Kingdom of Morocco

POPULATION: 33.92 million (2014)

AREA: 178,620 sq. mi. (446,550 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: Arabic (official); French, Berber dialects

NATIONAL CURRENCY: Dirham

PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Muslim 98.7%, Christian 1.1%, Jewish 0.2%

CITIES: Rabat (capital), 1,496,000 (2000 est.); Casablanca, Marrakech, Fez, Oujda

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies from about 32 in. (800 mm) to less than 8 in. (200 mm) in the northern coastal lowlands, and 30–80 in. (760–2,030 mm) in the southern mountain regions

ECONOMY: GDP $107.0 billion (2014)

PRINCIPAL PRODUCTS AND EXPORTS:

  • Agricultural: grain, citrus, wine grapes, olives, fish
  • Manufacturing: food and beverages processing, textiles, leather goods
  • Mining: phosphates, iron ore, manganese, lead, zinc

GOVERNMENT: Independence from France, 1952. Constitutional hereditary monarchy. Governing bodies: elected legislative body consisting of Chamber of Councilors and Chamber of Representatives, and Council of Ministers and prime minister appointed by the monarch.

HEADS OF STATE SINCE INDEPENDENCE:

  • 1952–1961 Sultan Muhammad V (adopted title of king in 1957)
  • 1961– King (Moulay) Hassan II
  • 1999– King Muhammad VI

ARMED FORCES: 196,300

EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 7–13; literacy rate 44%

Kingdom of Morocco map

Morocco lies at the northwest corner of Africa, on the southern side of the Strait of Gibraltar. On a clear day, it can be seen from the Spanish coast, a mere nine miles away. At the crossroads between Africa and Europe, Morocco has always been a melting pot of people and ideas, a country influenced by many cultures.

THE LAND

Geographically, Morocco is divided into three major regions: the ATLAS MOUNTAINS, which run diagonally across the country; the Atlantic coastal plains (northwest of the mountains); and the SAHARA DESERT (southeast of the mountains). Four ranges make up the Atlas Mountains: the Rif, along the Mediterranean coast; the Middle Atlas, south of the city of Fez; the High Atlas; and the Anti-Atlas, which runs southwest to the sea. Beginning as small hills at the edge of the Atlantic, the Atlas Mountains rise rapidly and reach 13,665 feet at Mount Toubkal. With an average elevation of 2,600 feet, most of Morocco lies at high altitudes.

Morocco’s landscape, climate, and economy are affected by its geography. Northern Morocco, especially along the coast, enjoys a Mediterranean climate—mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. The annual rainfall ranges from 8 to 32 inches in the northern coastal plains and from 30 to 80 inches in the mountain regions. Devastating floods sometimes occur during the rainy season.

The Sebou River basin, a vast plain between Fez and the capital city of Rabat, is heavily populated and includes the fertile Gharb (or Rharb) Plain. South of the Sebou basin, the country rises gradually to a number of less populated, but agriculturally important, plains. The major city of the high plains is Marrakech, an oasis nourished by water from the Atlas Mountain springs. Between the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas ranges is the Sous Valley, where many of Morocco’s political movements have begun. The southern regions of Morocco depend on the water from several streams that flow down the eastern slopes of the Atlas Mountains into the Sahara. These streams form the Dadès, Ziz, and Dra’a Rivers. Farmers in the region use complicated irrigation systems to carry water from the streams to their fields.

HISTORY AND POLITICS

BERBER peoples from the Sahara and Southwest Asia arrived in Morocco between 4000 and 2000 B.C. The earliest reports of the region and its people come from ancient Greek and Phoenician records. The Phoenicians, who originated in the eastern Mediterranean, founded the first Moroccan towns on the southern side of the Strait of Gibraltar. By A.D. 100, Rome had annexed most of North Africa.

Arab Rule

North Africa was invaded by Arabs in the 600s and loosely incorporated into the Islamic world by the early 700s. A large Arab army passed through Morocco to conquer the Iberian Peninsula, but Arab interest in Morocco remained slight until 789. In that year Idris I, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, established a small independent state in the region. In 809, his son, Idris II, moved the capital to the newly established city of Fez. The Idrisid dynasty transformed Morocco into an Islamic, Arabic-speaking society. The Idrisids were succeeded by several other dynasties: the Almoravids and Almohads (from the 1000s to the 1200s), the Merinids (from the 1200s to the 1400s), the Sa’adis (in the 1500s), and the Alawids (from the 1600s to the present).

During these centuries, Morocco was divided into many principalities, or emirates. The most important of these was the Merinid emirate of Fez. The emirates struggled constantly to keep the indigenous peoples under control and to defend Moroccan ports against Portuguese and Spanish invaders. In 1664 the Alawids seized power and began a vigorous program of modernizing the country. Opposition from rural peoples, however, led to the downfall of this program. Morocco fell into political decline, which lasted until 1912, when most of the country became a French protectorate.

European Colonization

Europe’s interest in Morocco began in the late 1800s. By 1900 the French had begun building a commercial port in the fishing village of Casablanca. A treaty between France and Spain divided the country into two protectorates, with the Spanish controlling the northern part of the country. The rest of Morocco, governed by the French, was effectively a colony. Large numbers of Europeans settled in the most fertile regions of the country. Both France and Spain spent much time and money putting down rebellions among the Berbers of the Rif and Atlas Mountains, who objected to European rule.

Independence

After World War I, French forces began a campaign to end the Berber rebellion. In 1934 they finally brought the rebels under control. About ten years later, members of a Moroccan nationalist movement founded the Istiqlal (Independence) party with the support of Sultan MUHAMMAD V (later King Muhammad). After World War II, Istiqlal began to demand independence, which France granted in March 1956. An agreement between Morocco and Spain a month later ended the Spanish protectorate. The following year Muhammad changed the Sultanate of Morocco to the Kingdom of Morocco. European settlers were forced to leave the country, and a new era in Moroccan history began.

In 1959 Istiqlal split into two parts—a larger group representing the older, more traditional members, and a smaller group representing younger members who favored socialism. King Muhammad ruled until 1961, when his son, HASSAN II, came to power. The following year, Morocco became a constitutional monarchy.

The governments of Muhammad V and Hassan II introduced modest and cautious modernization programs to the country. Clashes developed between the new urban population and the traditional leaders over issues such as providing funds for basic food products and introducing democracy. During the early years of King Hassan’s reign, his inexperience led to some serious mistakes and two coup attempts. Officials linked these threats to Berbers in the military, who were subsequently removed.

In the mid-1970s, King Hassan sought to gain control of Spanish Sahara (now WESTERN SAHARA). The large Spanish colony lay south of Morocco along the Atlantic Coast. It was mostly desert but contained valuable deposits of phosphates. Spain eventually withdrew its claim to the region, but a Saharan independence movement, known as Polisario, declared its opposition to Moroccan rule. In the 1990s negotiations about holding an election on the question of independence stalled, leaving the fate of the Western Sahara unresolved.

By the early 1980s, poor harvests and a sluggish economy had drained Morocco’s resources, causing riots in Casablanca. In recent years, international lending agencies and human rights organizations have pressed the nation for political and economic reform.

Unlike most of its Arab neighbors, Morocco has generally sided with the West rather than with the former Soviet Union and its allies. King Hassan helped pave the way for the Camp David Accords (1978) between Israel and Egypt and continued to press both Israelis and Palestinians to seek a peaceful resolution of their disagreements. By the end of the 1990s, King Hassan was the longest-reigning monarch in the Arab world. He introduced various democratic reforms to Moroccan politics but at the same time kept a firm hold on the government and the legislative process. In his role as the religious head of state, he gained widespread support among the urban poor and rural people. Remembered for his political savvy and appealing personality, Hassan was succeeded by his son, Muhammad VI, in 1999.

ECONOMY

With about 33,000 square miles of good farmland and a generally temperate climate, Morocco has better conditions for agriculture than most African countries. About 40 percent of the people are engaged in farming. Agricultural activities account for nearly 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Moroccan farms produce grains and meats for domestic use and fruits and vegetables for export. The production of commercial crops, such as cotton, sugarcane, and sunflower seed, is expanding. Nevertheless, the danger of drought is constant—generally occurring every third year and devastating crops.

Manufacturing in Morocco consists mainly of the production of phosphates, which are used in fertilizers. When Morocco acquired the Western Sahara, it also gained about two-thirds of the world’s phosphate reserves. Higher fuel costs and decreased demand for phosphates, however, have reduced export earnings.

The waters off Morocco’s west coast contain abundant supplies of fish. Because the country lacks modern fleets and processing plants, however, it is unable to benefit from the rich fishing grounds. A trade agreement between Morocco and the European Union allows Spain to fish in Moroccan waters, for an annual fee.

Morocco’s sandy beaches, comfortable climate, and cultural heritage account for its appeal to tourists. Tourism has grown rapidly, providing jobs and a source of hard currency.

A well-maintained network of roads links the regions of Morocco. Built during the colonial period, the roads have been gradually expanded since that time. In addition, railroads connect the major cities of the north to the Western Sahara. Morocco has more than 20 ports along its coastline.

The government spends about 20 percent of its budget on education, mostly to build schools. The country also has many clinics and other medical facilities, although the rural population has little access to health care. Infant mortality remains high and about one-third of the population is malnourished.

PEOPLE AND CULTURE

The people of Morocco live mainly in cities. They are mostly Berber and Arab in origin, and centuries of intermarriage between the two groups have erased most of their cultural differences.

The main distinguishing feature that remains between ethnic groups is linguistic. Berber-speaking Moroccans are divided into three groups: the Riffi of the Rif Mountains, the Tamazight of the Middle Atlas, and the Shluh of the High Atlas and Sous Valley. The remainder of Moroccans speak Arabic, the national language, with French as a second language used in commerce, education, and government. Radio broadcasts can be heard in Arabic, French, Berber, Spanish, and English.

Newspapers are written in both Arabic and French. Despite a recent boost in Berber culture, Berber languages remain largely unwritten. Islam is the state religion and most Moroccans belong to the Sunni tradition. King Hassan II, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, was the symbol of Islam throughout his long reign. Hassan was also responsible for expanding Morocco’s territory. Beginning in 1975, he extended the country’s borders by moving to the south and incorporating territories that were formerly part of the Spanish colonial empire. This included land held by the Sahawari Arab Democratic Republic, which at the time claimed independence. In 1993 he constructed the world’s largest mosque in Casablanca. Morocco also has a small Jewish community. (See also Arabs in Africa, Colonialism in Africa, Independence Movements, Islam in Africa, North Africa: Geography and Population, North Africa: History and Cultures.)