Morocco’s Atlantic Opening

“Just as the Mediterranean links Morocco to Europe, the Atlantic coast is our gateway to Africa and the Americas.”

On November 6th, 2023, in his speech given on the occasion of the 48th anniversary of the Green March, King Mohamed VI launched Morocco’s Atlantic opening, which was based on several increasingly intertwined development strategies, the last one being the National Strategy of Sustainable Development 2030. On the one hand, the Atlantic opening complements these aims to establish Moroccan leadership and participation in regional integration efforts and, on the other, to open up new directions to Moroccan policies, which so far have been relatively limited towards the east. Yet, despite sharing several regional (political, cultural, historical-related) cooperation formats, Morocco has mostly had a tense relationship with its eastern neighbor, Algeria, often hindering meaningful cooperation, if not co-existence.

Morocco, although from the first century of the Arabic-Islamic conquest in the 7th century has become an integral part of the Arab world (in spite of its still sizeable Tuareg/Berber population), has always been its farthest, westernmost outpost. The kingdoms established here may have been powerful in their own right, yet their development followed a different path from that of the Arab East, the Mashreq. Moroccan history and culture, while remaining closely under the Arab – cultural, linguistic, and, most importantly, political – umbrella, have mainly been influenced and shaped by the European powers of France and Spain and the openness through the Sahara to the south. Caravan routes and the movement of people and goods have had a huge impact.

Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, while Spain occupied what came to be called the Spanish Sahara since 1884. Morocco became independent in 1956, but the Spanish Sahara/Western Sahara has been a topic of controversy and even war at some points, since both Morocco and Mauritania claimed the territory as their own, while the local Sahrawi people wanted independence. In a symbolic move to express the Moroccan identity of the territory, on November 6th, 1975, some 350,000 unarmed Moroccans marched towards the border, which came to be called the Green March – a symbolic event of collective memory ever since. 

While the dispute—from an international legal point of view—is still unresolved, the territory today has been increasingly considered Moroccan territory: US President Donald Trump in 2020 acknowledged Moroccan sovereignty over it as part of (in return for) Morocco signing the so-called Abraham Accords with Israel, to be followed later by Israeli recognition.

The Moroccan political stance has been firm and has come to be supported and justified by a series of development strategies aiming at the ‘Southern Provinces’. While the National Strategy of Sustainable Development 2030 puts forward aims generally shared globally (sustainable development, transition towards a green economy, management of natural resources, conservation of biodiversity, climate change, promoting human development, etc.), the Atlantic opening complements these by enlarging the area of development projects from the Southern Provinces to include its closer and wider neighborhood. Thus, it offers access to the sea to four landlocked countries in the Sahel, namely Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad, thus initiating closer cooperation. However, Morocco also looks further when it proposed the twenty-three African states on the Atlantic to create an institutional framework to promote security, stability, and shared prosperity. 

In these developments infrastructure plays a key role, especially the two signal mega projects, the port of Dakhla and the Tiznit-Dakhla highway, while the Morocco-Nigeria gas pipeline connecting all the coastal states in West Africa (construction starting in 2024) represents Morocco’s larger view of the African Atlantic cooperation. Natural resources and energy have also been in the focus of African development, especially with the demographic explosion forecasts. Morocco would not only like to participate in but also lead and be an initiator of such programs as the transition to clean energy. For this purpose, Morocco was among the founding members of the Africa Green Hydrogen Alliance launched in 2022, which would provide access to affordable and clean energy to a vast segment of the African population without electricity. 

Morocco’s reasons are manyfold: it is based on the realization that with the global developments, Africa’s role is going to change in the international context, and accessibility (or connectivity) will play an increasing role. Morocco, situated both on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, is in a good position to provide connectivity for landlocked African states, both towards the European Union and towards a relatively new direction for Morocco, across the Atlantic, from Brazil to Mexico. (Besides the abovementioned Dakhla, the development of the Nador port along the northern coast has been a clear indication.) The importance of the maritime routes in world trade has, in recent years, received two major boosts: the Belt and Road Initiative by China launched in 2013 from the beginning relies on both a maritime and a land route. On the other hand, the Houthi activities following and in reaction to the Israeli war in Gaza practically closed down the traffic through the Bab-al-Mandab-Red Sea-Suez Canal route, which increased maritime traffic around Africa. 

Furthermore, by providing access to and for landlocked states deep inside the continent, this specific connectivity will serve Morocco’s foreign and domestic policy aims, namely by developing the Southern Provinces and using them via Moroccan infrastructure so that Moroccan sovereignty cannot be questioned. However, the big question is whether Morocco can provide the finances and other means to carry through these developments or, should it need external actors’ help, who those will be. 

Nevertheless, these connections will help Morocco integrate into the fold of the African states and even play a leading role as planned, especially given that its relations with neighboring Algeria have remained tense. With Morocco quietly shifting farther from the Arab states’ group and increasingly turning south due to the gravest security threats, Morocco needs support and cooperation from the ‘sisterly African nations’. Building up economy-based relations can positively influence readiness and cooperation on migration and terrorism.

One of the main trade and migration routes in Africa has led through Morocco since ancient times. French and Spanish colonization and de-colonization have added not only to the numbers but also to the causes and aims of any such migration. The establishment of the European Union was yet another factor. Besides the land route, however, Morocco has to struggle with two specific cases of migration: on the one hand, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla may seem easy targets for migrants, yet, when caught and expelled from there, it is Moroccan authorities who have to bear the burden (to send/transport them back or settle them down). On the other hand, the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory, are within relatively easy reach by boat from Morocco. The migration, therefore, is a threat over which Morocco is closely coordinating with the European Union, while, in the meantime, it puts enormous economic and social burdens on the Moroccan state, too. Consequently, Morocco has come to the realization – innate in the EU and some member states’ thinking – that the root causes have to be dealt with, not just the symptoms, and it can only be achieved by cooperation among the source, the transit, and the destination states.

This, along with the threat of terrorism, further increases the importance of cooperation with the Sahel (and other African) states. For Morocco, the states most exposed to violent extremism are increasingly getting closer to Morocco, especially the Southern Provinces, giving the impression that terrorism is shifting from Central Africa towards the West. While according to the Global Terrorism Index, Morocco continues to rank among safe countries, most of its prospective Sahel partners are exposed to violent extremism. 

The combined programs of economic development strategies and the Atlantic opening – with their different but complementary aims and rooms for maneuver seem to provide Morocco with all the possibilities to become the modern regional state it aims to be.