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.
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.