“There isn’t much to actually do in Dakhla, but it’s a beautiful place to just be.” This aphorism came from a middle-aged Moroccan woman seated next to me as we flew into the small coastal city in the Western Sahara. She was right that Dakhla is gorgeous, but if the Moroccan government sees its vision come to pass, there will soon be much more than beaches and dunes to attract people to the city, and much more to do.
The small metropolis of 170,000 barely existed a decade a ago, but after millions of dollars of investment it now boasts greatly expanded infrastructure, housing, business activity, and stands ready to play an important role at the front lines of Morocco’s plan to become a platform for access to the greater African continent. The continually expanding port now supplies over three quarters of the seafood in Morocco in addition to growing exports to Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Meanwhile, the last ten years have seen the creation of over 3,000 small and medium sized businesses in the area. And this growth is no accident. Now that the violence between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government is in the distant past and a final negotiated settlement appears eventually inevitable — the government believes that Dakhla and the greater south are positioned to be one of the first success stories of the new economic regionalization plan and can serve as a springboard for investments from international corporations interested in serving larger markets in west and central Africa.
Since the uprisings of the Arab Spring, the Kingdom of Morocco has fared far better than many of its neighbors, with a new constitution ushering in several years of reform rather than revolution. This has allowed the country to set itself apart from some regional competitors and left it prepared to leverage its significant advantages in banking, location, and stability — key considerations for succeeding on a continent that is quickly becoming harder and harder for corporations to ignore. Africa already represents more consumer spending than Russia with a larger GDP than Brazil and Russia combined. Over the next decade those numbers are projected to grow tremendously as 17% of the world’s population will call Africa their home by 2020 and rapid urbanization and economic growth will continue to expand the middle class.
It is often said in Morocco that Tangier is their gateway to the north while Dakhla is their gateway to the south. With free trade agreements in place with the United States, EU, Turkey, and several Arab countries, the government appears to have the international structures in place that can compliment their long term investments in education and governance — critical to realizing their vision of becoming a regional platform and keeping those doors wide open. When King Mohammed VI visits Washington, DC this week to there will surely be discussions about security cooperation and cultural dialogue. But rest assured that the delegation will also be looking to put on their best business-friendly face as they roll out the welcome mats to potential investors. At a time when stable governments in the region seem scarce and economic diplomacy has become the norm rather than the exception, the Moroccans are likely to find a warm reception.