“Today’s Morocco is Not That of the Past”

Image courtesy of European External Action Service – EEAS

Any follower of Moroccan foreign policy will recognise an unprecedented dynamism and momentum in recent years. The best catchphrase that illustrates this dynamism is the one by Morocco Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita: “maghrib alyawm lays hu maghrib al’ams  – [today’s Morocco is not that of the past]”. This expression is argued not only to highlight Morocco’s increased agency in the realm of international relations, but also it sums up the changing relations between the Global North and the Global South. This is a relationship that goes beyond the dependency of the neo-colonial era in favour of a new dispensation where the Global South is strengthening its position on the world stage and slowly, but steadily, changing the rules of the game.

The argument that the Global North is mostly favoured and the Global South is largely marginalised is well established in international relations. According to Cohn, the Global North has been exerting a dominant force in the post-World War II global political economy and in nearly all international institutions.[1] Bello argues that the Global South was disadvantaged by the world order that emerged after 1945 and that developing countries did not have much say in the international decision-making process.[2]

The existing asymmetrical power relationship between North and South is evident when considering the system that emerged between former colonisers and former colonies after decolonisation. Despite a large number of countries gaining their independence, the former master continued to exercise political and economic control over newly independent states, a concept known as Neo-colonialism or, in Kwame Nkrumah’s words, the “last stage of imperialism”[3]. For example, trade from the newly independent states (mainly raw materials) was geared to serve its former colonisers. Politically, states from the Global North continued to interfere in their former colonies’ domestic affairs. Who was in charge in Kinshasa, Tehran or Havana was hardly the result of people’s will, but was, to some extent, the decision of either Washington, Paris, London or Moscow.

The domination of the Global North went beyond the economic and political dimensions to what is social and cultural. Mahdi Elmandjra, former Head of cultural activities at UNESCO expressed this in his book عولمة العولمة [Globalising Globalisation ]:

“Despite living and interacting with different cultures for 30 years and despite my long work as the UNESCO Head of Cultural Activities, I came to one conclusion: despite the efforts of the South to understand the culture and civilisation of the North, I did not observe a true desire of the North to get closer to the South. The North’s preoccupation is to spread its values. The North considers that the weak and poor South does not have the right to promote its values, culture and civilisation.”[4]

In his earlier book Première Guerre Civilisationnelle, Elmandjra argued that the North has done little to understand, let alone speak, the language of the South; on this basis he predicted a North-South crisis.[5]

In this context of North-South inequality, it is refreshing to hear Bourita words “maghrib alyawm lays hu maghrib al’ams  – today’s Morocco is not that of the past”. These words, expressed with confidence, were directed at Spain following the Spanish government’s attempt to covertly host the head of the Polisario Front under a false identity, which Morocco considered to be siding with separatism. Morocco moved from words to actions, calling back its ambassador from Madrid, lowering its security cooperation and for a short period halting its norther borders surveillance, prompting a migration crisis. Madrid reacted by accusing Rabat of ‘blackmailing’ and sought the support of the European Union. Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles stated “We will not accept blackmail. The territorial integrity of Spain is non-negotiable and we will use all means necessary to protect our borders… This was an aggression against the borders of Spain and the European Union … With Spain, you cannot play these kinds of games.”[6] These harsh words from Madrid,  which embody to some extent a colonial legacy, were responded to by Bourita with much objectivity and pragmatism: “today’s Morocco is not that of the past, and some circles in Spain need to understand this… Good neighborliness is not a one-way system.” Bourita added that Morocco “does not have the obligation to protect borders,” but it does so within the framework of partnership.[7] Reading between the lines, it is evident that Morocco’s foreign policy did not seek the victory of one party over the other as much it sought mutual respect and the respect of each country’s national interest and national sovereignty.

It is this objectivity and pragmatism that explain the unprecedented momentum and dynamism in Morocco’s foreign policy. Borrowing from Rational Choice Theory (RCT), one can deduce that the Kingdom of Morocco is acting more and more as a rational actor, using rational calculations to make rational choices and, therefore, achieving outcomes that are aligned with its national interest. In doing so, Morocco is not only maximising its own payoffs, but also those of other countries. According to RCT, states driven by self-interest and rationality will make decisions that lead to positive benefits for everyone (positive sum game).[8] In the past few years, Morocco has worked on developing a multi-dimensional foreign strategy and is it beginning to yield fruit. On the African stage, Morocco has entrenched its position as a ‘Gateway to Africa’[9] with a combination of careful investment, active diplomacy, strategic business and far-reaching infrastructure investment. In 2017, Morocco resumed its seat in the African Union. This harked backed to the foreign policy tradition it had developed as one of the founding members of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) (1963) and the Casablanca Group (1961).Economically, the Kingdom has emerged as one of the leading international investors in Africa with foreign direct investment (FDI) valued at about $4 billion in 2020.[10] Up to 85% of Moroccan FDI goes to Africa. In terms of connectivity with the continent, Morocco boasts weekly links to more than 40 ports in West Africa.[11]  The Kingdom’s airline strategy expanded its connections with the continent at competitive rates, positioning Casablanca as a transit hub for African-bound businesses flying in from Europe and North America.

Moroccan banks also led the charge into Africa. The top three Moroccan banks, Attijariwafa Bank, Bank of Africa, and Banque Centrale Populaire (BCP) boast thousands of branches in the African continent from Cairo to Brazaville and from Bamako to Dar es Salaam. In 2010, Morocco created Casablanca Finance City (CFC), a regional financial hub, with a mandate of becoming Africa financial heart.

In the energy sector, Morocco is leading the way to realising what has been described as the ‘the pan-African project of the century’ [12]: the Morocco-Nigeria Gas Pipeline (MNGP), an onshore and offshore gas pipeline (5,660 km) project that aims to deliver natural gas resources from Nigeria to Morocco and potentially into Europe.

Outside of Africa, Morocco has adopted the same pragmatism and objectivity in its relations with other international actors. In 2017, it resumed its diplomatic relations with Cuba after 37 years of estrangement. In 2020, Morocco’s decided to normalise its relationship with Israel as part of a tripartite agreement including the USA. Rabat became an active member of several forums and initiatives: the Morocco-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forum, the African wide Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the Turkey-Africa Forum, the India-Africa Forum, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As a result, trade between Morocco and some southern states expanded. For example, in 2021, Moroccan exports to Brazil broke a record at $1.9 billion, an increase of 95.5%, compared to the previous year.[13]

What is conspicuous in this dynamic foreign policy is that the Kingdom is acting more and more as a rational actor, making optimal decisions that aim to maximise its payoffs in a positive sum game with other countries. The principles which are thought to guide the new foreign policy are: mutual respect, reciprocal benefits, respect for sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs. If we add to those ingredients Morocco’s increasing capacity to adapt to geostrategic changes that the world is currently experiencing: growing South-South cooperation, the Chinese Belt and Road project, Britain’s exit from the European Union, and Russia’s increased involvement in Eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East. The result is a dynamic Moroccan foreign policy that aspires to strengthen the Kingdom’s regional agency and to boost its bargaining power in global affairs. In doing so, Morocco is contributing to changing  the relationship between the Global North and the Global South from a lose-win equation to a win-win one.

Image courtesy of European External Action Service – EEAS. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

[1] Cohn, T. H. (2016). Global Political Economy (6th ed.). New York: Routledge.

[2] Bello, W. (2004). Deglobalisation: Ideas for a New World Economy. Zed Books.

[3] Kwame Nkrumah, K. (1965). Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons.

[4] Elmandjra, M. (2015).    عولمة  العولمة [The Globalisation of Globalisation]. Rabat: Al-Zaman. pp.123-124.

[5] Elmandjra, M. (1991). Première Guerre Civilisationnelle. Casablanca : Toubkal.

[6] Robles, M. (20 May 2021).Radio Nacional de España.

[7] Bourita, N. (20 May 2021). Maghreb Arab Press.

[8] Glaser, C. (2010). Rational Theory of International Politics: The Logic of Competition and Cooperation. (Princeton, Princeton University Press).

[9] Financial Times. Special Report: Morocco: Gateway to Africa (accessed 14 January 2022)

[10] The Moroccan Agency for Development of Investment and Export (AMDIE), 2020.

[11] Irwin-Hunt, A. (2020). ‘A signal for Morocco’s development’. FDI Intelligence. (accessed 12 January 2022)

[12] Naji, A. (2021) ‘The Morocco-Nigeria gas pipeline: Economic and geopolitical benefits’. Wall Street International.

[13] Brazilian Ministry of Economy, 2022.


About Tarik Oumazzane

Dr Tarik Oumazzane is Lecturer in History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. He specialises in Middle East / North Africa Studies. Dr Oumazzane is the author of Regional Integration in the Middle East and North Africa. He has taught and convened several modules including: ‘International History of the Middle East and North Africa’; ‘War and Peace in the Post-Arab Spring’; ‘Political Economy of Under Development’, ‘International Relations and Global History’ and ‘Liberating Africa: Decolonisation, Development and the Cold War’.

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