Morocco has failed on four previous occasions to host the tournament © ABACA/PA Images
Morocco has failed on four previous occasions to host the tournament © ABACA/PA Images

Why Morocco wants to host the World Cup

23 January 2018

Moulay Hafid Elalamy, a multi-millionaire insurance tycoon and minister for trade, industry and technologies has the toughest job in Morocco: he has been asked by King Mohammed VI to lead the country’s surprise bid to host the 2026 World Cup.

The form book is against him. The North African kingdom has already bid four times – and failed four times. Yet even if the bid does not succeed, it will raise Morocco’s profile. On the fringe of the 2010 Arab Spring, with no native terrorist movement, nor any huge oil fields, Morocco (with a population of around 35.2m) doesn’t hit the headlines very often. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that the most famous thing to have happened in Morocco is still Humphrey Bogart asking Dooley Wilson to play As Times Goes By in the classic movie Casablanca.

A World Cup would certainly change that. It could attract foreign investment and enrich and/or placate a populace that has become restive. An incident involving a fishmonger, some swordfish and a garbage truck in October 2016 may offer some clues as to why the government wants to host the World Cup.

The fishmonger, 31-year-old Mouhcine Fikri had his swordfish confiscated by officials because it was out of season. When his merchandise was flung into the back of a garbage truck, he jumped in to try and retrieve it. For reasons that remain mysterious, the compactor started working, crushing Fikri. Peaceful protests in his hometown, Al Hoceima, in the Rif, spread across Morocco when grainy footage of the incident surfaced on the internet.

This indigenous Berber people who live in the Rif, the mountainous region on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, have risen in protest before. In 1958, two years after the country celebrated independence, King Hassan II, the present monarch’s father, sent thousands of troops to the Rif to quell a campaign of civil disobedience demanding civil rights for Berbers.

Mohammed VI has been more conciliatory, recognising the legal status of the Berber language (Amazigh,), upgrading infrastructure – in 2014, electricity reached some mountain villages for the first time – and firing ministers who have mismanaged development plans in the region. Yet the lack of subsequent reforms has frustrated many Berbers.

The Berbers aren’t the only discontented Moroccans. Parents, pupils and parliamentarians united in outrage against a government proposal requiring higher-income families to pay fees for secondary and higher education. The bill is so vague – it does not define “higher income” or the conditions under which families are exempt from fees – that even MPs in the ruling Justice and Development Party have threatened to block it.

It’s not as if Mohammed VI’s government desperately needs the money. The budget deficit will fall to a respectable 3.5% of GDP this year and the economy is forecast to grow by 2.8% in 2018, slightly faster than America’s.

That growth would be higher but rain can still wreck the best-laid plans of mice and ministers – the right amount of it boosted agricultural production by 13.6% in 2017, whereas too little of it will shrink output by 1.5% this year.

Agriculture accounts for 15% of GDP and the climate’s recent unreliability has accentuated the government’s drive to diversify the economy, moving into financial services and cementing its strength as the largest car manufacturer in North Africa. Renault has two plants in Morocco and the PSA Group will start production in 2019. The national goal is to manufacture 1m vehicles a year by 2025, with 60-65% of the parts supplied locally.

In the competition for foreign direct investment, Morocco can offer cheap labour and lucrative tax incentives. The average monthly wage is $450 a month – compared to $2,250 just across the Mediterranean in Spain – and companies pay no tax for the first five years.

The government is spending billions to modernise infrastructure. A new high-speed railway between Tangier and Casablanca is due to open this year. In 2019, a new $900m terminal – said to be the first automated port terminal in Africa – will open in Tangier, with an annual capacity of 5m TEUs.

The $9bn investment in Noor, the largest concentrated solar plant in the world, which will provide electricity for 1.1m people, is the most dramatic evidence of an official commitment to generate 42% of the country’s energy from renewables by 2020.

Yet despite all this, FDI in Morocco fell by 29% in 2016 to $2.3bn. Some foreign companies may be deterred by the fact that Mohammed VI isn’t just the king, he also happens to be the country’s most prominent businessman and banker. The royal family owns most of the Société Nationale d’Invesstissement group, said to account for 3% of Morocco’s GDP, which operates in banking, retail, financial services and mining.

The king has announced an anti-corruption drive but a cable from the US embassy in Morocco, released via Wikileaks, suggests there is “doubt about the transparency of the king’s business affairs” and says there could yet be an explosive situation “when Moroccans face rising prices for goods whose production and distribution is often assured by the king’s own companies”.

Morocco is ranked 90 (out of 176) in Transparency International’s Corruption Index with a score of 37 out of 100 (a country needs 50 to pass). The problem is particularly prevalent in the legal system – Transparency International estimates that 64% of Moroccans pay a bribe to a police officer every year.

A World Cup bid will not resolve all these ills. For a start, even though Morocco is backed by the African confederation, it is likely to lose out to a joint bid by Canada, Mexico and the USA. Africa has only hosted one World Cup – in 2010 in South Africa – and, as Fifa has promised to rotate the event between its confederations, would expect to have its turn in 2030, if not in 2026. It may be that Morocco is playing the long game – bidding now to lay the groundwork for 2030, by which time many of its landmark investments in ports, renewables and transport infrastructure will have come to fruition.

For that to happen, the last thing Mohammed VI needs is civil unrest. So his government is likely to persist with mild reform, talk tough on corruption, and preside over a gentle opening up of its economy (particularly to foreign investment), while instructing its officials do nothing that might inflame street markets in the Rif.

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