Why is this important? With a Middle East in transition struggling to keep pace with the expectations of people and an unfolding political drama, it is more vital than ever to have some anchors in the region that demonstrate that political and social reform can be advanced without breaking the system and that strong political, economic and trade relations with the United States are not a liability.
During her visit to Morocco earlier this year Secretary Clinton stated “Morocco stands as an example, as a model of what can be achieved. Moroccans are strengthening their own democracy. Young people are having a say in their own future.”
While Morocco has long enjoyed a good relationship with the U.S. gaining a trifecta of non-NATO ally status, a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and a Millennium Challenge compact, it is this reform process which could prove to be the biggest boon in the relationship. By fighting corruption, strengthening the rights of women and shifting power to local and regional governments, Morocco can show that tolerance and economic development can help meet the expectations of a people who might otherwise turn to more radical and destabilizing paths.
A major challenge to Morocco’s economic development will be to focus on education and the role of youth. Youth unemployment and school attendance are real looming issues that must be addressed. This will require the kind of dialogue and inclusion that will allow this increasingly large and important demographic group to be heard and have a true stake in their future. This fall tens of thousands of Moroccan youth will participate in Youth Council which will define an ongoing platform for the government to engage youth in a grassroots political process. Unlike in Egypt, US NGO’s have worked long side civil society to support youth initiatives.
Another move that underscores the important role that Morocco can play in the region is the proposed resurrection of the Arab Maghreb Union which includes Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia. When the trade and economic cooperation framework was formed in 1989, it was greeted with skepticism by the U.S. which was still in open conflict with Libya under the Qadafi regime. Difficulties with Algeria over the Western Sahara issue also undermined cooperation within the Maghreb Union. Today, the North African political landscape is quite different and in some ways less certain as a result of the Arab Spring. Morocco could play a potential catalytic role in the kind of economic cooperation that will be needed to weather the storms coming south across the Mediterranean from Europe.
The recent progress toward greater political and economic reform in Morocco should not be underestimated. While the royal household wields considerable authority over most major decisions affecting the country’s national security and political direction the trends are clearly away from the days when absolute power ruled absolutely.
The King is supported by a group of close advisors, many of whom he grew up and was educated with who developed technocratic expertise and a willingness to adapt to new realities. It is this flexibility which can continue to balance the myriad interests that reside in a multi-ethnic arab country situated in Africa with historic ties to Europe and the West.
The new Moroccan government and its prime minister face enormous challenges but can demonstrate that these issues which have toppled governments in Cairo, Tripoli and Tunis can be addressed by aggressively focusing on education, job creation and strengthening civil institutions which will strengthen the fabric of society. Tourism and trade as well as investment from the Gulf, Europe and the U.S. will also be key.
While it has become popular to say that the United States has become “less relevant” in the Middle East, it is precisely through the encouragement of the process of reform in countries like Morocco that we can reaffirm our values while preserving a strategic relationship that has lasted for well over two centuries.
Holliday is president of the Meridian International Center in Washington DC and a former U.S. Ambassador at the United Nations.