Moroccan authorities frequently portray the city of Tangier, part of the country’s historically neglected north, as an economic success. However, the city’s economic resurgence raises questions about the future of Morocco’s development strategy which is part of a broader decentralization scheme. Termed “advanced regionalization”, the program has yet to translate into the genuine transmission of power at the local and regional levels.  

These days, Tangier’s economic revival provides a source of unbridled official optimism. In the past decade, and with the King’s support, the state has provided an encouraging setting in which large-scale economic initiatives were launched such as the “Tanger-Med” industrial port and the ambitious “Tanger-Metropole” urban refitting program. The “Tanger-Med” project, announced in 2002 and opened in 2007, is an industrial port and facility aiming to connect the city with Mediterranean trading partners. The port has attracted major foreign companies including Renault, Dassault, and Bombardier. Its passenger terminal is now connected to the national rail network and to Spain by boat. In 2015, it was reported to be the 16th most connected port in the world and climbing. In 2013, the authorities also announced an ambitious urban refitting program called “Tanger Metropole”, tripling the city’s budget to 7.67 billion Dirhams (752.7 million USD) for the next four years.

Since then, Tangier has seen a spectacular urban transformation in a short span of time. The corniche, or sea front, which used to be infamous for its seedy cabarets and rowdy young men harassing women, has been impressively refurbished to accommodate families and their evening strolls on a large and well-lit esplanade. New underground parking and tunnels have relieved Tangier’s legendary traffic jams. The newly launched City Mall, built by Spanish building company Inveravante, contains foreign brands, fast food chains, a modern cinema, and is linked to a Hilton hotel, similar to those found in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Finally, the authorities have transformed the medina, or old town, to attract western tourists thirsty for a different experience than the overcrowded and tackier Marrakesh.

However, a closer look at this development paints a mixed picture. For World Bank expert Joe Kulenovic, Tangier’s job creation growth has been three times higher than the rest of Morocco between 2005 and 2012, mostly because of the new port. Meanwhile, Moroccan academic Zoubir Chattou found that economic growth has benefited a mobile workforce of expatriates or Moroccans from other regions instead (especially for the high-skilled and high-paying occupations). The port, which is located in a semi-rural area 30 kilometers from the city, has also had little positive impact on the rural areas surrounding Tangier. Academics Sabine Planel and Pierre-Arnaud Barthel connect these types of “prestige-projects” to foreign capital. These projects have been largely designed by foreign firms and undermine the state’s commitment to pursue “participative, integrated and sustainable” projects. Moreover, the upper scale shops and restaurants that emerge are only accessible to the upper middle class or international tourists, and create a sense of urban dislocation and frustration. 

At the local level, these new projects change the inhabitants’ relationship with the city, notably by widening urban disparities. In the past years, the city’s population has grown to nearly one million inhabitants. This has put pressure on the city’s public infrastructure and stimulated the mushrooming of housing construction in Tangier’s suburbs. Addoha Group, the prominent Moroccan real estate developer leads the way with nine construction sites, especially in the social housing range which constitutes 4,400 new units out of 10,000 each year. This construction frenzy relies on an overly optimistic expectation that Tangier’s economic revival will continue, and that the city’s middle class will exit the city—a city that is increasingly professionalized—toward the suburbs. The move to the suburbs has slowed, especially in light of reports of poor housing quality and limited access to infrastructure and public services.

This drive has also revived long-standing frustrations in Tangier’s working class neighborhoods that complain about official neglect and continued isolation. The Beni Makada neighborhood is the most famous for its high population density, poverty, high unemployment, and more recently as the home of a number of ISIS recruits currently fighting in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The neighborhood’s inhabitants, who took part in the 2011 protest movement, protested again in 2015 against Amendis, a French company that distributes water and electricity in the area, over poor quality of services and large price increases. Beni Makada inhabitants, dubbed a “time-bomb,” resort to protests as they continually lack alternative mechanisms for participation.

The city’s inhabitants including those in Beni Makada demanded better governance, greater access to economic opportunities, and the improved provision of public services at the local level. In an October 2015 response, authorities announced from the Beni Makada neighborhood an appeasing gesture under the King’s order: a series of transport, health, and education initiatives.   

The manner in which these initiatives were announced and implemented highlights the ad-hock practice of decentralization and economic and social development.  In theory, the local agency, the Agence pour la promotion et le développement du Nord (APDN), is responsible for the city’s economic development, but the agency is often sidestepped. Instead, greater action is taken by the Initiative Nationale pour le Développement Humain (INDH) which was established in 2005 to provide a safety net against rural and urban poverty and to promote cooperation between state and civil society actors. In practice, as development academic researcher Sylvia Bergh argues, INDH has mostly reinforced local clientelism instead of improving public services across the country. Since 2010, there has been no assessment or public scrutiny of INDH’s impact in Tangier, which is indicative of the extent to which the country’s social development initiatives remain concentrated in the capital.

Tangier and the north’s development approach remains dependent on interventions from Rabat calling into question the entire premise of the “advanced regionalization” plan. These interventions are often justified by public opinion as “more efficient”, but they bypass local institutions and actors altogether. The Council for Economic and Social Studies (CESE) has found widespread “disenchantment” on the part of local actors and a frustration at ongoing centralizing tendencies which hinder effective regionalization. Local political agency in Tangier and elsewhere in Morocco remains drastically low: despite the September 2015 election of a local-minded candidate as the city’s mayor, the Islamist Mohamed Bachir Abdellaoui, his initiatives have yet to deliver in contrast to the Tanger-Med’s continued expansion. This perpetuates the sense that Tangier’s resurgence is mostly carried out elsewhere and by others. Nonetheless, a truly supported advanced regionalization remains a solid and workable platform that can address the country’s challenges going forward.

Idriss Jebari is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Arab Council for Social Sciences working on social and cultural change in North Africa.