Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Morocco - 1

Last week I went to Morocco as an international election observer for the communal elections. They took place on June 12, the same day as the Iranian elections. The trip was extremely interesting, so I thought I'd post some entries describing my chief impressions.

I had always thought of Morocco as being exotic, remote and not necessarily friendly to Europeans or Americans. Nothing prepared me for the warmth and friendliness of the people - it's a much nicer atmosphere than in Madrid or Malaga, two Spanish cities which I've visited in the past 10 years. It's odd; I speak Spanish but no Arabic, yet felt more at ease in Morocco than in Spain.

The second surprise was the discovery that Morocco is one big construction site. I had expected a financially struggling government buffeted by the economic downturn, and abandoned cranes by rusting skeletons of buildings. Wrong again. The government's long-term debt is significantly lower than its annual budget expenditures or its foreign exchange reserves. It ran a budget surplus until two years ago, so it has some cushion for subsidies for construction (lower interest rates and tax breaks) and basic commodities. In fact, the U.S. government might do well to ask the Moroccans for advice...

I saw apartment buildings, commercial space, and luxury villas going up in Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakesh and the towns in between. It turns out that most of Morocco's urban areas are in similar shape. I also saw slums, but not as many as I had expected. In talking to people, it's clear that jobs are not easy to find and that most incomes remain low, but the atmosphere is not downbeat.

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