I have had a fascination with Morocco since I was a kid. My first positive impression of the country was during France ‘98 when the gallant Atlas Lions team of Moustaffa Hadji, Youssef Chippo and Nourredine Naybet thrashed Scotland 3-0 in their final group game. They sadly had to exit the World Cup after Brazil threw away their match against Norway, something that made me hate the South Americans until I visited their country in 2011. I’ve also admired Morocco for many years as it was the home of Ibn Battuta – the greatest travel writer of all time – and the starting point of his epic journey around the world. I thankfully got the chance to tick off the North African country from my bucket list in the last few weeks.
First the journey to Morocco. There are no direct flights from Nairobi so I had to connect via Dubai. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that Geography interests me a lot. Having made just a handful of journeys outside the country, the novelty of that flight map thingy on your screen that is found in bigger planes has not worn off. My eyes were firmly fixed on the screen following the path and marveling at the geographical features of the world. We exited Kenyan airspace right above border point 1; that tri-junction border point between Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia in Mandera County. We then flew over Ogadenia, Somaliland and once over the Red Sea, the flight path deliberately avoided Yemeni airspace, flying next to Socotra Island, over Oman and onwards to Dubai.
I was lucky to catch a glimpse of the Dubai skyline – including the Burj Khalifa and the ‘World Islands’ – as we took off for Casablanca. The journey was made longer as we avoided Libyan airspace, flying over the Mediterranean Sea, north of the Gulf of Sidra and onwards to Casablanca. I’m sure airline companies must be cursing political actors for making certain airspaces no go zones and lengthening plane journeys with resultant increase in cost of operation.
The first impression you get when you arrive in Morocco is the liberal nature of the Kingdom. You expect that being an Arab, Muslim country, Morocco would fit the standard conservatism associated with similar countries but nothing could be further from the truth. Ladies dressed in scarves and buibuis were a minority. People taking their dogs for an evening walk was a common sight. The country prides itself on its secularism. There is also overt patriotism on display. Flags are visible everywhere you go from streets, to highways to shops. In fact, you can’t drive a kilometer without seeing the Red Moroccan flag. In conversations with locals, they wouldn’t miss a chance to praise their King and pray that he has a long life.
I happened to visit during the holy month of Ramadhan and activities during the afternoon were quite limited. The city came to life after dark. Streets were filled with families out for dinner in the many street cafes. Others were out shopping or going to mosques for night prayers. Outside the Grand Hassan II Mosque by the Atlantic, there was an odd mixture of worshipers proceeding to the mosque, friends hanging out, hawkers selling their wares and lovers enjoying the cool sea breeze. You’d also meet the odd fisherman with his hook by the sea wall, hoping for a catch. At the other end of the Atlantic Avenue is the Corniche where people flocked to shopping malls, night clubs and international food chains. It all happened at night.
Getting around in Casablanca (where I was based) and Rabat (where I frequented) was quite easy. Casablanca is planned in such a way that it has a large ‘Central Business District’ with storied buildings that typically host enterprises of different kinds on the ground floor and residential units on the upper floors. Taxis would pass by the wide boulevards every few seconds. It felt like the movies where you step out of a building and flag down a taxi. They use taxi-metres that charge very friendly rates per kilometer. The most I paid for a taxi ride was the equivalent of Kshs. 500 and this was for a ride to the limit of the CBD where the cabs are allowed to operate. I couldn’t help but feel our taxi drivers con us.
There are also trams that ply routes within the cities as well as inter and intra-city trains. Dedicated cycling lanes allow many residents to use bicycles to move around. I particularly liked the wide sidewalks that made walking in the city a pleasure. This, coupled with the fact that taxis are everywhere meant I could walk a lot and take in the sights and sounds of ‘Casa’ with no fear of getting lost.
While I enjoyed most aspects of Morocco, I found their food a bit off. If it was not too dry, it was too oily. I struggled getting something good to eat even in buffets in high end Moroccan restaurants. This was a disappointment as part of the travel experience I looked forward to was enjoying the local cuisine. After a few days of struggling, I got a nice Lebanese restaurant that had good pilau and biryani like what you’d find home. I ended up appreciating the food we have in Kenya.
Culturally, Morocco can be described as a melting point with a unique mix of Arab, French, Spanish and Berber cultures. By virtue of its strategic location next to Europe and its colonial history, Morocco has cultural ties to both Spain and France which both colonized different parts of the country. This is in addition to its rich history as an important location in the Trans-Saharan trade. Present day Morocco was also the headquarter of the Berber Almoravid and Almohad empires that ruled large parts of North Africa and the Iberian peninsula in the middle ages. Prior to this, the Arabs had ruled Morocco as part of the Ummayad empire.
Kenya and Morocco share a lot of similarities with respect to their economies, strategic location and security challenges. Like Kenya, Morocco built her economy the slow, hard way. Morocco has no oil or gas and has relied on tourism and agribusiness as the pillars of her economy. The North African country received approximately 10 Million tourists in 2013, the highest number in Africa. It is easy to understand why the country gave up the right to host the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations over Ebola fears considering the importance of tourism to the economy. As far as agriculture goes, the industry contributed 15% of GDP in 2013 and employs about 40% of the Moroccan labour force.
The Kingdom also has a growing manufacturing industry and has tried to diversify her economy by positioning itself as a logistical center to take advantage of the strategic position at the entrance of the Mediterranean and a few kilometers from Europe. The two countries share a focus on tapping into renewable energy. Kenya’s Lake Turkana Wind Power Project is set to overtake Morocco’s Tarfaya as the biggest wind farm in Africa.
Morocco faces the same security challenges as Kenya where global terrorism threatens the tourism-based economy. The country suffered terror attacks in 2003 and 2011 but they have largely managed to contain the threat. They have done this through a multi-pronged approach that beefs up security, controls the spread of radicalization and corruption of religious teachings and cushions the most economically vulnerable to reduce desperation and possible recruitment into terror groups. The approach is underpinned by respect for law and human rights in confronting the terror threat.
The similarities with Kenya extend to having a large, arid, sparsely populated region that has a secessionist history. Morocco considers the Western Sahara to be part of its territory and has administered the region since the Spanish colonizers left in 1975. When the colonizers left, Morocco and Mauritania lay claim to the territory. A national liberation movement by the name of Polisario Front that had sprung up to force out the Spaniards waged an armed struggle against both Morocco and Mauritania. The latter gave up its claims after suffering damage that threatened her economy but Morocco and the Polisario have been engaged in conflict that continues to date. A ceasefire was brokered by the UN in 1991 but the impasse over the Western Sahara continues. More on that here.
Morocco’s claim to the territory, which it refers to as the Southern Provinces, has not been recognized at the international level. The admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) – the name the Polisario uses to describe the disputed territory – as a full member of the Organization of African Unity (AU’s predecessor) in 1984 led to Morocco’s withdrawal from the continental body. Up to date, the Kingdom is not a member state. Kenya has continuously recognized the right to the self-determination of the People of Western Sahara since the days of country’s first president to date. President Uhuru re-affirmed this position recently. President Kibaki did so as well but wavered when Morocco threatened a diplomatic freeze. Morocco views the Polisario as a puppet used by the Algerian regime to fight a proxy war so that the Algerians can get access to the Atlantic for shipping their oil.
While sharing such secessionist history, Morocco’s approach has been starkly different to Kenya’s. Their response to the Polisario was similarly brutal as that employed by Kenya against the ‘Shifta’. But since the end of the armed phase of the conflict, Morocco has been on what can be seen as a charm offensive in the disputed region. The Kingdom has invested heavily in the area such that social development indices like access to drinking water and electricity is on average higher in the Western Sahara than it is in Morocco proper.
The ‘Southern Provinces’ have also benefited from infrastructural development and have sea ports, tarmac roads and airports. I’m certain the citizens of the former NFD would be quite jealous if they found out that their counterparts in Western Sahara have dams, sewage treatment plants and football stadia, not to mention connection to Morocco’s fiber-optic network. Such investment in a territory that might one day be an independent country compares quite negatively to the neglect and marginalization that is experienced in the former NFD, a bonafide Kenyan territory.
Given the similarities between Kenya and Morocco, there is little in the way of relations between the two countries. The volume of trade between the two countries stood at a pitiful Kshs. 8 Million in 2013. There are no direct flights from Nairobi to Casablanca, no trade agreements to speak of and Kenya does not have an embassy in Morocco. I guess the Western Sahara issue has affected diplomatic ties. The two countries stand to benefit from normalizing relation as each can serve as a gateway to the other’s respective region. Kenya can access the European and North African market via direct flights to and trade agreements with Morocco. Similarly Morocco has to access East, Central and Southern Africa via Dubai and Nairobi could easily serve as Morocco’s gateway to the wider region. There are plans by the national Moroccan airline to have flights to Nairobi once the JKIA expansion is complete.
As far as visiting tourist site goes, I was happy to visit and pray at the Grand Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, reportedly the 3rd largest in the world and with the tallest minaret. I also visited the Hassan Tower in Rabat, the remnant of a 12th century AlMohad minaret that was to be the tallest in the world and a mosque that was to be the largest. The construction halted once its patron Sultan died and the pillars and tower stand to date. The site was declared a UNESCO world heritage site (More on Moroccan architecture in a separate piece). I also got to shop in Morocco’s famed souks (markets), a big attraction of the North African country.
I generally had a fantastic time in Morocco and was grateful to get a chance to see more of the world and expand my horizons. Here’s to hoping it won’t take another four years for my next sojourn out of Kenya.