It is not widely known that a country in far away North Africa considers Indonesia as a best friend, as close as old brothers. Despite not receiving much international attention, the tight relationship between Indonesia and Morocco has been going on for more than 50 years and is now expanding into different fields.
Even though official diplomatic ties were established in 1960, the relationship between the two nations can be dated back to fourteenth century, when a Moroccan traveler named Ibn Batuta visited the court of Samudra Pasai Sultanate in North Sumatra. A close modern-day relationship was cemented during the Asian-African Conference in 1955, at which Jakarta gave its full support to Moroccan independence.
Following the establishment of formal diplomatic ties in 1960, Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, visited Morocco’s capital, Rabat, in the same year. It was not all smooth sailing, however. In 1967, the Indonesian embassy in Rabat was closed due to the worsening political situation in Indonesia; it re-opened in 1985. A year later the Moroccan government opened its embassy in Jakarta.
Today, political positions embraced by Jakarta, which often align closely with Rabat’s, have further cemented the political bonds. The most important example is Indonesia’s support of Morocco in the Western Sahara issue involving separatist activities.
In 2008, in a demonstration of their political relationship, the two countries held a high-profile meeting led by both foreign ministers. During these meetings, several agreements and MoUs were signed, including an Agreement on Economic, Scientific, and Technical Cooperation and an MoU on Bilateral Cooperation.
The local governments of the two countries also enjoy close ties. In 1990, Jakarta and Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, signed a sister city agreement. To demonstrate the strength of their relationship, a famous shopping avenue in Jakarta was named , Jalan Casablanca. Meanwhile, in Rabat, an avenue was named after Sukarno, to commemorate his 1960 visit as a token of friendship. In 2014, West Sumatra province inked a sister province agreement with Fes-Boulemane region.
In addition to political ties, the trade between Jakarta and Rabat has grown in recent years. Morocco mainly exports phosphate, fertilizers, chemicals, iron, and steel rods. Meanwhile, Indonesia sends its coffee, glassware, spices, tea, palm oil, furniture, and garments to Morocco. Particularly important is that Morocco is home to 75 percent of the world’s reserves of phosphates, which Indonesian needs to manufacture fertilizer. To complement their growing economic ties, in 2013 the two governments agreed to establish a joint commission to strengthen ties in several spheres, including trade and investment. An MoU signed in the same year called for capacity building cooperation, exchange of training, as well as increased connectivity between the two countries.
Since 2010, Moroccan business people have visited Indonesia at least once a year for the annual Jakarta Fair. A forum with the theme “Opportunities and Challenges for Strengthening Trade Relations between Indonesia and Morocco” was also held in Rabat in 2013. The event, attended by several Moroccan ministers and high-profile politicians, was used by Indonesia to showcase its products in several fields.
The next year, in May 2014, at the initiative of the Islamic Center for Development and Trade in Casablanca, a meeting was held to examine ways to enhance the relationship. The meeting revolved around the promotion of Indonesian products in the North African nation, particularly handicrafts, agroindustry, textiles, cement, and oil. The organization of such forums exemplifies how the two countries see benefits in their relationship. These efforts were reinforced by the opening of the Trading House Representative Office for West Java Province and Morocco-Indonesia Business Council in Casablanca in April and October 2014 respectively to promote trade between Indonesia and Morocco.
Ties are also strengthened by the visa-free entry policy allowing Indonesians and Moroccans to visit each other’s counties more freely. This has particularly helped increase the number of tourists between the two countries. It is therefore not surprising that the the two governments are bolstering their ties in the field of tourism, including exchanging experience and expertise, encouraging tour operators to work together, as well as organizing exploratory missions to benefit private operators and investors.
Cooperation has also expanded into people-to-people ties, including religion, education, and culture. The strong religious cooperation between the two countries is symbolized by the presence of a mosque named Masjid Indonesia (Indonesian Mosque) in Kenitra, Morocco. Religious ties between Jakarta and Rabat mainly take place in the form of scholarships. After the signing of MoU on Cooperation in the Area of Religious Affairs in 1994, the government in Rabat offered scholarship for Indonesian students to study Arabic literature and Islamic studies in several universities in Morocco. Every year, Morocco, through the Agence Marocaine de Cooperation Internationale, allocates funding for 15 Indonesians to receive the scholarship. Other educational partnership include the MoU between Pusat Studi Al Qur’an (Qur’an Studies Center) in Jakarta and several Islamic institutions in Morocco.
The State University of Jakarta has also signed an agreement with Mohammed V University in Rabat on the teaching of Bahasa Indonesia. The Indonesian language has been taught in the university since 2012. On the other hand, IAIN Imam Bonjol Padang has inked a deal with University of Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah (USMBA) Fez to teach Arabic.
In the field of culture, Morocco hosts several cultural events such as the Indonesian Food Festival and Les Journess de la Culture Asiatique. Indonesian Cultural Day is also annually held at several institutions in Morocco.
Relations continue to expand, albeit under the radar. Contacts have been made to explore the possibilities of expanding cooperation in the field of agriculture, especially agricultural research and the exchange of agricultural experts. Given Indonesia’s strong agricultural industry, this field is ripe for cooperation.
There is also the potential for an expanded relationship in the field of infrastructure. In early 2015, Indonesia’s state construction company PT Wijaya Karya announced plans to cooperate with the Islamic Development Bank to work on a shopping mall project in Morocco.
As the growing partnership appears to be mutually advantageous for both sides, Indonesia and Morocco are expected to boost their long-held partnership in the coming years. This relationship may expand into other fields, including military ties and microfinance. For the Moroccans, strong ties with Indonesia offer them low-cost consumer products and much-needed foreign investments. Meanwhile, Morocco presents an opportunity for Indonesians to access a promising consumer market for their exports and investments, as well as a gateway for Jakarta to expand, both politically and economically, to Europe.
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a Ph.D researcher at the University of Manchester.