One of the events planned for 1992 is to “marry” the Statue of Liberty in New York to the statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona. Although they do share a similar aesthetic kitsch style, it will be a difficult union. Consider only the 300-year span between the ages of the groom and the bride, aside from all the ideological baggage that each one of them carries.

A union that seems even more problematic, also being celebrated in 1992, is Spain’s historical link with the Arab world. That “wedding” took place in 711, when Tariq Ibn Ziyad crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into the Iberian Peninsula. Full of rapprochements and separations, the relationship is a long and complicated one. Spanish history is full of reflections on its past, and its mixtures of cultures and religions. 1492 marked not only the “discovery” of the Americas for Spain but also the expulsion of those Muslims and Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism. The expulsion took place under the pretext of defining a Spanish national unity that even today remains elusive. Spain’s current relationship with the Arab world, including the Maghrib, is an extension of its long-standing conflictive ties with that part of the world.

Geographically, Spain is the Maghrib’s closest European neighbor, and Morocco is the North African country closest to Europe. The Spanish economic and political presence in Morocco dates back to the 1840s. Its colonization project there coincided with its final withdrawal from the New World (Cuba, Philippines) in the face of US expansion. Up until 1975, the year Generalissimo Francisco Franco died, Spain still ruled Spanish (now Western) Sahara, where the independence-minded POLISARIO movement now contests Moroccan rule. Even today Spain has two military enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, on the Moroccan coast, where Spaniards doing their compulsory military service are still taught that the Moroccans are the “enemy.” Spain claims it will hold Ceuta and Melilla until Britain returns Gibraltar to Spain.

Spain’s recently deceased foreign minister, Francisco Fernandez Ordonez, had declared that Madrid’s political agenda for the 1990s was topped by Iberoamerica, Europe and the Maghrib. Ordonez was one of the very few high Western officials to visit North Africa during the Gulf war. Many Spaniards perceived this as an indication of Madrid’s attentive regard for the area. This attention, though, cannot be separated from Spain’s new role as the European Community’s border police, responsible for preventing the North African “invaders” of the 1990s from entering Europe. In this regard, Spain just recently began requiring visas for all Moroccans traveling to the country.

The EC is wary of the close proximity of North Africa, with its economic needs. It is not news that 65 percent of Morocco’s population is illiterate, and at least 17 percent officially unemployed. Some 60 percent of the Moroccan population are under 21, and more than a few Moroccans have an inkling toward emigration, considering the dismal prospects for local employment. At present, the primary source of hard currency for the kingdom is remittances from its workers abroad.

A new EC member, after decades of bearing the stigma of “underdeveloped,” Spain’s recent prosperity — its economic growth rate is among the fastest in the EC — has allowed it to play the generous benefactor. Madrid recently made two loans worth more than $163 million for the phosphate installations of Jorf Lasfar, for improvements in Moroccan port facilities and for construction of a thermal power station. In 1988, Morocco obtained approximately $1.2 billion to purchase Spanish goods, chiefly military equipment.

Private Spanish investments in Morocco are relatively small. The fishing industry is the largest recipient of Spanish private loans, followed by tourism and some small textile factories in Tetouan, Tangier and Larache. After Morocco revised its laws to allow majority ownership of companies and banks by foreign enterprises, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya bought a controlling interest in a major Moroccan bank, UNIBAN. The trade gap between Spain and Morocco is 30 percent in Spain’s favor, in contrast to France where the trade gap is only 10 percent in France’s favor.

For post-modern Spain, the relationship with Morocco serves as a corrective to the way people used to view Spain. The country has long labored under Alexandre Dumas’ remark that “Africa begins on the other side of the Pyrenees,” and the stereotypical portraits of artists like Bizet. Thus Spaniards are only too happy to compare their country with its needier neighbors to the south.

Spaniards have ambivalent feelings toward the Arab part of their past. Older Spaniards remember Franco’s troops arriving, with Moroccan reinforcements, to defeat the Republican forces in 1939. They also remember that Franco’s personal guard was a Moroccan garrison, which was very effective theatrically. At the same time, ironically enough under the Franco dictatorship, political parties were allowed in the Spanish protectorate, and the Moroccan independence movement against France had its nest there.

Spain’s recent involvement in Morocco has been very different from that of the French. Partly this is because the Spanish colonial psychology does not prevent them from mixing racially with the “colonized.” It may also be because Spain’s involvement in Morocco came after it lost its colonies in Cuba and the Philippines. During Morocco’s struggle for independence in 1956, Spain pulled back and did not insist on the bloody finale that France did.

A treaty of cooperation between Spain and Morocco, signed by King Juan Carlos I and King Hassan II during the summer of 1991, calls for joint educational and cultural programs, investment in economic development projects such as the building of new dams and in the fishing industry, and military cooperation. Certain voices in the Spanish press present an entirely different discourse when discussing Moroccan migrants. Moroccan emigration to Spain is not as large as to France, for instance, and anti-Moroccan racism in Spain has not reached the levels found in other European countries. But incidents of Moroccans borrowing enormous sums of money to charter boats to cross illegally into Spain and then drowning before they reach the Spanish coast are becoming more common. The images of Moroccan immigrants found in the Spanish press frequently parallel those of Gypsies, who are commonly associated with drug trafficking. The underlying view is that Morocco is a tyrannical, pseudo-fascist regime that should be regarded cautiously.

Throughout history some have claimed that certain problems endemic to Spain, including the lack of integration with its neighbors to the north, can be blamed on the period of Arab rule. The complicated feelings many have about the “marriage” between Spain and the Arab world may threaten its legitimacy in public opinion, despite common cultural points, including music and poetic forms, that link the two regions. It is telling that no Spaniard with cultural pretensions or political ambition would claim Arab ancestry, in spite of such Arab-Spanish luminaries as Ibn Sina. Notre ami le roi, by Gilles Perault, a sensationalistic exposé of Moroccan politics, was recently translated and published with great fanfare in Spain. The book appears at an opportune moment for the current Socialist government, which can to point to it as showing “what we are no longer, but perhaps what we used to be like not so long ago.”

How to cite this article:

Marisa Escribano "Guarding Europe’s Gate," Middle East Report 178 (September/October 1992).

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