In Nador, a regional capital located on the Mediterranean Sea at the eastern end of the Rif Mountains in Morocco, coffee shop talk often turns to the relationship with the capital city, Rabat, a five-hour car ride or a nine-hour train or bus ride to the west. Nadoris are sensitive about their status as residents of an underserved province that they believe the government disdains. But recent, locally driven economic development is also a source of pride for the region. A professor at the new branch of the regional university, opened in 2006, described Nador’s importance: “Everyone knows that two thirds of the repatriated wages flowing into Morocco from workers in Europe goes through bank branches in Nador.… It’s not published, but it’s not a secret.” Yet, according to local perception, most of that money goes toward developing other regions in the country. “Rabat has sucked billions of dirhams from the region without reinvesting more than a percent or two back into it,” the professor explained. “Everyone knows that the new trams in Rabat and Casablanca and most of the tourist development projects in Marrakech and Tangiers and Fez — all the other big cities of the west — were developed with money coming from here.” Another professor added: “The government gave the Amazigh provinces passports to get out and make a living elsewhere. They think that’s the end of their responsibility to us.”

The professors may have exaggerated for effect, but their comments reflect local sentiment. Most Nadoris claim that limited government expenditure in the northeast — compared to the urban regions of the interior and Atlantic coast — is part of a conspiracy to isolate the region. According to this theory, Rabat seeks to punish the Amazigh (“Berber” is unanimously understood as pejorative among educated Nadoris) of the Rif Mountains for past and present challenges to rule from the center. The region is a stronghold of Amazigh pride and activism. In the 1920s, the region formed its own republic. Thirty years later, the republic revolted against the newly independent Morocco, and the northeastern provinces were especially active in the riots of 1984. The region also benefits economically from the black and gray economies of migration, smuggling and the drug trade.

Morocco is divided into regions each made up of a number of provinces. The numbers of both change periodically. Population growth, economic development and the need to maintain political control are the most common reasons for province proliferation. Regions are politically weak and have little identity; they exist to collect data and develop economic plans for the future while functioning on a day-to-day basis mainly as large chambers of commerce. Provinces, on the other hand, are politically powerful arms of the Interior Ministry with officials appointed by the capital and various police forces working to maintain surveillance and control over provincial citizens.

In 2011, Nador province was split in two, with the western half becoming Driouch province. As one of the professors recounted: “We all assumed they would make Midar the new province headquarters. It’s larger and more important than Driouch. That’s the logical choice. But we forgot that Midar is a solidly Amazigh city. Driouch has a big Arab minority. They gave it to Driouch because they knew it would be easier to control. That’s the way Rabat thinks. It’s still all about ‘divide and conquer.’”

Such sentiments recognize a very real imbalance along center-periphery lines, one that is usually attributed to Arab-Amazigh ethnic antagonism. It is true that Rabat may be trying to address the irregular and unequal development through administrative reorganization and funding incentives, though these policies may be driven by a logic that has little to do with Nador itself.

Growing Hub

Nador has indeed suffered from underinvestment, especially in transportation. For example, there are approximately 4 million Moroccans living outside the country, mostly in Europe. But the majority of migrants returning from the north come by boat to the autonomous Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, then travel by car. Morocco’s infrastructure development has been concentrated on the Atlantic coast since the French colonial government established Casablanca as the primary port and economic hub of the country. The government has only built one port on its Mediterranean coast—Beni Enzar, just outside of Nador — in order to compete with Melilla, with which it shares a harbor. A ferry service was established between Sête, France, and Beni Enzar in the 1990s, but it never managed to compete with the ferries out of Melilla, and eventually went bankrupt. It was not until 2010 that a rail line connected Nador and Beni Enzar port to the national grid. The freight traffic generated by the port pays for the relatively light passenger traffic from Nador, according to an official at the Nador train station.

An oil storage facility funded by the Gulf states is slated for the west side of the Trois Forches peninsula that juts into the Mediterranean north of Melilla. The storage depot will warehouse oil bound for the European market as a hedge against potential shortages caused by disruptions of shipping in the Suez Canal. Nador province will provide the land and labor — and assume the environmental risk — while the rents will go to the central government. Getting around tight European environmental standards is the reason, according to Nadoris, for building the facility in Morocco in the first place.

Nador’s recent evolution into an international flight destination is due in part to the proliferation of European budget airlines and their pursuit of small-market airports with lower fees and taxes. Investment from Rabat has played a negligible role. Royal Air Maroc maintains a monopoly on air travel within Morocco, but the airline runs only a couple of flights per day between Nador and Casablanca, most of which are less than half full. The foreign airlines like Ryan Air, Air Arabia and Vueling Air, among others, pack their flights between Nador and Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain. The regional airport in Oujda, two to three hours from Nador by car, traditionally handled the traffic of migrants returning to northeast Morocco by air. When Nador was finally allowed by Rabat to develop an airport that could handle jets, the Oujda airport suffered a noticeable drop in traffic. By 2013, the numbers of passengers traveling through the two airports were approximately equal.

Some Nadoris fear that Oujda’s standing as the regional capital — as well as an ethnically Arab bastion of central power in the northeast — and thus closer to the powers that be in Rabat, may lead to restrictions placed on the growth of Nador’s air links. It may be that Rabat will feel compelled to back Oujda’s attempts to defend its regional preeminence in order that Rabat may continue to assert its own central role.

Though travel by car remains the most important mode of transport in Nador, the road system in the province is crippled by its small size and state of disrepair. A poorly maintained two-lane local highway branching off of the Fez-Oujda route was the main way in and out of Nador for decades. An even more dilapidated road winds its way through the Rif Mountains west to Targuist and Ketama and then north to Chefchouen and Tétouan, which takes a full day of travel. Now there is a four-lane highway into Nador from the Fez-Oujda route, as well as a scenic two-lane highway along the coast that connects to al-Hoceima and eventually to Tétouan. The new route offers opportunities to increase tourism along Nador’s coast, a sector markedly underdeveloped in the province, though it is the lifeblood of much of the rest of Morocco. One of King Mohammed VI’s development consortia began to build a tourist complex halfway between Nador and Beni Enzar. Locals are extremely skeptical that the project — stalled after starting several years ago — will ever succeed, since the lagoon at its center is shallow and polluted. Nevertheless, the king is sinking a lot of money into the enterprise, which is a departure from past financial relations between the palace and Nador province.

“They Don’t Want to See Us Succeed”

Nador’s isolation through infrastructure planning is, for many Rifis, the physical expression of hostility to Amazigh development that permeates all state services. Abdel and Yassine, two Nadori college students attending the local branch university and the flagship university in Rabat, respectively, both had complaints about the “Arab” educational authorities. Abdel had attempted to transfer to Rabat to finish the last two years of his economics program, which the local university does not offer. The university in Rabat had refused his request, claiming he applied for the transfer too late. Abdel said, “The Arabs [meaning all non-Amazigh Moroccans, especially those on the Atlantic seaboard] don’t want us to succeed. They want to see Amazigh students stuck in the poorer universities. ‘Why don’t you apply to Germany?’ one of the administrators said to me snidely when I was applying.” Yassine was shaking his head. He added, “That won’t work either. I tried to apply for one of the Erasmus programs for foreigners to study in Europe [the program is now defunct]. Lots of Arab students were doing it. I asked them how to sign up and apply, but they wouldn’t tell me. They save the good stuff for themselves. When it comes down to it, they don’t want to see us succeed.”

Yassine related his experience defending a senior thesis on themes in songs about migration from Nador. The songs are all sung in the Rifi dialect of Tamazight, the Amazigh language. His adviser at the university in Rabat, a man who had grown up in the Rifi Amazigh city of al-Hoceima, encouraged Yassine’s project and gave him very strict instructions on how to make it politically acceptable. Yassine made only one reference that could be read as critical of Rabat in his discussion of the frustration expressed in songs about getting a passport to leave the country. Nadoris believe that officials make them pay bigger bribes, show proof of greater resources and wait longer than Arab Moroccans in order to receive a passport (which is not a right, but a privilege often dearly paid for). Other than that slight dig at Rabat, Yassine followed the instructions and produced a decent, apolitical thesis. Yet, by July, he worried he might fail because another faculty member — a more senior professor than Yassine’s adviser and an Arab — had shredded the thesis during the oral defense. Few of his complaints bore directly on the subject. Instead, the professor ridiculed Yassine for using the word “sufferance” to mean “suffering.” He was also outraged that Yassine used popular numerical substitutes in his transliterations of the Tamazight lyrics of songs. Yassine felt these criticisms were cover for objections to the concept of his research. The other students in attendance were being shown what would happen if they tried to write about Amazigh matters, especially if they made disparaging comments about the power structure centered in the “Arab” capital.

Top-Down Regionalization

The unequal relationship between the capital and the provinces — both the reality and the perception — is recognized, at least on paper, as a problem by the central government. Article 1 of the 2011 constitution describes Morocco — perhaps wistfully — as “decentralized, founded on an advanced regionalization.” This statement is more aspirational than substantial, but it does suggest that greater power sharing between the center and the provincial periphery is now a useful talking point. Mohammed VI gave a speech in 2013 in which he elaborated on the importance of shifting to a more decentralized system. “It is no longer acceptable today that central governments should have exclusive authority in defining development strategies for local communities,” he said. [1] Instead, more resources and authority should be devolved to the local level.

Since independence, the monarchy has undercut political rivals and centralized power in its own hands. The rural notables who supported the French lost much of their power after liberation, and the Istiqlal Party — one of the primary political forces in the struggle for independence — experienced a gradual erosion of its authority during the early years of the restored monarchy. King Hassan II brought the military under his control in the aftermath of the coups in 1971 and 1972. Why this shift now toward talk of power sharing with the provinces?

The most important factor is the search for a solution to the question of Western Sahara that will allow permanent Moroccan occupation. In 1975 King Hassan II occupied what was then the Spanish Sahara under the assumption that it would quickly be integrated into Morocco. Resistance by the Sahrawi population proved to be a greater obstacle than imagined and a stalemate developed. Morocco found itself fighting off UN-sponsored attempts to force an independence referendum, which Rabat feared it could not win. The conquest remains the most important financial and diplomatic problem facing the palace, though one that might be diluted by new federalist policies. Though under civilian rule, many Sahrawi residents of the three southern provinces claimed by Morocco consider themselves to be under a quasi-military occupation by a foreign power. Since 2007 Rabat has advanced a plan to begin to ameliorate the situation by devolving power to the people and institutions of the Saharan provinces under the banner of Moroccan sovereignty. [2] Some form of relative autonomy or a variety of federalism “light” might be the solution. The United States and the UN have endorsed the plan, which adds momentum to decentralization policies throughout the country — at least in theory. Is it possible that the regime’s desire to maintain and legitimize its control of Western Sahara will initiate a process of weakening its hold on other peripheral areas? It does not seem likely. Many Moroccans already resent Rabat’s targeting of the three Saharan provinces for increased public spending. Given that resentment, the idea of a movement developing to push for Sahrawi and eventually other forms of autonomy from Rabat seems far-fetched. The Moroccan regime is much more likely to continue talking such proposals to death in the hope of convincing foreign observers of its commitment to some semblance of justice for the Sahrawi people under its control.

Another important cause of the official shift toward regionalization is the birth of the February 20 movement in Morocco during the Arab uprisings of 2011. Amid the regional political ferment, Moroccan youth demonstrated for greater democratization and an end to corruption. Even after street protests subsided, the February 20 organization continued to advocate these policies and exerted enough pressure on the regime that good governance and a greater role for local elected communal councils have become part of the official definition of regionalization. “Good governance” is now understood to include an end to corruption and responsiveness to grassroots needs, thanks to the pressure on Rabat created by the uprising.

Morocco’s reputation abroad — so tarnished by the occupation of Western Sahara — is also enhanced by promoting federalist reforms. Many foreign governments and NGOs consider decentralization to be synonymous with democratization. It is not necessarily so, especially in Morocco, where power at the most local level is completely in the hands of the Interior Ministry through a top-down system of appointments and patronage relationships. Provincial governors, appointed by Rabat, appoint qaids under them, who appoint sheikhs under them, who appoint muqqadims who are familiar with every household in their respective neighborhood jurisdictions. Giving more legal and budgetary discretion to elected communal councils will not necessarily develop a parallel, though bottom-up, power structure that can rival Rabat’s. For one thing, qaids are usually involved in running the councils in at least an advisory capacity, and often more intimately. Still, if international agencies believe that advocating for decentralization is an endorsement of democratization, then Rabat is happy to oblige.

On the other hand, a very real attraction of decentralization for the monarchy may be that it lessens the state’s responsibility to deliver social services, to control pollution, upgrade infrastructure and so forth. By distributing power over these expenses from the central government to the provinces, Rabat can pass the buck. It can decentralize blame. Responsibility then falls on the shoulders of local officials—who may be without greater budgets to meet such responsibilities.

Perceptions of Change

Amazigh Nadoris, young and old, agreed that their province was being denied its fair share, and that this discrimination was due to anti-Amazigh sentiment among the ruling Arab elite in Rabat. But when asked if the situation was improving, responses were mixed. The older generation for the most part thought it was. Young people thought the inequalities persisted. Those with a longer view who had lived through the harsh regime of Hassan II (1961–1999) compared the new king, Mohammed VI, favorably to his father. The new king established a university branch to serve Nador province and spends a bit of time every year in Nador; his father had quietly supported rural illiteracy and never set foot in the city. The new king has been investing heavily in the infrastructure and tourist industry of the province; his father had called the Rifis “scoundrels.” Under Mohammed VI, the regime has also eased the official suppression of Amazigh language and culture. Children can legally be given Amazigh names, Tamazight television programming is expanding and the language is being taught in Amazigh schools. The king also established the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) in Rabat for the promotion of all things Amazigh. Even the street signs of Nador are now trilingual in Tamazight, Arabic and French.

Young students interpreted these developments differently. They believe the purpose of the new regional university was to keep quick-tempered Amazigh students out of the main universities where they would have access to better resources and be harder to control. When students demonstrate and go on strike at regional universities, their repression is not necessarily national news. The students pointed out that, after the king’s grand daytime entrances with the obligatory procession down main streets lined with a cheering throng of students and bureaucrats let out of school and work for the occasion, he slinks back to the capital in his helicopter late at night. As for the fairly recent investments in infrastructure, that is undeniable. But that was after 30 or 40 years of Rifi migrants in Europe pouring millions into state coffers with little in return. According to young critics, the damage done to Nador’s long-term development by the years of economic malnourishment was impossible to calculate. Rabat’s attempts to recognize and legitimize Amazigh culture and language were also met with student disdain. Only about 10 percent of the street signs are trilingual, and almost no one knows how to read the Tifinagh script chosen to transliterate Tamazight, since its teaching is so new and not widespread. In Nador, Tamazight instruction is done mainly in a private school that has a government contract to provide lessons to Arabic-speaking junior bureaucrats let out of work an hour per week to attend classes. Some wealthier Nadoris or those with influential positions in the government can get away with giving their children Amazigh names, but the rural and urban poor run into opposition from the Arabic-speaking officials who work with the registry. The problem with Amazigh television is that IRCAM developed a trans-dialect Tamazight to be spoken on programs, a version which Rifis cannot understand. Nadoris claim that the majority of the words come from the Tashilhit dialect of southern Morocco, due to the historic dominance of southern Amazigh intellectuals in the Atlantic cities. One student said that even his cousin in Rabat, an announcer on one of the new programs, does not understand most of what she is given to say.

There can be little argument that center-periphery asymmetries and the regionalism and decentralization policies meant to correct them are central subjects of concern in Moroccan circles of power. Whether the concerns extend beyond the realm of official pronouncements into actual budgetary redistribution is harder to determine. The call for decentralization began over eight years ago, yet there is little to show for it outside of massive investments in the Saharan provinces. As for empowering local elected communal councils, most Moroccans would agree that nothing concrete has been done along those lines. The campaign to clean up corruption has made some progress: The publicity that now attends revelations of blatant acts of humiliation, injustice and violence practiced by the powerful suggests that the authorities want to curb at least the most grievous abuses. What about the discrimination practiced by the Arab elite against the Amazigh citizens of the provinces? Separating perception from reality is difficult in this case. The regime — thanks to pressure from growing Amazigh activism throughout Morocco — has made concrete gestures toward legitimating Amazigh culture and the Tamazight language. At the same time, sensitivity to continued forms of ethnic discrimination grows more acute on the part of the Amazigh population.

The need to pacify demands for greater autonomy of the Saharan population and to deflect the blame for high unemployment and poor infrastructure to lower-level authorities may ultimately lead to greater decentralization across the country. It is difficult to imagine, however, that a system in which all revenues flow into the capital and are then distributed according to the priorities and prerogatives of the center will ever give up real control of resources voluntarily.


[1] Jean AbiNader, “Regionalization in Morocco,” The Fair Observer, October 26, 2013.
[2] Yossef Ben-Meir, “Morocco’s Regionalization Roadmap and the Western Sahara,” Mediterranean Quarterly 21/4 (2010).

How to cite this article:

David McMurray "Center-Periphery Relations in Morocco," Middle East Report 272 (Fall 2014).

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