MOROCCO: 'Free trade agreements with more than one billion people'
Thomas Cromwell

After passing a number of laws to strengthen protection of intellectual property rights, Morocco on January 1 this year embarked on the implementation of its free trade agreement with the United Sates, which had been signed in 2004. Speaking of the delay in implementation caused by concerns of protection of intellectual property rights in Morocco, Ambassador to Washington Aziz Mekouar told in a recent interview that, “Today we have state-of-the-art IP legislation.” Referring to a quote from the 2006 report of the International Intellectual Property Alliance, the ambassador noted that: “The Moroccan Government just passed one of the most modern copyright laws in the world.”

He said that the trade agreement with America is part of a wider strategy Morocco has been pursuing for some years, to be able to offer largely free access to a market of one billion people. The kingdom already has free trade agreements with the European Union, Turkey, Arab countries and several African countries. 

A glance at a map of the globe will show the logic here. Morocco sits at the northwest corner of Africa and serves as a convenient gateway to southern Europe, the Mediterranean and much of North and West Africa. But even its current trade agreements are not enough for Rabat. In April Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa traveled to six Latin American countries to develop trade ties with them as well, and Morocco is negotiating a free trade agreement with MERCOSUR.

A key problem for Morocco is that its bill for imports amounts to some $18 billion a year, while exports are half that amount. And, unlike neighbors Algeria to the east and Mauritania to the south, Morocco has not discovered significant deposits of oil and gas.

But its efforts to manifest a new, business-friendly face to the world are clearly paying off. Foreign direct investment is expected to reach some $4 billion this year, and double that figure next year, the ambassador said.

He also noted that cash-rich Dubai companies have been showing increasing interest in Morocco of late. Two companies signed a total of $9 billion in investment deals in April this year, mainly in the tourism and property sectors.

These represent very major commitments for a country that has long lagged behind Tunisia in attracting tourists, despite spectacular cities known to much of the world, such as Marrakesh, Fez, Essaouira and Tangiers, excellent beaches on the Atlantic coast, and the High Atlas mountains running the length of the country. 

US-Morocco Free Trade Agreement
Currently trade with the US, both ways, accounts for about 4.1% of Morocco’s total, something over a billion dollars a year. However, by the time the FTA went into force this year, companies on both sides had explored the opportunities for business, in various sectors, with delegations visiting in both directions, the ambassador noted, with the expectation that business will grow significantly now that the FTA is in force.

“We are confident that trade will increase substantially in the very next years,” the ambassador said. Referring to the Jordanian experience, where the FTA with the United States multiplied exports to America by 110 percent, he said: “We are not expecting to do the same, but if we increase exports by three or four times next year, it will be great.”

The ambassador said the US-Morocco FTA was of particular interest to certain sectors, given several new industries now developing in Morocco. “We have aeronautics, space, IT, as well as the usual agricultural industries, and others,” he said.

Speaking to its location and strategy to open up markets through free trade agreements, the ambassador said: “Soon we will have free trade agreements with more than one billion people. We are so close to the United States but also only eight miles from Europe. We can be a real platform for production to sell to the two main consumer areas in the world.”

US investment in Morocco
The ambassador noted that “there are many US companies already looking at investments in Morocco, because they know Morocco from having operations there.” He said that he has been traveling around the country “to put Morocco on the radar screen, to put it in the minds of decision-makers, and what benefits they can have by going to Morocco.” Morocco is seeking investors in the electronics, telecoms and off-shoring sectors, among others, as well as high tech industries such as nanotechnology.

He said several US companies have said their experience in Morocco was excellent. For example, Boeing says its experience has been “great.” The partnership between Boeing and Royal Air Maroc, the national carrier, “opened the door of some African markets to the US giant,” he said. There is also a Michigan company, CMS Energy, that today produces 60 percent of Morocco’s power. Some automotive spare parts companies manufacture in Morocco. “We have these very good experiences, and these people often come to my meetings and explain how good it is to work in Morocco.”

The ambassador said, “Today the Moroccan economy is booming and we are trying to make it as business-friendly as possible, to attract investment and people to work in the country.” He pointed out that once investors start coming, there is a snowball effect, with others following behind.

Morocco’s overall positioning strategy
Regarding Morocco’s push to develop free trade relations with many countries, Ambassador Mekouar said: “Our political strategy is to go for free trade agreements. We think that is the only way for Morocco to become a real economy. It is our unique, sole chance. We are lifting our customs [duties]. Some companies, that have been overprotected in the past and didn’t make the effort to modernize, will eventually suffer, but the majority will benefit from the new opportunities.” 

Tackling unemployment and poverty
Morocco’s unemployment rate is over 10 percent, and some 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The ambassador said that there is a program to tackle poverty in place, the National Human Development Initiative (INDH), which was launched last year by King Mohammed VI.

“In Morocco you have the first and third worlds living side-by-side. The idea is to raise the standard of living of the lower classes.” He noted that Morocco hopes to be a recipient of some $750 million in Millennium Challenge Account funding for the development of depressed rural regions. The money will be used to pay for integrated development of these areas, including education, enhancing agricultural production, etc.

The role of Parliament
“Morocco has an old political tradition with strong institutions and multi-partism has been in place since the 1930s. In 2002 the first elections under King Mohammed VI  were considered free and fair by international observers as well as local political parties. This was the first time in Moroccan history.” The ambassador said the elections in 2007 will be interesting insofar as they should show the real strength of the parties.

The ambassador noted that Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, but that the king’s powers are similar to those of a French president, not a figurehead. The king appoints the prime minister and ministers, but the prime minister needs a majority in the parliament to govern. He said that although the socialists did well in elections, they were social democrats and realists, and supported a pro-business agenda. “It’s exactly like the Labour Party in Britain,” he said.

Biography of Aziz Mekouar

Born November 13, 1950, in Fez, Morocco

Married, one child

1974  Graduated from HEC Paris, Graduate Business School, France

1986  Baccalaureate in Sciences, French High School Charles Lepierre in Lisbon, Portugal

Professional background:
2002  Ambassador of His Majesty to the United States of America 

1999 - 2002  Ambassador of His Majesty to Italy

1993 - 1999  Ambassador of His Majesty to Portugal

1986 - 1993  Ambassador of His Majesty to Angola

1985 - 1986  Minister Plenipotentiary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Rabat

1978 - 1985  Permanent Representative of Morocco to the International Bureau for Information
Technology - BII

1977 - 1985  First Counselor, DCM, Embassy of Morocco in Pome

1977  Counselor of Foreign Affairs, Rabat

1974  Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Rabat

Other activities:
2001  Elected Independent President f the FAO Council

2000  President of the African Group of the UN Organizations in Rome

1999 - 2001  Elected President of the Financial Committee of the FAO Member and Head of Moroccan Delegations to several international conferences

1983  30 years of Italian Domestic Policy

1983  30 years of Italian Foreign Policy

1974  Studies on "Asia-Dollar" and its future impact on the development of Southeast Asia

1973  Thesis on Fisheries and their contribution to the development of Argentina

Studies and Analysis of the situation in Angola

Conferences and seminars:
Moderator of several Seminars and Conferences on investment opportunities and development prospects in Morocco

Lectures on Morocco's Political, Economic and Foreign Policies in several Portuguese and Italian Institutions

Lectures on Euro-African and Euro-Mediterranean Relations

Grand Croix de l'Ordre du Mérite of Portugal

Grand Croix de l'Ordre Militaire du Christ (Portugal)

Grand Croix de l'Ordre du Mérite of Italy

Fluent in Arabic, English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese