From the elegant office towers of downtown Casablanca to the palatial villas on the outskirts of every major city, evidence abounds of Morocco’s owning class. The luxury cars of the bourgeoisie fill downtown streets. Nightclubs, posh restaurants and expensive boutiques flourish even in a time of national austerity. But all this should come as no surprise. Unlike many countries of the region that lay claim to “Arab socialism,” Morocco has always had an official commitment to capitalism and a clear policy of promoting capital accumulation in local hands. “Morocco has chosen the path of liberalism,” announced Finance Minister Mamoun Tahiri at a World Bank conference in the late 1960s. “We will serve as an example in this regard to all of Africa.” [1]

Beginnings

Before the colonial era, a class of prosperous merchants and court officials flourished in Morocco for many centuries. Their beautiful houses and gardens are still to be seen in Fez, Marrakesh, Sale, Meknes and Tangier. Andalusian music and Moroccan decorative arts owe much to their patronage; their hospitality and gracious style of life were justly renowned. Though these leading families grew very rich indeed, they never became capitalists. Even by the late nineteenth century their way of life remained largely unchanged. Morocco had no railroads, banks or factories. [2]

After 1907, when French armies invaded and Morocco fell under colonial rule, Moroccan merchants were eclipsed by European businessmen. For a time it seemed that this Moroccan class would be obliterated. Instead, it was transformed. Those who lived in Fez, the old capital of the north, demonstrated a special resilience. Their sons studied at special French schools. Many continued as traders, but with links now to the colonial economy. Here and there, in niches untouched by colonial capital, some began to emerge as modern capitalists.

One of the earliest and most successful of this new bourgeoisie was Muhammad Laghzaoui, son of a Fez merchant. Beginning with scant resources and a few second-hand buses in the early 1930s, he built up a major road transport company serving a Moroccan clientele. By the end of the decade, he was already a multimillionaire. Tihani Laraqi, also son of a Fez merchant, went into cooking oil production, and Ahmad Mekwar started up a major food processing business. [3]

For the most part, this nascent Moroccan bourgeoisie grew up independent of colonial capital. Self-interest and prejudice inclined the Europeans to exclude Moroccans and maintain unchallenged control of the economy. But the Moroccan entrepreneurs were ever on the lookout for new opportunities. Omar and Muhammad Sebti, who had already established a flourishing grain storage business by the late 1930s, made enormous profits in 1939 when the outbreak of war created scarcities and the value of the grain, cloth and other commodities in their warehouses increased overnight. Other traders made handsome profits as well; during the war years they built up their fortunes by smuggling, black market trading, provisioning of troops and the like.

The end of World War II brought a big French investment boom in Morocco. As business soared, there was lots of room for Moroccan capital to grow. Even in industry, where colonial interests maintained the largest advantage, Moroccan investors widened their interests to include textiles in Safi as well as vegetable oil production and bottling plants in Casablanca. The economic center of gravity shifted to the coastal cities, especially Casablanca. Enterprising businessmen left Fez for Casablanca, where they continued to be known as Fassis. [4]

Proportionately, of course, Moroccan capital remained small by contrast to its colonial counterpart. At the time of independence in 1955, a mere 5 percent of the ownership of incorporated companies was in Moroccan hands. [5] Many Moroccan enterprises were unincorporated — owned by a single person or family — but by any measure the Moroccan share of the modern economy was low. Nevertheless, quite a few Moroccan families had accumulated impressive fortunes. A survey of Fez in 1948 showed that there were at least 20 Moroccan millionaires in that city alone. [6] In Casablanca at the time there would have been many more.

This growing bourgeoisie gave its support increasingly to the anti-colonial movement. Laghzaoui, the transport king, was a major funder as well as treasurer of the Istiqlal Party, the most powerful force in the independence struggle. Omar Sebti and Ahmad Mekwar were also key figures from the earliest days of the movement. The party was appropriately headed by Allal al-Fassi, member of a leading Fez merchant family.

A New Generation

When independence came in 1955, business conditions changed slowly. Most large colonial firms stayed on, and Europeans — especially French — continued to own and run them. But the fielc of action for Moroccans was now greatly extended. Gone were official restrictions and favoritism. Some foreign firms began tc pull back, to divest and sell off assets. A new generation of post-colonial Moroccan entrepreneurs now sprang up in such fields as transport, construction, wholesaling, banking, international trade, textiles and food processing. They included men like Moulay Ali Kittani, one of Morocco’s first indigenous textile manufacturers, and Karim Lamrani, who began his career in the olive oil business and later became a leading banker as head of the Credit du Maroc. Muhammad Zeghari, head of the Idrissa Mills in Fez, became the first director of the Banque du Maroc. Many were from the very families that had dominated Fez before the colonial era. Other old Fassi families prominent among the new bourgeoisie were the Tazis, the Benslimanes, the Bensoudas and the Berradas.

Many small and medium-sized European businessmen departed at the time of independence or soon afterward. Moroccans bought most of their enterprises at fire-sale prices. Many European farmers also departed, selling 400,000 hectares (1 million acres) of prime agricultural land, along with valuable buildings and equipment at very low prices. Moroccan fortunes were made through timely purchase of these properties. Some of the first purchasers were local notables who already owned substantial land in the area, like the Nejjai, Bekkai, Gueddari and Kebbaj families.

A broad Moroccan middle bourgeoisie now came into being, owning garages, restaurants, small contracting firms, insurance brokerages and the like. Monies for these new investments were often borrowed or taken from merchant savings, but often the purchase price was minimal and new investment nil. A whole new stratum of Moroccan society was created by this windfall. [7]

Another ready source of enrichment came from corruption, favoritism and special connections offered by newly won Moroccan control over the machinery of the state. One of the earliest profiteers was Laghzaoui, who was named first head of the Moroccan national police. He is said to have ordered many persons arrested, releasing them only when they paid him generous bribes. Later, as head of the enormous state phosphate mining company, he apparently insisted on big payoffs by contractors and equipment companies. His fortune became gigantic. Many other ministers, high civil servants, top military officers and royal advisers made large sums in similar ways. The monarchy encouraged corruption to solidify its political base. Opportunities were especially extensive because of the state’s large role in the Moroccan economy.

State Assistance

The Moroccan government, whose ministers included many of the wealthiest families, took steps to promote local investment soon after independence. The French-owned Banque d’Etat du Maroc was nationalized, permitting government control over credit, currency and foreign exchange transactions. In 1957, the government implemented protectionist tariffs. These were followed by favorable investment codes and tax measures in 1958 and 1960 which allowed duty-free entry of capital goods, tax benefits for investments and a direct state investment grant of 20 percent. In 1959, the government formed the National Economic Development Bank in order to make loan capital for Moroccan businesses easily available and at special terms. These measures did not promote the extensive private investment that many expected, but they did spark a national textile industry, which grew rapidly in the 1960s and early 1970s. Leather goods was another favored industry for private investors, building on a product line like textiles that was familiar to Moroccan traders.

Moroccan private capital was unable and unwilling to invest in large-scale heavy industry. So in the late 1950s the state itself entered into joint ventures with foreign firms to build an oil refinery (SAMIR, with the Italian oil company ENI), auto and truck assembly plants (SOMACA with Fiat and Simca, and Berliet), and a tire factory (with General Tire). It also embarked on its own on several other major projects, such as sugar refineries. Moroccan capitalists were sometimes invited to participate as shareholders, and industrial investments were mobilized primarily in this way. [8]

The state also built new dams and irrigation systems, benefiting those who owned nearby agricultural lands. Land values and output multiplied many fold. Many top state officials and army officers illegally purchased land from the departing European farmers. Other public works projects, like roads, schools, bridges and public administration buildings spurred the construction business and helped enrich many Moroccan contractors. The state also encouraged and underwrote joint ventures between individual Moroccans and foreign firms. Such deals flourished especially in tourism and food processing.

On the whole, though, the state had a hard time in getting Moroccan investors to take the place of the French. Moroccans simply did not have the available assets or experience. When the state nationalized most of the export trade in 1965 and sought to sell it to Moroccan investors, none came forward to take on such a large and difficult project. Not surprisingly, Moroccans preferred modest-sized and less complex deals. They continued to be most comfortable with closely-held investments. They remained oriented primarily to commercial and real estate operations, with short time frames and high rates of profit.

Fassis and Foreigners

For the first 15 years after independence, Fassis held a commanding position among the Moroccan bourgeoisie. A survey of top businessmen in 1965 revealed that nearly two thirds were of Fassi origin, with the remainder divided between those who were Berbers, Lebanese and other Moroccan Arabs. The Fassi network was a powerful source of connections, money and patronage. In populist political parlance, Fassi became the symbol of abusive wealth and power. Among those aspiring to business success but outside the charmed Fassi circle, resentment ran high. The king used this situation to his own advantage, especially to keep the aspirations of the Fassi political leaders in check. In these circumstances the once powerful Istiqlal Party steadily lost influence and the palace prepared to advance other regional groups to wealth and prominence.

European capital and European management held on to the commanding heights of the Moroccan economy. The powerful Paris-based Banque de Paris et des Pays Bas remained the strongest force in Morocco, controlling some 50 companies in nearly every sector through its holding company, Omnium Nord Africain. Omnium’s network included tourism, mines, transport, sales agencies, real estate and industry with a total annual turnover in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Several other French holding companies controlled other large blocs of the Moroccan economy. Moroccan private ownership was in a minority in virtually every sector except perhaps for hotels and textiles. In many branches of industry, Moroccan participation was practically non-existent. Only when the state stepped in to create new industries such as auto assembly plants, or when it forcibly took over existing companies (as with the sugar company Cosuma in 1965) did the Moroccan share become substantial. [9]

Management and administration as well as ownership remained preponderantly in the hands of foreigners. A sample survey of directors of 160 private industrial enterprises carried out by the Planning Service in 1970 discovered that only 13 percent were Moroccans! Other estimates from about the same time suggest that about 500 out of the top 1,000 managers in banking were foreigners, while 5,500 out of the 8,000 top managers in industry, transportation, commerce and communications were foreigners. Even 1,500 of the top 6,000 posts in the state administration remained in foreign hands 15 years after independence. The same was true of the leading professions — doctors, lawyers, engineers and university professors. [10]

Moroccanization

By 1970, a campaign in favor of “Moroccanization” picked up steam. Moroccan intellectuals took up the cause and the dormant political parties came to life around the issue. In 1973 the government finally acted. Two measures in March and May required Moroccan majority ownership in a large number of firms and established state financing for this program. The government also announced the direct takeover of the remaining foreign-owned farms. In August 1973 it announced a new round of investment incentives. The World Bank noted that “the aim of the government in taking these measures is to accelerate the emergence of a large class of Moroccan entrepreneurs.” [11]

The Moroccanization measures affected 1500 companies and 400,000 hectares of farmland. In some cases the foreign firm simply took on a nominal Moroccan partner or partners, sharing profits with no investment counterpart. Some such partners were those with powerful political connections, while others were management employees. Moroccans acquired tens of millions of dollars worth of assets. Only a few foreign-owned firms were able to take on actively participating Moroccan partners who made a substantial new investment in the business. Of more than 4,000 companies identified for Moroccanization, nearly half were never affected by the laws. They either closed, changed the nature of their business, or otherwise evaded the law. Farms, by contrast, almost all passed out of foreign hands?either through illicit sales or through direct state takeover. [12]

Moroccanization of some of the very largest foreign firms took quite a different form. State-sponsored banks like the Societe Nationale d’Investissements (SNI) bought up shares of these firms and in turn offered their own shares to the public. They acted like holding companies, with the security of state backing. In some cases, partial buyouts of foreign interests preceded the formal Moroccanization measures, or (the preferred method) state institutions took a position in the foreign firms by contributing new capital. The giant Mines de Zellidja sold 200,000 shares to SNI in 1971, for example. Other companies — like Brasseries du Maroc, Lesieur, Forges Carnaud, Lafarge Maroc and Cellulose du Maroc — followed. In late 1973, the SNI launched three new investment funds. All this enabled the state to revive and strengthen the Casablanca stock market. Stock sales more than doubled from 1971 to 1972 and increased rapidly thereafter. The market began to play a classic role as mobilizer of capital and means of insuring investment liquidity. [13]

By recruiting so many newcomers, Moroccanization broadened the geographic origins of the Moroccan bourgeoisie, diluting the Fassi hegemony. Soussis from the Agadir region, already well-established in the grocery, restaurant and hotel businesses, now challenged the Fassis as the leading business clique. In 1980, a survey by Novaction showed the remarkable ascent of the Soussi element during the 15 years from 1963 to 1978. In that time, the Soussis moved dramatically to the top — doubling their percentage of all holdings in light industry and agriculture, quadrupling in heavy industry, and moving up to 40 percent of the hotel business. A sure sign of their arrival was that they began to intermarry with the old Fassi “aristocracy.” By 1978, the Fassis and Soussis together controlled a remarkably high percentage of all investments in the country. [14]

Concentration of Income and Wealth

Since independence, wealth and income among Moroccans has become steadily more unequal. In 1960 and again in 1971, the government surveyed household consumption. In that time, the consumption share of the wealthiest 10 percent of households increased dramatically, while the share of all others, and particularly the very poorest, declined. The trend was so marked that the government report made mention of it, and even the World Bank in its 1974 report noted laconically that “economic growth in the 1960s was accompanied by a widening of income differences.” [15] The disparities of the colonial era, so outrageous to Moroccan nationalists, were reproduced and even exceeded within post-colonial Morocco.

Ownership also became considerably more concentrated as rural land, urban properties and investments of all kinds were gathered into fewer hands. As the World Bank observed, “It seems that the concentration of productive resources in a few hands was a major source of increasing income differences.” [16]

With the overwhelming majority of households spending all of their available income, savings were likewise very concentrated. Significantly, savings doubled from 1960 to 1970 and continued to increase through the mid-1970s, when the rate passed 20 percent. More than a fifth of the national income was accruing to a few thousand families, while more than half lived at or below the level of mere subsistence.

The phenomenal concentration of wealth in Morocco was confirmed by a study in 1978 showing that a quarter of all the private capital invested in Moroccan industry was controlled by the 58 richest families. The total controlled assets were then valued at almost 8 billion dirhams, or over a billion dollars. A third of the total, or more than $300 million, was controlled by just four families. [17] Since many families with investments in industry have substantial investments in other sectors, and since industry is not the major sector in Morocco, we begin to get an idea of the tremendous fortunes amassed in the 30 years since independence.

Royal Wealth

Wealth is especially concentrated in Morocco because of the monarchy, for the king is one of the richest people in the world and his wealth exceeds that of even his richest subjects by many fold. A number of royal relatives are also very wealthy. The Moroccan monarch is not in the same league as the rulers of the Gulf states, but in spite of a lack of oil he has done very well indeed. Hassan II owns palaces (in Rabat, Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh, Casablanca, Skhirat, Ifrane and elsewhere) and vast agricultural lands. He reputedly has investments abroad worth hundreds of millions of dollars — in Swiss banks, London real estate, US treasury bills and the like. Finally, very large sums, certainly hundreds of millions of dollars, are actively invested in Morocco — in industry, banking, real estate and virtually every other sector of the economy. In 1982, King Hassan increased his stake in the Moroccan economy by acting (through a front) as major investor in the takeover of the holding company Omnium Nord-Africain from French interests for a sum of at least $100 million.

Royal holdings are not made public but they are discreetly known to partners, agents and members of the Moroccan financial community. Some of the more visible holdings are even known to the wider public. The king’s big agribusiness project in eastern Morocco is one such case. One of the largest buildings in Rabat is well-known as an investment of the king’s deceased brother, Moulay Abdullah. The vastness of the royal fortune, the broad network of investment partnerships it is linked to and the king’s ability to give large favors through his control of the state — all these make for close cooperation between the throne and Morocco’s wealthiest families. From time to time there are murmurs of discontent and muffled criticisms of royal absolutism, but Moroccan capitalists seem little inclined to rebel against their major business partner and main political guarantor.

The State and the Future

The largest company in Morocco is the state-owned phosphate mining company, with nearly 30,000 employees. The state also owns or has a controlling interest in the railroad, the national airline, the coal and electricity companies, the petroleum refinery, chemical works, the telephone company, several major banks and more: some seven hundred companies in all.

The state has taken in hand the development of the economy as a whole and has taken the major risks. The bourgeoisie has been nurtured by the state, though this does not prevent bitter complaints over taxes, red tape, black markets, state interference and the like, expressed in the business press or by the chambers of commerce or the Moroccan Business Federation. It has become fashionable to complain of the excessive role of the state in the economy. "Morocco is more socialist than Poland," grumbled one top manager recently. In fact, the state is planning to sell off some of its holdings, a step that can be taken now that private interests are strong enough to take charge of these companies.

But the economic environment is difficult. Textile exports are an example of the pitfalls facing Morocco’s fledgling entrepreneurs in this period of international crisis. For a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, textiles seemed a real Moroccan success story. Exports to Europe grew rapidly and Moroccan firms were driving European manufacturers out of business. By 1977, the Common Market countries reached a new “agreement on multifibers” which effectively closed off the market to Moroccan imports. Since then, although Moroccan textiles have found other markets, the industry has been in a serious slump.

The Moroccan economy has also been beset by severe drought, depressed world prices of phosphates, declining remittances from workers abroad, reduced quotas for fruit exports to Europe and the heavy economic costs of war in Western Sahara. The riots which have swept Morocco twice in the 1980s are a stark reminder of these problems and the challenge the monarchical political system faces in overcoming them, even with strong support from France and the United States. But the present situation may not be as problematic as it seems at first. War-related profits have fattened the purse of many a Moroccan company and nationalist fervor stirred by the war seems to hold the society together more strongly than prosperity alone ever could. As the state sells off its economic assets at bargain prices and adopts other free market policies, the future of the Moroccan bourgeoisie seems all too well assured.

Translated by James Paul

Endnotes

[1] James A. Paul, "The Moroccan Crisis," Monthly Review (October 1972), p 34.
[2] Driss Ben Ali, Le maroc precapitaliste (Rabat, n.d.) and Driss Ben Ali, “Un exemple de transition: Fes au XLXe siecle,” Revue Juridique, Politique et Economique du Maroc (1980), pp. 97-126.
[3] John Waterbury, The Commander of the Faithful (New York, 1970), pp. 98-107, 130-133.
[4] G. Pallez, “Les marchands Fassis,” Bulletin Economique et Social du Maroc 49 and 51 (1951).
[5] Mohamad Said Saadi, “A qui a profite la marocanisation?” La Crise… L’alternative (Casablanca, 1980), pp. 211-217.
[6] Pallez, Bulletin 51, p. 57.
[7] Abdelkader Berrada, “La marocanisation avant 1973,” al-Asas 23 (September 1980), pp. 211-217. For a fascinating discussion of the emergence of a bourgeoisie at the local level, see David Seddon, Moroccan Peasants (Folkestone, 1981), pp. 167-270.
[8] Abdel Aziz Belal, L’Investissement au Maroc (1912-1964) (Casablanca, 1976) and Fathallah Oualalou, L’Assistance etrangere face au developpement economique du Maroc (Casablanca, 1969).
[9] Zakya Daoud, “L’argent et la marocanisation, l’epargne et le plan: quel financement? Comment?” Lam Alif 62 (January-February 1974), pp. 34-38. See also Belal, op cit.
[10] Paul, pp. 29-30.
[11] International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The Current Economic Position and Prospects of Morocco (Washington, 1974), vol. 1, p. 79.
[12] “La marocanisation: premier bilan,” Lam Alif 87 (April 1977), p. 7.
[13] Daoud, op cit., pp. 35-37.
[14] Zakya Daoud, “Soussis et Fassis: parts dans la bourgeoisie marocaine,” Lam Alif 117 (June-July 1980), p. 6.
[15] International Bank, op cit., p. 22.
[16] Ibid., p. 23.
[17] Abdelkader Berrada, "Imperialisme et bourgeoisie marocaine," al-Asas 24 (October 1980), p. 10.

How to cite this article:

Jean-François Clement "Morocco’s Bourgeoisie," Middle East Report 142 ( ).
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