King’s Speech: Moroccan monarch acts as an arbiter from above

King Mohammed takes similar approach to Jordan’s leader – stays out of the fray but with a guiding hand

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On the 20th anniversary of his coronation, King Mohammed VI of Morocco has given a critique of the country’s economic and societal failures.

The king’s approach of setting broad developmental goals while leaving the details to his cabinet has helped preserve the rule of the 55-year-old monarch, who enjoy significant support from the US, European powers and the Gulf.

Morocco last saw large demonstrations in 2017, after the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fishmonger in the coastal town of Hoceima. He was crushed to death after throwing himself inside a garbage truck to retrieve a fish confiscated by police. Strikes and sit-ins have continued since, the last of which was by teachers in May.

As the military in nearby Algeria seeks to contain the peaceful protest that ended the rule of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and prevent it turning against the entire establishment, King Mohammed admitted on Monday that official development policies have been unable to reduce the wealth gap.

He has ordered a policy overhaul “to achieve basic needs, limit social disparities and boost the middle class,” he said.

The monarch made a similar criticism of the state of affairs in 2017.

The king said on Monday that his goal remained for Morocco to join developing nations.

He pointed to progress in infrastructure, in particular, a $2 billion (Dh7.3bn) high-speed train line, and broader reconciliation efforts.

The public sector, needs “a revolution” to improve efficiency, he said, adding that he had asked the cabinet to submit recommendations on instilling meritocracy in government.

Putting the onus on government is also an approach that parallels King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Both monarchs are in their mid-to-late 50s and took the throne in 1999 as scions of dynasties that originate from Hejaz in Saudi Arabia.

Jordan's King Abdullah II and Queen Rania arrive for lunch ahead of a meeting with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-CA, in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on June 26, 2018. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

According to the World Bank, Jordan’s per capita was income was $4,200 at the end of 2018 and unemployment stood at 18 per cent. By the end of 2010, the last available year of data, more than 14 per cent of the population lived under the poverty line, earning less than $5.50 per day.

In Morocco, per capita income was $3,090 and unemployment stood at 10 per cent in 2018. About five per cent of the Moroccan population earned less than $5.50 a day in 2013.

Morocco and Jordan have long sought foreign aid. Morocco is south of a continent fearful of migration from failed states. Jordan borders Israel, which is dealing with the threat of Iranian-backed Shiite militia emboldened by a weak central government in Beirut and in Syria by Bashar Al Assad’s dependence on Tehran.

In the years since the 2011 Arab uprisings, King Mohammed and King Abdullah have responded to the upheaval that toppled governments in neighbouring countries by initiating political reforms.

Both kings play the role of statesman between competing factions: Berber and Arabs tribes in Morocco; and tribes and Palestinians in Jordan. Both promote close ties with the West.

Migration from both countries is high. Up to two-thirds of Moroccans under 30 have thought about emigrating, according to the Arab Barometer survey.

Protest and strikes have been driven by “development failures and inequalities in Moroccan society, but each of these movements was driven by deeper governance failures that are often linked to patronage,” wrote Chloe Teevan, a North Africa specialist, in a research note published last week by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“However, it is very unclear that the series of reforms will truly address the fundamental disequilibrium and lack of transparency in the country’s domestic economy, or the scale of the governance challenges facing the country,” wrote Ms Teevan.

In Jordan, the establishment rushed to initiate reforms in response to the Syrian uprising, which at first seemed likely to topple Mr Al Assad and have knock-on effects in Jordan.

But reforms in Jordan fizzled as it became apparent that the regime in Damascus was unlikely to fall.

In both Morocco and Jordan, there has been little willingness to go beyond temporary measures for fear of tampering with the foundations of the system. But as their economies seek to deliver prosperity, arguments in favour of the status quo may be weakening.