Leila Ahlaloum, 25, is the very image of a modern European career woman. She works as a manager in a chic hotel, goes clubbing most weekends and, like many singletons, is on the prowl for Mr. Right. With her designer clothes and hip sunglasses, you'd never suspect she's a mainstream Muslim in an Islamic North African country. But as much as Leila represents a Western archetype, she's also the personification of modern Morocco. "Of course we love our own culture," says Leila, who lives in the cultural capital of Marrakech. "But ours is now a European way of life."
What a transformation. It's been 50 years since Morocco declared independence from France, yet the country has never been more European. The change can be seen in the sleek nightclubs opening in Marrakech and glossy tourist resorts springing up along Morocco's sunny Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. But it shows far more powerfully in the widespread adoption of European political, judicial and financial reforms, which are reshaping Morocco's record on everything from immigration to press freedom and women's rights. "Without a doubt, the country is the freest it has been in its history," says Theodore Ahlers, the World Bank's Morocco country director. "It's completely integrating with the rest of the world."
Morocco's metamorphosis owes much to its dream of one day joining the European Union. Former King Hassan II made this explicit 20 years ago, though at the time the ambition seemed almost laughable. This had less to do with the fact that Morocco lies in Africa, not Europe, and more to do with its record on human rights and lack of democracy. Today, no formal request for Moroccan membership sits in Brussels, but Prime Minister Driss Jettou tells NEWSWEEK: "We want to be the southern rib of Europe." For the European Union's part, says Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU commissioner for external relations, "We already have a very, very close relationship with Morocco, and we're studying giving them even more advanced status."
Signs of Morocco's European-style openness are everywhere. The current government is the most democratic in the country's history. Next year's elections are expected to produce a popularly elected prime minister for the first time--previously, leaders of government were appointed by the king--and Morocco's notoriously poor human-rights record is getting a makeover. Cases of torture and arbitrary arrest are down dramatically; there are fewer political prisoners. "We see Morocco as a mixed picture--which is a very favorable comment," says Joe Stork, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch. Earlier this year King Mohammed VI won praise after his groundbreaking Equity and Reconciliation Commission criticized the torture and brutality that were commonplace under his father's 44-year rule. "We are all committed to never, ever again," says Jettou, though it should be noted that the commission declined to name names.
Women's rights are now among the most progressive in the Arab world, with recent reforms to the Sharia-based family law giving women equality within marriage, the right to file for divorce and the ability to pass their citizenship onto their children. The press has unprecedented freedom, with magazines publishing once-censored accounts of the royal family's finances and internationally respected film festivals freely screening controversial work. Attesting to the practical reality of these sweeping changes, prominent Moroccan writer and political dissident Abdelmoumen Diouri returned home after 35 years in European exile last month.
Diouri's homecoming from France is a metaphor for Morocco's renewed relationship with Europe as a whole. Ties between the two date back millennia to a time when North African Moorish rulers controlled Morocco and Spain alike. But the gap between Morocco and Europe--a mere 14 kilometers at its closest across the Strait of Gibraltar--later turned into a schism reflecting historical Catholic-Islamic clashes. Tensions soared through the first half of the 20th century, with France and Spain colonizing Morocco and exploiting its natural mineral resources. (Morocco has the world's largest phosphate reserves.) When Morocco gained independence in 1956, King Hassan II took pains to assert the country's separateness from Europe.
His son Mohammed VI, a popular 43-year-old who once interned at the European Commission, has reversed that course. Since he took power in 1999--a popularly elected government followed in 2002--Morocco and Europe have grown increasingly close. This year has seen a breakthrough. The EU's open-skies agreement with Morocco, Europe's first ever outside its borders, came into force this summer. Europe and Morocco recently announced plans to extend their Free Trade Agreement to cover not only goods, as it does now, but also all agriculture and services by 2010, giving the country almost the same deal with Europe as member states have with each other. Foreign direct investment into Morocco doubled last year to €1.7 billion (not including capital investment in property), with the majority coming from Europeans. Trade between the two was up 35 percent last year, and the value of Moroccan exports to Europe--including more high-value manufactured items like automobile parts, electrical cables and software than ever before--doubled to €16 billion.
To be sure, Morocco in many respects remains an awkward neighbor. For all its progress on human rights, the country's secret police continue to operate as a power unto themselves, especially when dealing with terrorists. The arrest over the past month of 56 suspected members of one Al Qaeda offshoot, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, confirms that the country is still a hotbed for Islamic extremism. This network also provided the prime suspects in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 192 people, and was responsible for the bombings in Casablanca less than a year earlier that killed 45. According to a recent study by the Moroccan newspaper L'Economiste, 44 percent of Moroccans 16 to 29 do not consider Al Qaeda to be a terrorist organization.
Another complication is illegal immigration. Morocco is beginning to shed its reputation as the doorway into Europe for illegal immigrants from Africa, with border police now working closely alongside Spanish authorities and EU money pouring in. But the problem is already so endemic that the Dutch, for example, call all their unwanted immigrants "Moroccans"--even those that aren't. Indeed, an estimated 8 percent of the Moroccan population lives abroad, many illegally. Eradicating the problem will require improving living standards for Moroccans--who on average earn just $1,677 per capita a year.
That prospect might seem distant, especially to those still accustomed to thinking of Morocco as a poor developing country. But in fact, it's beginning to happen. Consider the numbers. School enrollment is up from just over half of Moroccan children in 1990 to 93 percent last year. Literacy has jumped from 55 percent to three quarters of the adult population during the same period. Morocco is currently passing business-friendly reforms faster than any other country in the Arab world. Economic growth will be roughly 7 percent this year, up from 4 percent last year. Inflation is just over 1 percent; unemployment has dropped to a record low of 11 percent, with rural unemployment rates more than halving.
Just as u.s. and British companies outsource their back-office operations to India and China, where English is a standard second language, France and Belgium are opening scores of call centers and bank back offices in Morocco, where most citizens speak French. The government sees such developments as key to shifting the burden for economic growth from Morocco's fickle agricultural sector to business and industry. Officials have thus earmarked 34 percent of this year's budget to education and training--computer technicians, engineers, business administrators and call-center operators--all with a view toward drawing more private business investment from Europe. The government is also pumping more than $1 billion into providing such basic services as healthcare and clean water to more than 5 million of Morocco's poor by 2010. Peter Dyer, a British expat who has been living in Marrakech's ancient Kasbah district for 12 years, says the changes are most obvious in what he doesn't see anymore. "When I first came here it was common to see very young Berber [country] girls as bonded household slaves," he says. "That's disappeared."
Tourism is booming. Morocco's sparkling coasts are fast being remade in the image of Mediterranean Greece, Spain and France. This year, 6 million Europeans visited, up from 2.5 million five years ago. By 2010, the figure is projected to reach 10 million. Construction along this new Costa del Sol is in overdrive. Over the next four years, 17 developments, comprising some 10,000 new homes and creating 600,000 new jobs, are set to come onto the market. Six new coastal resort towns, known as the "Plan Azur," are also being built, complete with luxury hotels and golf courses.
The nearly completed Saidia Resort on Morocco's northern Mediterranean coast, only 70 kilometers south of Spain's popular Murcia beaches, is the flashy harbinger of what's to come: an 800-berth marina, three golf courses, 17 five-star beach clubs and a seven-kilometer boardwalk linking restaurants, clubs, cinemas and luxury shops. A three-bedroom villa in the resort sells for £185,000--a fifth of what it would cost at Murcia's La Manga resort. "It's like Spain 40 years ago," says Saidia property developer Richard Dear. Europeans now buy more holiday homes in Morocco than they do in Portugal.
Not everyone welcomes that influx. Budget airlines such as Europe's RyanAir and Jet4You offer dozens of flights for as little as £60, and recently there's been talk of a Eurostar-like train linking southern Spain to Tangier via a tunnel under the Strait of Gibraltar. But critics worry that Morocco will become a touristic North Africa Disneyland, with its own culture submerged in Marbella-style oases and loud British bachelor parties. "I'm worried that Marrakech will be flooded by package groups," says Dyer, who runs a guest house in the city's Kasbah.
Still, the biggest challenges Morocco faces are homegrown. Foremost among them is jobs, says the World Bank's Ahlers. Although unemployment has dropped significantly in recent years, it's still disproportionately high among Morocco's educated urban young. Thirty-five percent of university graduates are jobless--prompting many to seek work abroad. Poverty and social marginalization come next on Ahlers's list. Fifteen percent of the population, some 4.5 million people, lives below the poverty line. Successfully tackling these two problems, says Ahlers, is the only way to improve the quality of life in Morocco, curb illegal immigration and stem the appeal of Islamic extremism.
Even if those problems were indeed resolved, would Europe let Morocco into its club? It's more a pipe dream than a possibility, most experts agree. "Some people would simply find the idea too alien," says a senior Moroccan diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous because of his position. Nevertheless, a decade ago few could imagine Romania and Bulgaria being invited in--yet last week they were. The EU's official consideration of Turkey proves that Morocco's Islamic identity is not an unassailable hurdle either.
Prime Minister Jettou fantasizes about a future where Morocco is a de facto member of the EU, whether or not it wins bona fide membership. "In 10 years, we will be a full-fledged partner in the EU family," he predicts. "When Romano Prodi [the former president of the European Commission] proposed his European Neighborhood Policy in 2001, he meant that we should benefit from all the advantages of the EU--just without the institutions." Thanks to the free-trade agreements now being negotiated in Brussels and Rabat, Morocco will soon take a big step in that direction. According to EU Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner, Europe also aims to bring Morocco increasingly into the fold on major political discussions too, including immigration, social issues, foreign affairs and terrorism.
This "deepening relationship," as European diplomats put it, is proving to be something of a regional model by illustrating what other North African and Arab countries can hope to gain through EU cooperation. Many of the countries that signed up to the Euro-Med Partnership in Barcelona in 1995--like Algeria, Jordan and Syria--have slowed intended liberalizations and remained outside the new European "neighborhood." Part of the reason, says Erwan Lannon, a member of the Euro-Mediterranean Study Commission in Brussels, is because Europe expected them to reform economically and socially--but without the "golden carrot" of possible EU membership. Morocco's booming economy and improved living standards show that even without the "member" title, there are palpable benefits to linking up with Europe.
It is hoped it will be a two-way street. Moroccan influences are already being felt in European fashion, for instance, with clothing designers discovering kaftans and traditional tribal textiles. "Europeans are fascinated by our culture," says property developer Wafaa Snibla. "Their houses are more Moroccan than mine." At Marrakech's sleek new Ibiza-style superclub Pacha, where career woman Leila Ahlaloum and her friends go to dance, the view says it all. Rising from the desert are construction sites and golf courses and yet more clubs brimming with tourists. With entrance costing $20 a head, the club isn't operating an open-door policy--but interestingly, Morocco and Europe are.