to about 1.2 per cent of GDP from 6.5 per cent in 2012. While the slump in oil prices played an important role, the complete elimination of fuel subsidies and the introduction of an automatic pricing formula in late 2015 shields the deficit from expanding again with increasing oil prices. Looking ahead, Moody’s believes that Morocco’s fiscal deficit is likely to continue to contract. Provided there are no major setbacks, the continued shrinking of the fiscal deficit raises the prospect for the central government’s debt-to-GDP ratio to begin trending downward as of this year and gradually move towards the 2020 60 per cent target envisaged by the government.

Similarly, the parametric public-sector pension reform, which the Moroccan government enacted before the October 2016 elections, has improved the financial sustainability of the public-sector pension fund, thereby reducing pressures on the budget over the medium term. Other reform initiatives, which have been undertaken with the technical cooperation of the IMF under three consecutive Precautionary and Liquidity Line (PLL) programmes since 2012, include the almost complete implementation of the organic budget law, the continued fiscal decentralisation under the Advanced Regionalization programme, in addition to tax reform with the objective of broadening the tax base, reducing exemptions and improving the business environment.

Rationale for affirming Morocco’s rating at Ba1

Moody’s affirmation of Morocco’s Ba1 government bond rating takes into account the continued progress in the country’s industrialisation strategy, which aims to increase the manufacturing share to 23 per cent of GDP by 2020 from 16 per cent currently, deepen its focus on renewable energy to reduce its energy import dependence, and expand the country’s geographical trade diversification into Sub Saharan Africa.

At the same time, Morocco’s rating reflects persistent structural constraints, combining low wealth levels with relatively subdued and volatile growth dynamics in comparison to peers because the county’s agriculture sector continues to contribute a significant 13 per cent of GDP as well as 40 per cent of the labour force. The Ba1 rating also takes into account the comparatively high central government debt ratio of an estimated 64.8 per cent of GDP in 2016, although the low foreign-currency share of the overall debt stock, and access to a large domestic funding base represent mitigating factors. As the main driver of event risk, the Moroccan banking sector’s foray into Sub Saharan Africa represents both an opportunity to diversify and to expand its market share, as well as a challenge in terms of cross-border supervision and risk management.

The Ba1 rating affirmation also captures Moody’s political risk assessment of Morocco, which takes account of delays in the formation of the new government following the elections in October last year, in addition to the potential for regional tensions related to the disputed Western Sahara territory.

What could change the rating up/down?

Upward rating pressure would arise from increased evidence that the country’s budgetary performance will be sufficiently robust in the coming years to firmly position the central government debt ratio on a downward trajectory, combined with a stabilisation of debt guarantees from state-owned enterprises. A resolution of the political stalemate that would secure the maintenance of fiscal discipline and the reform momentum – including the stated objective of easing the current currency peg in the second half of 2017 with the aim to moving to an inflation-targeting regime and easing capital controls over the medium term — would also be credit supportive.

If the Moroccan government proved unable to control the deficit, the debt burden and debt guarantees this would increasingly limit Morocco’s fiscal space and weigh on the country’s credit profile over the medium term.

A continued political stalemate or increased tensions with the Western Sahara territory would also be credit negative, as would an unforeseen deterioration in the external accounts due to a sharp and sustained spike in oil prices or as a result of the gradual transition to a flexible exchange rate system.

GDP per capita (PPP basis, $): 8,180 (2015 Actual) (also known as Per Capita Income)

Real GDP growth ( per cent change): 4.5 per cent (2015 Actual) (also known as GDP Growth)
Inflation Rate (CPI, per cent change Dec/Dec): 0.6 per cent (2015 Actual)
Gen. Gov. Financial Balance/GDP: -4.4 per cent (2015 Actual) (also known as Fiscal Balance)
Current Account Balance/GDP: -2.1 per cent (2015 Actual) (also known as External Balance)
External debt/GDP: 42.7 per cent (2015 Actual)

Level of economic development: Moderate level of economic resilience

Default history: No default events (on bonds or loans) have been recorded since 1986.
On 21 February 2017, a rating committee was called to discuss the rating of the Government of Morocco. Other views raised included: the issuer’s economic fundamentals, including its economic strength, have not materially changed; the issuer’s institutional strength/framework, have increased; the issuer’s fiscal or financial strength, including its debt profile, has not materially changed; the issuer’s overall susceptibility to event risk has not materially changed.

BRIEF-Moody’s Changes Outlook On Government Of Morocco’s Ba1 Rating To Positive From Stable

Sat, 02/25/2017 - 10:13

Reuters
Moody’s on Morocco

* Moody’s changes outlook on Government of Morocco’s Ba1 rating to positive from stable; ratings affirmed

* Moody’s says Morocco’s foreign and local currency ceilings remain unchanged

* Moody’s on Morocco says decision to change rating outlook is improving external position in wake of lower nominal oil imports, resilient export sectors Source text for Eikon: Further company coverage: [Moody’s on Morocco]

Morocco Urges UN To End Polisario ‘Provocation’

Sat, 02/25/2017 - 02:26

Daily Mail
by Afp

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI spoke with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to deplore “repeated incursion by armed Polisario men” in the Guerguerat district.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI on Friday asked the United Nations to take urgent measures to end “provocation” by the Algeria-backed Polisario Front threatening the ceasefire in the disputed Western Sahara.

Top Wheat Buyers Grow More Of Their Own To Swell Global Glut

Sat, 02/25/2017 - 00:08

Bloomberg
by Manisha Jha

North Africa farms recover from drought to boost output by 25%

While still dependent on imports, region will be buying less

As if the global wheat surplus couldn’t get much worse, some of the biggest buyers may not need as much. That could swell stockpiles already expected to be the biggest ever.

Countries in North Africa like Egypt and Algeria — all dependent on foreign wheat to help keep their populations fed — probably will harvest 25 percent more on their own farms this year if the weather is as favorable as expected, the International Grains Council estimates. That means imports from the region could drop from a record high to a three-year low, according to Chicago-based researcher AgResource Co.

While global demand for wheat has never been bigger, output has risen even faster, and prices have plunged for four straight years. After droughts in North Africa hurt domestic crops last year, rain and mild temperatures will aid grain development this season, according to a report last month from the EU’s Monitoring Agricultural Resources unit. And the region’s weaker currencies against the dollar may further erode imports.

“If you want to be bullish on wheat, it can’t be based on demand or trade,” said Dan Basse, president of AgResource. “World wheat trade is stagnant, and if we have crops that are bigger in North Africa, it makes the expansion of trade by producing countries more difficult.” Prices will need to drop further to spur demand, he said.

Subsidized Bread

Egypt, which provides subsidized bread for its citizens, is the world’s top importer of wheat to supplement domestic production, and Algeria is the third-largest buyer. While food insecurity is significantly worse in drought-ravaged southern Africa, the five countries in North Africa still include millions who are undernourished, according to the United Nations.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates yield prospects in North Africa are “good to excellent,” based on weather forecasts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a Feb. 21 report, said wet weather has left favorable conditions in Morocco as well as in Algeria and Tunisia.

AgResource estimates the improved yields from better weather will boost output in the 2017-18 season to 19.6 million metric tons, up 39 percent from last year’s drought-damaged harvests. That would cut imports in the period to 27.6 million tons from an all-time high of 28.1 million a year earlier, the researcher said.

Big Improvement

In Morocco, where a drought last year cut the harvest by 71 percent and sent imports surging 64 percent, farmer Abdessamad Raiss says conditions are the best he’s seen in more than a decade.

“We’ve had plenty of rainfall this year,” said Raiss, who farms 30 hectares (74 acres) of soft wheat in Khmisset, about 50 miles northeast of the capital, Rabat. “Last year, I missed so many loan installments on my truck, but I’ve already made plans with my banker to pay back the loan in full by June.”

Wheat crops in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia rely mostly on rain, though Egypt’s farms are mostly irrigated.

“We had two years of relatively high imports in North Africa, and the situation should be different in the coming season,” said Amy Reynolds, a senior economist at the International Grains Council in London. “All these countries suffer from tight foreign reserves, so anything that cuts back on expenditure on imports is a big boon for them.”

Even in good harvest years, North Africa is still dependent on foreign grain. On average, more than 40 percent of the total cereal demand in Egypt and Morocco comes from imports, according to the FAO. In Tunisia and Algeria, it’s more than 60 percent, while Libya’s reliance on foreign supply is even greater.

The five nations in North Africa will import a record 28.6 million tons in the year that ends May 30, up for a fourth straight year and 30 percent higher since 2013, according to the USDA. Over that same period, domestic production is down 26 percent and consumption has increased 9.2 percent to a record 44.7 million tons, the data show.

“Imports will still be significant, and the impact on economic pressure within the countries depends not only on the input requirement, but also on the prices on the world markets,” Monika Tothova, an FAO economist, said in an e-mail.

Most importers have benefited as rising global output overwhelmed demand in recent years. Stockpiles will reach a record 236 million tons this season, according to a Grains Council report on Feb. 23. Wheat futures in Chicago have tumbled by more than half from a high of $9.47 1/4 a bushel in 2012 to a low in August of $3.86 3/4. Prices are up about 11 percent this year and were at $4.51 by 1:15 p.m. London time on Friday. That’s still below the average of $6.29 over the past decade.

While improving domestic supplies reduces the need for imports, purchases from some countries in North Africa also may be limited as their currencies weaken against the dollar, which reduced their buying power for grain purchases in the U.S. currency.

“From a trade perspective, it could mean less reduction of stocks from other countries, making it difficult to paint a bullish picture on wheat,” said Benjamin Bodart, a director at adviser CRM AgriCommodities in Newmarket, England.

Morocco Urges UN To End Polisario ‘Provocation’

Fri, 02/24/2017 - 23:42

Yahoo.com
AFP

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI on Friday asked the United Nations to take urgent measures to end “provocation” by the Algeria-backed Polisario Front threatening the ceasefire in the disputed Western Sahara.

Morocco insists that the former Spanish colony is an integral part of its kingdom, but the Polisario is demanding a referendum on self-determination.

The two sides fought for control of the Western Sahara from 1974 to 1991, with Rabat gaining control of the territory before a UN-brokered ceasefire took effect.

Mohammed VI spoke on Friday with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to deplore “repeated incursion by armed Polisario men” in the Guerguerat district, a royal court statement said.
The king said that Polisario “provocation” and “premeditated” action in the region took place a month before Morocco rejoined the African Union in January.

Morocco had quit the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 after the bloc admitted the former Western Sahara as a separate member.

Mohammed VI urged Guterres to “take urgent and necessary measures to put an end to this inadmissable situation which is seriously threatening the (1991) ceasefire and placing regional stability at risk,” the statement said.

Tensions flared last year after the Polisario set up a new military post in Guerguerat district near the Mauritanian border, within a stone’s throw of Moroccan soldiers.

The move came after Morocco last summer started building a tarmac road in the area south of the buffer zone separating the two sides.

Sound Energy Making Rapid Progress With Latest Morocco Well

Fri, 02/24/2017 - 13:35

Proactive Investors

Work began Sunday and is likely to take 40-50 days to complete with drilling going down to a vertical depth of 2,975 metres.

Sound Energy PLC (LON:SOU) said that it had drilled down to the first casing point at its latest well on the Tendrara licence in Morocco.

TE-8 has so far been sunk to a depth of 461 metres and a 13-3/8 inch casing is being set in cement in the Upper Lias formation. The second casing point is at 2,070 metres.

Work began Sunday and is likely to take 40-50 days to complete with drilling going down to a vertical depth of 2,975 metres.

Assuming gas is encountered in the main well bore, a further 30-day side-track will be drilled to prove a potentially deeper gas contact 900 metres to the north-west, Sound said.

TE-8 will be around 12 kilometres from the last successful hole and is what’s called a step out well because it will test the lateral extent of gas that has been discovered in the TAGI reservoir.

Whatever comes in the next two months, the firm has already enjoyed considerable success at Tendrara.

Results from TE-7 were revealed on January 19 with the company telling investors that over a 56 day period of continuous flow the well has yielded just under 1bn cubic feet of gas.

That figure is made all the more impressive given that the gas flow was constrained in test conditions, at a maximum of 40% drawdown, in order to protect the integrity of the well completion to date.

No formation water was produced during testing – as the company had expected – and there were no indications of barriers.

As such Sound said that the result had confirmed a “significant connected volume” of gas is present at Tendrara, and it would now monitor pressure across past wells to confirm the physical connectivity of the reservoir.

Morocco, Zambia Pledge To Strengthen Cooperation

Fri, 02/24/2017 - 11:04

Xinhuanet china
Source: Xinhua

Morocco and Zambia have pledged to strengthen bilateral cooperation in various areas, local media reported on Thursday.

The two countries agreed on the need to establish a Joint Permanent Commission of Cooperation to provide the necessary legal framework for enhancing bilateral economic and social cooperation, le360.ma news site reported, citing a joint statement issued following Morocco’s King Mohammed VI finished his four-day visit to Zambia on Wednesday.

The Moroccan king and Zambian President Edgar Chagwa Lungu underscored the role of investment, both public and private, in promoting economic growth and development in various areas, according to the joint statement.

The two leaders held a fruitful one-on-one meeting, where they discussed issues of mutual interest on bilateral, regional and multilateral levels, the statement .

During the king’s visit, the two countries signed 19 agreements and Memorandums of Understanding covering areas including political consultations, air services, investment protection, finance, insurance, education, training, tourism, agriculture, technology, industry, mining and renewable energy. Enditem

The never-ending dispute : Western Sahara Edges Closer To Renewed Conflict

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 07:45

The Economist

Back in the spotlight, the fate of Western Sahara is no closer to resolution.

ACCORDING to the map sold in the gift shop at the airport in Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, the territory belongs solely to Morocco. But the airport itself contains signs that this is contested land. Planes bearing the UN’s marking sit on the runway, while its soldiers, sporting blue berets, roam the arrivals hall. They are there to keep the peace between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a nationalist movement that has fought for independence for more than 40 years.

Fears are growing of a return to armed conflict. Provocations by Morocco have infuriated Polisario, which has responded in kind. Since last summer the UN has stood between the two enemies, just 120 metres apart, in the remote area of Guerguerat. Diplomats worry that an itchy trigger finger could restart the 16-year war that the UN helped end in 1991. “The threat to peace and security is probably the worst we have seen since then,” says a UN official.

Hostilities between Morocco and Polisario began shortly after Spain, the colonial power, withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975, when Morocco annexed the territory. A ceasefire agreement in 1991 promised a referendum on independence, but no vote was held. Morocco was thus left in control of two-thirds of the territory, including Laayoune, while Polisario runs the remaining part. They are separated by a 2,700km (1,700-mile) sand berm, built by the Moroccan army and sown with mines.

Morocco moved south of the berm last August, when it began paving a road in Guerguerat, ostensibly to combat smuggling (but probably also to facilitate trade). Its deployment of security forces with the construction crews was seen as a violation of the ceasefire agreement. In response, Polisario also began building new structures and positioning armed elements in the area. The secretary-general of Polisario, Brahim Ghali, paid a visit to the region in December, stoking the tension.

The standoff in Guerguerat is a symptom of much deeper problems. While Morocco’s portion of Western Sahara contains valuable phosphates, oil and fish stocks, the Polisario’s third provides little of value. Many Sahrawis continue to live in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria, which supports the cause of Western Sahara. “Refugees born and raised in exile are beating the drums for war,” writes Hannah Armstrong, an analyst.

Many Sahrawis also believe that the UN will not stand up to Morocco. The kingdom expelled some 70 UN workers last spring after Ban Ki-moon, then the UN’s secretary general, described Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara as an “occupation”. (It has since let some, but not all, back in.) Morocco spends large sums of money lobbying governments, and threatens those that are unsupportive. It dressed down America’s ambassador last year over a report that criticised its human-rights record. And it has reacted angrily to rulings by European courts that dismissed its claim to Western Sahara.

Some hope that Morocco’s readmission to the African Union (AU) on January 31st will help to resolve the dispute. The kingdom left the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, in 1984 after a majority of the member states recognised Polisario and granted it membership as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). By returning, Morocco is supposed to accept the AU’s protocols, which state that members’ borders (including those of the SADR) are inviolable.

Others, though, believe Morocco will instead work from within the organisation to undermine the AU’s support for Polisario. Indeed, Nasser Bourita, Morocco’s deputy foreign minister, has said as much. “Not only does Morocco not recognise—and will never recognise—this so-called entity,” Mr Bourita told Le Desk, a website, referring to SADR. “It will redouble its efforts so the small minority of countries, particularly African, which recognise it, change their positions.”

Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara were rejected by the International Court of Justice in 1975, but most Moroccans still feel that it is part of their country and that autonomy is a fair solution—or, at least, will be when Morocco fully embraces democracy. Most Sahrawis, though, are holding out for the referendum that was promised. The alternative, some now say, is not autonomy, but a return to war.

Allianz Launches Operations In Morocco

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 07:36

Insurance Business
by Louie Bacani

Not too long after insurance giants RSA and Aon announced their expansion moves in Africa, another industry heavyweight has increased its presence on the continent. Major insurer Allianz has officially entered the Moroccan market with the launch of a new company.

Allianz Maroc began its operations on January 30, although it has been part of the German insurer since November following the acquisition of 98.9% of Zurich Assurances Maroc.

According to Allianz, its Moroccan business aims to double market share by 2021 and become the benchmark in the African country’s insurance market.

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Customer satisfaction will be the first priority for Allianz Maroc, which will orient its offerings around multiple customer segments to provide more targeted and personalised value propositions.

Allianz Maroc will focus on digital channels to communicate with customers in real time and quickly handle claims. It will also develop synergies with other Allianz entities, including Euler Hermes, to better serve business customers interested in expanding or exporting to other African markets. The company is also launching a communication campaign to boost its brand reputation.

“We are confident that we have all the means necessary to claim a greater position in the Moroccan insurance market and will continue to grow faster and in a sustainable way,” said Allianz Maroc CEO Dirk De Nil.

Allianz said Morocco is an important growth market in its strategy in Africa as the country has positioned itself as a hub for the continent.

“Our investment in Morocco shows that we believe in the growth potential of the Moroccan insurance market,” said Hicham Raissi, Head of Allianz’s business divisions for Africa, MENA and India.

“We will accompany our retail and business clients in Morocco and all over the world, while providing superior quality service,” Raissi added.

Morocco’s Film Industry Gets Mixed Reviews

Wed, 02/22/2017 - 16:51

US NEWS & World Reports
By Mackenzie Ritter | Contributor

Young extras get a brush with fame, but at what cost.

Strolling this town on the western edge of the Sahara Desert, you might hear a man relating a conversation he had with Brad Pitt. Or a 20-something talking about how he saw Tom Hanks on the street. Or a girl gushing about how beautiful Emilia Clarke is in person.

Ouarzazate may be far from Hollywood, which hosts the Oscars this weekend, but it is a well-established location for international film shoots. It already was a tourist center when Atlas Studios, one of Morocco’s biggest movie makers, brought film work here decades ago. Since then, the city has hosted productions such as “Gladiator,” “The Red Tent,” “Babel” and “Game of Thrones.”

[RELATED: Is the Tanger-Med port good for Morocco?]

With competition fierce, Morocco is poised to go after an even bigger piece of the pie. Parliament has approved a rebate on expenses of major film projects, which is expected to go into effect this year. Proponents say the rebate will create jobs. But it does nothing to reform a system in which film workers sometimes sign contracts they can’t read, or earn below minimum wage. Teachers and parents fret that the allure of film work – and the money it brings in – keeps too many kids out of school.

Amine Tazi, general manager of Atlas Studios and CLA Studios, says foreign production companies come to Ouarzazate for desert scenery and cheap human capital. The new rebate will return 20 percent of their expenditures in Morocco if they spend at least $1 million and 18 days in country. The policy is expected to go into effect after a new national government is formed.

Excitement has grown since December, when Richard Lance Smotkin, Comcast senior vice president of global government affairs, led a delegation of U.S. filmmakers to visit Moroccan facilities.

Craftsmen, technicians and extras in Ouarzazate have a long history of working on Moroccan and international films – and besides tourism, there’s not much else. A vast solar power project in the desert nearby doesn’t employ many local people.

“You can tell just from the people in the street, the way they start getting ready for the projects,” Tazi says. One major production can employ hundreds of extras. When word of a production starts to filter out, residents shave their heads if they want to appear more Egyptian, dye their beards to look like they’re from Afghanistan, or do whatever else will help land a role.

It can be exciting, and lucrative. Boubker Ait El Caid, now 24, rates getting a role in “Babel,” a film that starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, as the best experience of his life. Abdelaziz Bouyadnaine, who bears a resemblance to Osama bin Laden, has appeared in nearly 100 films in the past 30 years.

Hanks was here for “A Hologram for the King,” and Clarke for season three of “Game of Thrones.”

But there is a downside, too, and residents point to local casting companies that have taken over the role of finding the technicians and extras for foreign productions.

Bouyadnaine, 59, says job seekers occasionally sign contracts in English or French that they can’t read; even if they can read it, they rarely know what they’re signing.

In order to get a job, prospective workers present a copy of their Moroccan identification card, Bouyadnaine says. Employers place a form in front of them, stressing that company rules are non-negotiable. If one won’t sign, there are dozens more who will.

Extras are paid by the day – typically 200-300 Moroccan dirhams ($20-$30). But they may spend long hours on the set, occasionally resulting in pay below the minimum hourly wage of 13.46 dirhams.

The burden often falls on Ouarzazate’s children. “The cinema has become a family business, where parents make a living from their children,” Bouyadnaine says.

Unlike one of Morocco’s major competitors, South Africa, no child labor laws apply to the film industry. The U.S. Department of Labor credits Morocco with making modest progress in clamping down on child labor, and movies appear to be far from the worst offender. More attention is focused on farming, domestic work, traditional crafts and the sex trade.

All the same, one 20-year-old man says he was on a set seven days after he was born. Leaning against the wall of his home in the kasbah, he scrolls through photos on his phone of himself in rags, plates of armor and other costumes.

[READ: Why Morocco’s burqa ban is more than a security measure.]

“I worked like a donkey,” says Salah, who didn’t want to use his last name out of fear it would hurt his career. But his parents took the money.

Ait El Caid said that in order to film “Babel,” he left his village as a 12-year-old with a virtual stranger, and he didn’t see his family for months. “There was no schooling happening,” he says. “My goal was only concentrating on the scenes.”

He since scaled back his movie work to finish his studies.

Nadia Zedek used to send her daughter Fatima unaccompanied to the studios more than four miles away from home. The girl is now 11 and gets an occasional speaking line. At times, Fatima has to miss school. Sometimes production crews come directly to her school to pull her out.

Zedek says she realizes the sacrifices involved in allowing her daughter to go in front of the camera. Teachers get angry that she is not in school.

“They tell me she shouldn’t be working – she is a bright student, she should be here,” Zedek says.

But the draw of film – and the power of local casting companies – is powerful.

Salah, the young man in the kasbah, says most of his friends and neighbors rely on work as extras. Challenging the casting companies to improve conditions is too dangerous.

“If we want to talk about our rights, we will never get another job,” he says. “If I talk, I won’t work again.”

Sapha Bouamara contributed reporting.

Morocco Sets Up Friendship Group With China

Wed, 02/22/2017 - 10:45

Xinhuanet
Source: Xinhua

Morocco parliament launched on Tuesday a Moroccan-Chinese friendship group, aiming at promoting joint actions between legislative branches in the two countries.

The speaker of Morocco’s House of Representatives Habib El Malki announced the establishment of the group, saying that the movement would contribute to fostering bilateral cooperation between the two countries, according to an official statement.

El Malki met with Chinese Ambassador to Morocco Sun Shuzhong, and underscored parliamentary diplomacy in consolidating bilateral ties, which were cemented by the Moroccan king Mohammed VI’s visit to China in May 2016.

He also hailed China’s leadership in the world, calling for a tripartite partnership among Morocco, China and Africa to speed up development in the continent.

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