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‘King Cool’s’ decade of modernity in Morocco

Rabat — People in Morocco call their monarch ‘King Cool’ because he rides jet skis, hangs around with rapper P. Diddy and French rocker Johnny Halliday.

After 10 years as king, Mohammed VI has brought modernity to his North African country but some still have a sneaking suspicion that the new roads and high-speed trains are not dragging Morocco fast enough into the 21st century.

When he took the throne on July 23, 1999 at the age of 35, Mohammed promised to pursue the open politics initiated at the end of his father Hassan II’s reign, which was tainted by a legacy of repression.

He projected the image of a contemporary monarch, with his pop star friends, sports cars and ski holidays in the French Alps.

In 2002 he broke with tradition and married a 24-year-old commoner, computer engineer Lalla Salma Bennani, reinforcing the image of a modern Morocco on the move.

Over the past decade, Morocco has built an infrastructure that is the envoy of its Maghreb neighbours. From 100 kilometres (60 miles) of major highways in 1999, Morocco’s main cities will be connected by some 1,500 kilometres of motorway by 2011.

On the Mediterranean coast, the 825-million-euro (1.15 million dollar) Tangiers Med project was launched in June, aiming to create the biggest port in Africa. Plans are under way for a high-speed train to connect the port to Casablanca.

Last year, Morocco obtained "advanced status" relations from the European Union, which will eventually give it greater access to Europe’s single market.

On social issues, Morocco in 2004 adopted a new family code giving women better rights compared to men, despite protests from hardline Islamists.

As commander of the faithful, Mohammed VI has also initiated religious reforms aiming to counter the rise of fundamentalist imams.

Mohammed remains a reserved figure however. His speeches are rare and he remains a mystery to his subjects. An absolute secrecy surrounds events behind the walls of the ‘Mechouar’, the royal palace in Rabat.

Despite the change, human rights and development groups say that life has not changed fast enough.

Corruption is found at all levels of government. Some 40 percent of the population is illiterate.

Morocco ranked 126th among world nations in the 2007-2008 UN Development Programme (UNDP) report on human development.

Newspapers can write freely, as long as they do not criticise the monarchy, the official Sunni Malakite Muslim sect or Morocco’s territorial integrity.

The Moroccan Association of Human Rights says that the justice system is not independent, there is still torture and many arbitrary arrests.

Mohammed acted to end the abusive practices of the dark years of his father by setting up a special reconciliation commission. The victims of the repression have been indemnified, but no alleged torturer has been pursued.

Nabil Mouline, a specialist on Moroccan history at the Institute of Political Studies (IEP) in Paris, has in many ways returned to the traditional role of the Moroccan monarch.

"The king is present just about everywhere, omnipotent, reassuring the population. It is a return to the secular tradition of the Moroccan sultanate that goes back to the 16th century."

Mouline says that Morocco needs a change of mentalities through the reinforcing of culture, education and health.

The researcher insisted however that democracy has improved. "Elections are more transparent and there is a greater participation among women."