Northern Morocco has long suffered from underdevelopment and poverty. Now it's getting an economic facelift and a gigantic new port to attract global trade
In the twilight hours, there is hardly a folding chair left unoccupied on the terraces of Café Hafa. Hundreds of young men fill the public squares on the hill rising steeply up from the Bay of Tangier. Bees hover around glasses of sweet mint tea and the regulars while away the hours playing cards until the sun sets into the sea.
Sucking on their water pipes filled with kif, the hashish grown in the nearby Rif Mountains, they gaze across to the opposite coast, where 20 kilometers away the first lights blink on. These are the lights of promise burning on the Spanish coast, where the stuff of their dreams can be found: work, prosperity -- a future.
The Café Hafa, an island in the wretchedness, has become the emblem of the forgotten city of Tangier. Tangier, once one of the places that drew Western bohemians to Morocco, where the US writer Paul Bowles, the British painter Francis Bacon and the Rolling Stones followed their Tangerine Dreams, their gaze drifting from the Orient back towards Europe. And today, even more than in the past, it can be said that the future lies over the sea.
But the end is in sight for the despondency at Café Hafa. The melancholy view from the hillside will soon be hemmed in by construction cranes. The sunshine of the African coast already bounces off the first gleaming facades. King Mohammed VI wants to remake the 3,600-year-old city of Tangier into the showcase of the new Morocco. Here, on the borderline between two continents, where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet, he is constructing the future epicenter of an African awakening.
Over €1 billion ($1.45 billion) of public funds, in addition to loans from the European Union and private investment from France, Germany and the United Arab Emirates have been poured into his pet project, which aims to spruce Tangier up, transforming it into a hub of intercontinental trade with Europe, Asia and America. His project should lead to jobs for the younger generation and help drag the north of the country out of its state of underdevelopment.
To bring this project to fruition, the King has appointed one of his most trusted technocrats, Mohammed Hassad, 54, as governor of the long-neglected northern region of Tangier-Tétouan. Prior to this appointment, the engineer, a graduate of an elite Parisian university, succeeded in turning Marrakech, the erstwhile capital of the Berber Almoravid dynasty, into the country's greatest tourist attraction.
Now it falls to the former minister for infrastructure to ensure that along with goods, Europeans also flow back into Tangier, bringing prosperity with them. Hassad wants to pick up where the glorious years from the mid-1920s to independence in 1956 left off. At that time, the north of Morocco was administered by the French and its extreme south by the Spanish. Tangier, however, had international status, and in those days it was intellectuals and spies in the service of the world powers who gathered in Café Hafa.
Decently Paid Jobs
Diggers and heavy cement mixers are already visible in coastal areas as indicators of a new boom. Hotels and conspicuous villas are springing up along previously virgin beaches; electricity and drinking water will soon be supplied to even the most isolated villages. Tangier, a city in which most inhabitants can switch seamlessly from Arabic into Spanish and French, has applied to host the 2012 Expo. The decision is due at the end of November. Governor Hassad estimates the cost at around $400 million; the metamorphosis into an international hot spot should "bring in hundreds of millions of dollars."
Decently paid employment is the ultimate goal. Today, many young men still risk their lives to seek their fortunes illegally on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Already, 800,000 Moroccans are the legal guests of their neighbors to the north -- more than the total population of Tangier.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. The stated aim of the previous government under Driss Jettou was to provide the younger generation with a high-quality education. Over a quarter of the national budget in the past five years has gone toward improving public schools and universities. Unemployment was pushed under the 10 percent mark -- thanks largely to 8.1 percent growth -- but in some places, especially in the northern part of the country, half of all those under 25, including those with university degrees, remain jobless.
It's a problem the north has always had. By the time King Hassan II -- the father of the current monarch -- died in 1999, he had never visited the rebellious region. The farmers in the bleak Rif Mountains lived off the cultivation of cannabis, while bands of smugglers went about their business undisturbed. Now, though, the 44-year-old King Mohammed VI has discovered the region for himself.
Celebrities and Money
He and his entourage often spend summers here waterskiing. From his palace on the hill, he likes to look out over the bay -- and his likes to host the rich and famous. In recent years, the figures he has managed to entice to settle on the outskirts of the "most beautiful city in the world", as Tangier was described by the ancient Greeks, have included the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González and the Parisian philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.
But the King doesn't just bring celebrities to the area. At the end of July, he opened the first terminal of the Tangier-Mediterranean container harbor, 40 kilometers east of the city, after a record construction time of just five years.
Work is expected to start on a second terminal, which will be operated by an international consortium led by the German port logistics company Eurogate, within the next 12 months. By 2012, the Tanger Med Port will have become the largest deep water port in Africa, with total capacity of 8.5 million containers per year. Hamburg, the largest container port in Germany, passed this mark just a year ago.
Multiple cargo ships will be able to dock here at the same time, transferring goods from Asia and the Gulf States for further shipment across the Atlantic or for transport by truck to Europe and North Africa. A roll-on-roll-off complex is to be built that can handle 1.5 million vehicles and five million passengers. Where today the car ferries to Spain berth, glitzy yachts might bob on the waves while on the piers, refined restaurants and expensive boutiques will encourage promenades and shopping.
In the external service area there are three new special economic zones covering 10 square kilometers for logistics, industry and trade. Here, the textiles, automobiles or aircraft parts unloaded in the port can be further processed and given a Moroccan label. As Morocco has a free trade agreement with the USA and a special economic relationship with the European Union, goods can be imported and exported duty free.
The French car manufacturer Renault, together with its Japanese partner Nissan, wants to construct a plant in Tangier in which, from 2010 onwards, vehicles for export into the EU will be assembled. Many European firms have established their call centers in Tangier and a total of 150,000 new jobs are expected for the region.
Tunnel Under Gibraltar
Europe's leading port management company Eurogate likewise plans to open its doors in Morocco. And they are hoping to employ as many Moroccans as possible. "We think there is enough expertise available within the country," says Eurogate's Tangier representative Jörn-Peter Kassow.
The new harbor city in Tangier, painted entirely white and only two floors high, was designed by the Parisian architect Jean Nouvel. Three further living areas for the staff of the terminal and of the free trade area are under construction.
A bid worth billions was recently accepted from a French consortium for a high-speed rail link between Tangier and Marrakech, and the Spanish want to construct a tunnel under the Strait of Gibraltar.
By 2010, Morocco expects to attract 10 million tourists a year, and hopes that many of them will make a stop in Tangier. With that in mind, the city is experiencing a construction boom. The Grand Socco, as the main square is called, has already been transfigured. Night-time revelers gather here at the fountains outside the cinema. The plush former Cinéma Rif, in which film-goers could smoke and drink, was rescued from demolition by Yto Barrada, 36.
The photographer and video artist, who represented her country this year at the Venice Biennale, got together with film aficionados to promote the reincarnation of the Rif as a cultural center. In addition to provocative Moroccan films, Barrada also shows American blockbusters. "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," is her philosophy she says.
The King seems to agree. He is hoping that the many economic sweeteners he is now sending to the region will ultimately result in plenty of free tables at Café Hafa. A further hope, is that if the young men in the region have work, they will be less likely to get mixed up with religious zealots.
Poor and Desperate
It is a problem the region has long experienced. Extremists had little trouble finding recruits among the poor and desperate. The men behind the May 2003 suicide bombing in Casablanca had a hideout in Tangier and several of those responsible for the March 2004 train bombing in Madrid came from the region.
In the election in September, most young people from the north cast their ballots for the Islam-oriented "Justice and Development Party." The northern support meant the religious party became the second strongest political force in the country -- behind the conservative nationalists who are currently in power. The result hardly came as a surprise: Until now, they have been the only political party to concern themselves with the poverty of the north.
Translated from the German by Fiona Thomson