- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2012

Morocco may have avoided the upheaval of an Arab Spring revolution, but it faces other challenges due to its economic closeness to crisis-riddled Europe and heavy reliance on remittances.

The continent’s financial woes weigh heavy on the North African nation because Europe is “our first trading partner,” Moroccan Ambassador to the U.S. Mohammed Rachad Bouhlal told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“More than 75 percent of our trade is with the European Union,” he said, noting Morocco’s proximity to Spain, where unemployment is nearly 25 percent.

“It effects not only our exports,” Mr. Bouhlal said, but also “Moroccans who work there, and you have a lot of Moroccans who work in Spain.”

Nearly 10 percent of Morocco’s 32 million citizens reside in Europe, and last year, total remittances sent home by the nation’s expatriates amounted to nearly $7 billion, according to the World Bank.

While the impact of the euro crisis on that figure remains to be seen, a severe hit would surely be felt in Morocco, where the remittances augment government anti-poverty programs.

The unemployment rate is about 10 percent in Morocco, which is hoping for 4 percent GDP growth in 2012, although Mr. Bouhlal said that “is a bad figure because we were over 5.5 [percent] in 2011 and in 2010.”

He’s keenly familiar with Europe’s woes and their impact on Morocco since he served as ambassador to the European Union from 1996 through 1999 and ambassador to Germany from 2004 through 2011.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI appointed him ambassador to the United States in December, a posting that, said Mr. Bouhlal, so far has been warm and welcoming.

Relations between the two nations reach back centuries. Morocco was the first nation in the world to recognize U.S. independence in 1777. The Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship signed that year by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and King Muhammad III, still stands as America’s oldest non-broken diplomatic pact.

Though Morocco has a popularly elected parliament, its monarchy is among the world’s oldest. Stability between the nation’s royalty and its citizens set Morocco apart from the tense dynamics that ousted dictators in nearby Egypt, Libya and Tunisia last year.

In Morocco, the Arab Spring brought a series of protests held by the pro-democracy youth movement known as “20 February” - a day in 2011 in which large demonstrations were held.

King Mohammed responded a month later by promising fresh political reforms. Increased independence for the judiciary, along with more power for parliament and the prime minister, was subsequently woven into a new constitution passed by nationwide referendum last June.

Mr. Bouhlal said Morocco avoided Arab Spring unrest because “we had started our reforms a long time ago.”

“It’s not something that happened because we had demonstrations,” he said, pointing to major law changes, including those regarding women’s equality, enacted in 1999 upon the current king’s ascendance to the throne.

The same period saw the establishment of Morocco’s Equity and Reconciliation Commission, formed to examine human rights abuses under King Hassan II, who reigned from 1961 through 1999.

“They ended up with 16,000 cases that are considered human rights violations,” Mr. Bouhlal said. “We have been involving the population all the time. … Not one reform has come just from above to the population.”