Strength in diversity: The kingdom is home to a wide variety of cultures and languages
Located in the western-most region of North Africa, Morocco is a constitutional monarchy known for its varied geography, climate, population and customs. It is bordered by Algeria to the east, Mauritania to the south, the Mediterranean to the north-east, and the North Atlantic to the west. Its location has been the source of an interplay of influences that have characterised its history over the past 3000 years.
Today, one of the kingdom’s greatest challenges is to successfully achieve a balance between its age-old traditions and the changes brought about by economic and social development.
POPULATION: The 2010 population growth rate was 1.1%, with a population of some 32m inhabitants. Population centres are unevenly distributed, with significant concentrations in the Northern Atlantic region, the Rif and the Atlas or Anti-Atlas areas. Morocco has a relatively young population (the 15-to-65-year-old age bracket accounts for 65% of the population), which means an immense number of educational opportunities. Average life expectancy has risen to 72 years for men and 78 years for women. The country has also experienced a fall in the infant mortality rate, which stands at about 30 deaths for every 1000 live births. A trend in rural migration has transformed Morocco into a largely urban society over the last decade, and approximately 60% of citizens now live in cities. This trend is partly fuelled by the dwindling appeal of rural life and the higher standard of living perceived in cities. The influx of Morocco’s increasingly young population to urban areas, especially on the Atlantic seaboard, feeds a significant informal employment sector and is a focal point of the government’s current reform and legislative agendas. While statistics vary, the accepted national unemployment figures oscillate around 9.1% and around 15% in urban centres. Despite economic growth, about 15% of the population is under the international poverty line.
Morocco’s population is approximately 67% Arab, 31% indigenous Berber and 2% Sahrawi. Intermarriage between the groups is common. Marriage between different sub-Saharan African minorities accounted for the blurring of these ethnic separations over the centuries. Morocco is nonetheless culturally divided between cosmopolitan coastal regions, with a strong influence of European and Arab culture, contrasting with Berber- and Sahara-dominated interior areas. Morocco’s Jewish minority (numbering about 6000) are remnants of a once 250,000-strong community, many of whom moved to Israel and Western Europe after 1948.
LANGUAGES: Morocco is a polyglot kingdom with at least four languages in regular use around the country. Modern Standard Arabic is Morocco’s official language. Its local dialect, Darija, is the most commonly used. Darija differs substantially from classic Arabic in both pronunciations and vocabulary, and has further local influences in different regions of the country. Hassani for example, a dialect common in Mauritania, is widely spoken in the Saharan region.
Despite the fact that no precise figures exist, there are an estimated 8m people using Berber as their day-to-day language. Throughout North Africa, the Berber dialects have long been subject to discrimination for their contrast to the predominant Arab and Islamic influences. There have been efforts to halt this social unbalance, particularly by King Mohammed VI, who called for Berber to be taught in schools. In 2003 Berber was officially included in schools’ curricula. In his historic speech of June 17th, 2011, King Mohammed VI announced that Tamazight, the most widely used form of Berber, had been made an official language alongside Modern Standard Arabic and will be used in all administrative matters, making Morocco the only country where Tamazight is ranked as an official language.
French is also widely spoken, especially among the influential foreign-educated classes, the older generation and in the big urban centres. For business, science and in higher education, French remains the favoured language. North of the country, Spanish is prevalent. English and German are less common, mainly used by those working in tourism sector segments.
EDUCATION: Recent government figures put the country’s literacy rate at 61.6%, with a 25% gender gap. Government efforts currently focus on revitalising the sector by promoting primary education. School attendance is now mandatory between ages six and 15. Other measures include free literacy courses for adults and revamping national vocational training institutes. The issue of determining the unanimous use of a single language for basic teaching in school remains a challenge. It is not uncommon for students to start elementary school in Modern Standard Arabic and later switch to French for higher education.
RELIGION: The majority of Moroccans are Sunni Muslims, following the local Malekite rite, which is known for its tolerance. The king is recognised as “commander of the believers” and is Morocco’s supreme religious authority. Sufism is also common and there are numerous Sufi holy places and festivals. Prior to 1948 Morocco was home to one of the world’s largest Sephardic Jewish populations, but emigration has sharply reduced numbers. The remaining community is still highly involved, and the Moroccan Jewish diaspora has proven to be a powerful ally when it comes to foreign relations with EU countries and the US. Christianity is practised primarily by the country’s European residents and Sub-Saharan African immigrants.
GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE: Morocco has a great deal of geographic diversity. The country spreads over four topographical zones: the Atlas and Rif mountain ranges to the north, with altitudes reaching 4165 metres; the fertile coastal plains to the west; the drier Anti-Atlas region in the centre; and the Sahara desert to the south. While the kingdom retains de facto control over the disputed Moroccan/Western Sahara region, the question of its sovereignty is still in dispute. Morocco’s Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines extend well over 3500 km (including the disputed region in the Sahara). To the north, the Strait of Gibraltar separates North Africa from Europe by a mere 17 km at its narrowest point. Morocco has a predominantly Mediterranean climate and rainfall mostly limited to the winter months synonymous with northern hemisphere patterns.
Much of the precipitation comes off the Atlantic Ocean, buffeting the coastal regions with rain and strong winds. The hot and dry summer months witness temperatures as high as 40°. The Atlas area is temperate in climate, and is where most snowfall occurs in winter. The southern and Anti-Atlas regions are predominantly deserts.
NATURAL RESOURCES: Morocco has vast deposits of mineable resources. It has significant phosphate reserves, along with iron, ore, manganese, zinc, lead, salt, cobalt and silver. It is the world’s leading exporter of phosphate, which is needed for the production of fertilisers. Morocco also has significant agriculture, fishing, forestry and aquaculture sectors.
Overexploitation in these sectors has become a major issue that needs to be addressed (particularly in the fishing industry). Desertification in regions bordering the Sahara is also a concern. To counteract these concerns, the concept of sustainable development is gaining ground and receiving additional support.
FLAG: The Moroccan flag is solid red and emblazoned with a green star, a five-pointed variant of Solomon’s seal. The red flag was introduced by the Alaouite dynasty at the beginning of the 17th century and the seal was added in 1912 to distinguish the Moroccan red flag from others in use at the time. The green of the seal is a colour closely associated with Islam.
POLITICAL SYSTEM: Morocco is a constitutional monarchy governed by a parliamentary system. In recent years the government has advanced a process of political liberalisation. There has been significant moves towards decentralisation. The King continues to have important constitutional powers and actively controls both foreign and national affairs. He is the supreme religious authority and also supervises judges and the justice ministry, as well as the military.
The bicameral parliament is divided into a lower House of Representatives, comprising 325 seats, and an upper house, the Chamber of Counsellors, with 270 seats. Members of each house are elected for five-year terms and all Moroccans over the age of 18 have voting rights. Members of the upper house are elected indirectly by local councils, professional organisations and trade unions and serve for nine-year, non-consecutive terms. One-third of the counsellors take their seats and rotate every three years.
The most important leftist political parties are the Socialist Union of People’s Forces, the Popular Movement, and the Party of Progress and Socialism. The main rightist parties include the Istiqlal Party, the Justice and Development Party, the National Rally of Independents and the Constitutional Union.
In November 2011 Moroccans went to the polls in the country’s first parliamentary elections since adopting a new constitution. Both parliament and the prime minister have more power under the new constitution. The Justice and Development Party managed to take first place in the November 2011 election, winning 107 out of 395 total available seats.