Morocco can be UK businesses’ gateway to the Western Sahara, if the government lets it, writes Greg Baker.
Following the recent earthquake in Morocco, the strongest in over a century, this ever-resilient country has had to find a way to rebuild and succeed. Morocco has a special place in my heart and like my fellow Brits I have visited many times. The people and its landscape will forever be carved into the hearts of those who visit. The UK was one of four countries to provide support, with our search and rescue teams playing a key role in some of the worst-hit areas of the country.
We all know that trade not aid is the key to a successful future. This is especially true given the range of opportunities British business can help by investing in the region. Morocco and the UK have a long history of friendship and cooperation dating back over 800 years, while the two countries signed their first trade treaty 300 years ago. More recently, in 2021, the signing of a Morocco-UK Association Agreement saw bilateral trade double in just two years.
The UK’s investment in Morocco isn’t just a modern phenomenon but a reflection of deeply rooted historical ties. For centuries, the UK has recognised Morocco’s strategic position as a gateway to Africa and the Mediterranean. In the last few years this has been shown by collaboration in sectors such as renewable energy, where British expertise aligns with Morocco’s ambitious green energy goals. I’m one of those businesses and have developed, and am in the process of funding, a project that will eventually amount to over £250m in Dakhla in the South of Morocco.
This project will deliver a world-class tourist resort along with medical, education and business facilities. It will also include an academy to train local people in hospitality as well as showcase a desalination solution to allow the production of fruit and vegetables in the desert. The plan is for the finished project to employ more than 1,500 people. It will hopefully show how UK investors can benefit both the UK and Morocco.
This will build on Dakhla’s nearly ten-fold increase in tourism over the last few years and support the local economy, while providing the facilities for a world-class tourist destination. This project is a testament to the UK’s interest in Morocco’s diverse market – from agribusiness to technology – and the country’s rapidly evolving economic landscape.
By investing in projects like the one in Dakhla, British businesses not only foster economic growth but also contribute to the region’s socio-economic development. This dual benefit strengthens the UK’s role as a key partner in Morocco’s long-term progress.
However, the UK government doesn’t currently support projects in the Western Sahara. While UK Export Finance (UKEF) has promised £4bn of support for Moroccan buyers of UK goods and services, this does not extend to the Western Sahara. This is despite the UK-Morocco Association Agreement including the Western Sahara.
As a result, the UK is missing out on both employment and other opportunities. Despite challenges by supporters of the Polisario Front, the UK’s High Court agreed that the Association Agreement covers goods and services in the Western Sahara, a clear divergence from the EU who claimed such a trade deal was invalid.
In a Brexit Britain, we are no longer bound by the diktats of European courts. The potential for further development in the Western Sahara by the UK companies is vast. By aligning governmental support with the realities of this Association Agreement, the UK could significantly bolster its role as a key economic ally to Morocco.
It would enhance the UK’s geopolitical stance – as a key player in the Sahel – and help UK businesses get on the front foot in securing business in the region. We only need to look at UK-African Investment Summit in April 2024. The Summit will involve heads of state and government along with British and African business leaders. It will build on UK-African partnerships, but will also be an opportunity to show Morocco as the new gateway to Africa for British businesses.
By 2050, 2bn people will live in Africa, more than half will be under 25. Morocco can act as the gateway. Many businesses, including mine, are keen to do more business in the region but are being held back by the UK government’s inconsistent position.
If the UK extended UKEF support to the Western Sahara, it would unlock untold opportunities for UK businesses and help Morocco rebuild after the earthquake. This single step would be very welcome by many UK businesses and – I am delighted to add – would have no cost to us all as taxpayers.