At the junction of multiple worlds, Morocco is characterised by diversity and complexity. The kingdom is perched on the western edge of the Arab region, on the north-west corner of Africa and is adjacent to the southern tip of Western Europe. It also sits astride both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
In terms of linguistic diversity, the country hosts not only Arabic but also European and Amazigh languages. The landscape and cities are also strikingly varied, ranging from arid deserts in the east to the highest peak in North Africa and from the imperial old cities of Fez and Marrakech to the modern metropolis of Casablanca.
Politically, the country has been something of an outlier in Arab North Africa, eschewing the republican form of government that has dominated the region in favour of a long-standing monarchy.
Morocco also largely avoided the political turmoil and regime changes that swept through Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and the wider Arab world since 2011. The monarchy remains the dominant force in politics, though constitutional reforms passed in 2011 tended towards strengthening the role of elected political institutions vis-à-vis the palace.
GEOGRAPHY: Moroccan territory is 710,850 sq km in size (including the region of Western Sahara, which is considered de facto Moroccan territory). Its land borders include frontiers with Algeria, Mauritania and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in the north. It also has over 3500 km of coastline, split between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean; Morocco and Spain are the only two countries to have coasts on both bodies of water. The kingdom lies just 14 km from Spain at the narrowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar, which separates the two.
The capital is Rabat, which is located on the northern part of the kingdom’s Atlantic coast. As of the most recent census in 2004, the city’s population stands at around 628,000. Approximately an hour’s drive or train ride south-west along the coast from Rabat is Casablanca, the largest city in the kingdom with a population of approximately 2.94m. This city is also the country’s economic capital and its most important port. Other major cities include Tangier in the north (with a population of 756,000), Fez in the north-east interior (976,000) and Marrakech in the centre (1m).
TOPOGRAPHY: Morocco is topographically diverse, encompassing mountains, plains and deserts. The country’s major mountain range is the Atlas Mountains, which run roughly through the middle of the country from the south-west to the north-east. The range is divisible into three sub-ranges: the Anti-Atlas (the southernmost of the three), the High Atlas (the middle range) and the Middle Atlas (the northernmost range). A second mountain range, the Rif, is located in the far north and runs roughly east-west. The country’s tallest mountain is Mount Toubkal, located in the High Atlas sub-range, which at 4167 metres also holds claim to the title of highest peak in northern Africa.
A narrow stretch of the Sahara desert runs along areas between the long border with Algeria and the Atlas Mountains; much of the rest of this region is also highly arid, especially in the south. Most of the area between the Atlas Mountains and the coast is made up of plains and this is where the bulk of farming occurs.
CLIMATE: The climate varies in line with the country’s topography. Border and desert regions are hot and dry, while parts of the Atlas mountain range by contrast see heavy snowfall for much of the year.
Morocco’s coastal regions have a predominantly Mediterranean climate. With regards to the temperature, average daily highs peak at 27 degrees centigrade in July and August in the capital Rabat and fall to 17 degrees in January and February; average daily lows peak at 18 degrees between July and September and fall to eight degrees in January and February. December is the wettest month with average precipitation in Rabat reaching 101 mm, falling to just 1 mm in July and August.
NATURAL RESOURCES: The kingdom has little in the way of discovered hydrocarbons resources, though it continues to explore for them. It does, however, have major phosphate reserves, some three-quarters of estimated global reserves, according to the US Geological Survey’s “2010 Minerals Yearbook”. Morocco accounted for some 14% of global phosphate production in that year and ranked as the world’s third-largest producer.
POPULATION & ETHNICITY: Morocco’s population stood at 32.3m in mid-2012, according to CIA World Factbook estimates. The population’s median age is 27.3 years and the annual growth rate is 1.05%. In 2010 some 58% of Moroccans lived in urban areas.
Morocco’s population is made up of a mix of Arabs and Berbers (known by their Amazigh-language name of Imazighen), the latter being the descendants of the peoples who constituted the predominant indigenous population of north-west Africa before the Arab conquest. Exact figures regarding the proportion of the population made up by Berbers are unavailable and the issue is the subject of controversy; Berber activists put the figure at around 50%, though government statistics for the number of people speaking Amazigh languages are significantly lower.
The division between Berbers and Arabs is not always clear-cut and in some ways represents a rural-urban divide as much as an ethnic one, with Berber emigrants from the countryside often becoming Arabised when they move to cities.
Unlike in neighbouring Algeria, for example, where the Berber population has traditionally been confined to specific geographical areas (in particular the northeastern region of Kabylia), in Morocco Berbers live throughout rural areas across the entire country. The ethno-linguistic divide is also less politicised in Morocco than it is in Algeria. While there are Berber nationalist movements agitating for more cultural rights and freedoms, there is nothing approaching a Berber separatist movement, and such a separation would in any case be impractical.
LANGUAGE: Morocco is a linguistically diverse country. The official languages are (standard) Arabic and, since constitutional reforms passed in mid-2011, Tamazight (a standardised Amazigh language). Modern standard Arabic remains the main language of instruction in schools; however, the situation regarding spoken languages is more complex.
Moroccan colloquial Arabic, or Darija, is the most widely spoken language and the vocabulary is heavily influenced by Amazigh languages, French and to a lesser extent Spanish. Darija differs significantly from classical or standard Arabic as well as from other dialects of spoken Arabic, to the extent that many Arabs from elsewhere (in particular from eastern Arab countries) regard it as unintelligible.
Hassaniya Arabic, a form of colloquial Arabic spoken primarily in the Moroccan/Western Sahara and Mauritania, is also spoken in parts of the south of the country. French is still widely used, primarily among the elite and in business settings, and is the main language in universities. As a result it is common to hear educated Moroccans in particular switch back and forth between French and Darija in conversations, often mid-sentence.
There are also three widely spoken Amazigh languages, namely Tamazight, Tashelhit or Shilha (spoken largely in the High Atlas mountains and the south) and Tarifit (spoken mainly in and around the Rif mountain region). The government is slowly introducing a standardised version into all primary schools. Spanish replaces French as the most commonly spoken second/European language in and around the Rif area and northern cities such as Tangier and Tetouan.
RELIGION: Around 99% of Moroccans are Muslims, almost all of whom belong to the Maliki school of Sunni Islam. Under the constitution, the Moroccan king holds the title of Amir Al Moumineen or “commander of the faithful”, designating him as Morocco’s religious leader.
Morocco boasts what is currently the largest mosque in Africa, the Hassan II Mosque, which was completed in 1993 and is one of the 10 largest mosques in the world in terms of both capacity of worshippers and surface area. Another important mosque is the Karaouine Mosque in Fez, which is also a university and sometimes described as one of the oldest universities in the world. Cities such as Fez and Marrakech also boast a number of important medieval madrassas or religious schools.
Sufism, or mystical Islam, and the related phenomenon of Maraboutism, or the worship of saints and holy men, are widespread in Morocco. This is despite the fact that the country has, both historically and currently, a significant Salafi movement that tends towards hostility to Sufism and Maraboutism. The country has a large unlicensed political-religious movement called Al Adl Wal Ihsane (“Justice and Charity”) which marries elements of political Islam and Sufism, while the current leading political party in the ruling coalition, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), is an Islamist party whose worldview is loosely in line with that of the international Muslim Brotherhood.
The kingdom also has a small Jewish community; this population was historically larger, but most Moroccan Jews immigrated to countries such as France, Canada and, to a lesser extent, Israel in the mid-20th century.