Morocco

GEOGRAPHY

morMorocco (Arabic name pronunciation: almagrib) borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea on the southern edge of the Strait of Gibraltar. The country is located between Algeria and the Western Sahara on the northwestern coast of Africa. Morocco has a total land area of 446,550 sq km (172,413 sq miles), an area slightly larger than the state of California. Morocco as a Mediterranean climate that becomes hotter further inland, toward the Sahara Desert. Winters along the coast are generally mild, although temperatures can reach the low 10s C (40s F). Summers are usually hot and humid in the capital city of Rabat, with temperatures regularly approaching 40 C (100 F). Temperatures are typically much cooler in the Atlas Mountains and warmer toward the Western Sahara and the Sahara Desert. Much of the country is mountainous along the coast and further inland there are plateaus and mountain valleys which gradually become the Sahara Desert. Due to the extremes of mountainous land and desert, only about 17% of Morocco’s land is arable.

Morocco currently faces several environmental problems. Overgrazing, soil erosion, and unsustainable farming techniques have contributed to the process of desertification which threatens to remove much of Morocco’s arable land. Drinking water has also been limited by pollution from improperly managed sewage and oil spills along the coast. In response, the National Office of Potable Water (ONEP) has conducted several feasibility studies to select the best equipment which can be used to treat incoming water and prevent further contamination. This office has also begun looking into seawater desalination facilities to compliment this effort. In 2010, Morocco also announced the implementation of a National Charter for Environmental and Sustainable Development, the first African nation to do so. The Charter outlined a blueprint to convert at least half of Morocco’s energy production to sustainable sources by 2020.

Geography Resources

HISTORY & GOVERNMENT

Morocco’s location at the entrance to the Mediterranean has made the land country critically important throughout the history of North Africa and southern Europe. The seafaring Phoenicians expanded their influence and trade networks to the western end of the Mediterranean by the 12th century BCE. This development brought the indigenous Berber population of Morocco into greater contact with the larger Mediterranean cultural network. The Phoenicians established a few small outposts at Chellah, Lixus, and Mogador across modern-day Morocco. By the 5th century BCE, the Carthaginian Empire, centered in modern day Tunisia, had taken control of the coastal regions of much of North Africa including Morocco. Following the fall of the Carthaginian Empire, the Romans annexed the territory in 40 CE and maintained nominal control over the coast until 429, when it was lost to the Germanic Vandal tribe.

The conquest of the region by the Arabs in the 7th century began the conversion of the indigenous Berber people (self-identified as Amazigh, the free people) to Islam. The Islamic Empire appointed governors for its conquered territories throughout the Middle East, and the Amazigh populations in Morocco faced high taxes and tribute demands as a result. The people grew increasingly frustrated with this treatment and launched a revolt in 740. The revolt successfully expelled the Arab leaders, but the region unraveled into a series of small, independent Berber states. In the 900s, the Shia Fatimid dynasty rose to power in North Africa and successfully invaded Morocco, but quickly abandoned its hold on the western end of the Mediterranean to establish a new capital in Cairo, Egypt. The Amazigh once again regained control of the land and established strong dynasties including the Almoravids, Almohads, Marinids, and Wattasids, that commanded the area until the 1550s.

Unlike most countries in the Middle East, Morocco never came under the direct control of the Ottoman Turks. The Moroccans and Ottomans jointly expelled a Portuguese occupying force in 1578 at the Battle of Ksar El-Kebir, and Ahmad al-Mansur became the Sultan of the Arab Saadi dynasty which had established its dominance in 1549. Ahmad al-Mansur brought unprecedented prosperity to the region, but his dynasty was divided among his sons following his death in 1603. In 1669, Moulay al-Rashid overthrew the last Saadi ruler in Morocco and united the country by founding the Arab Alaouite dynasty, which remains the current dynasty of the Kingdom of Morocco. In the mid-1800s, Morocco became increasingly influenced by European powers, specifically the French and Spanish. Neighboring Algeria became an official province of France in 1848, and small-scale battles with Spain in 1859 further weakened the ability of Morocco to resist European encroachment.

Morocco’s independence was guaranteed during the Conference of Madrid in 1880, but the French and Spanish continued to sway Morocco’s politics in their favor. In the early 1900s, France attempted to create a protectorate status with Morocco, while Germany sought to increase its economic interests in the region. Germany and France engaged in a heated diplomatic battle over the status of Morocco, and the result was the Algeciras Conference of 1906. The conference allowed for joint control over Morocco between France and Spain. The Treaty of Fez in 1912 further established the country as a protectorate of France, and gave the Spanish control over much of the northern coastline along the Strait of Gibraltar.

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Though the Alaouite dynasty continued as the official rulers of the country, joint French and Spanish administration would endure with considerable difficulties until 1956. One such problem occurred in September 1921 when a separatist group in Spanish Morocco led by Abd el-Krim declared its independence from the Spanish and the Sultan, establishing the Republic of the Rif. The Spanish and French spent several years in violent conflict with the Rif separatists and finally put down the rebellion in May 1926. Moroccans then became increasingly nationalistic during the interwar years, especially following Moroccan support for the Allied victory in World War II. When France exiled the popular Sultan Mohammad V from Morocco in 1953, waves of protests broke out in Morocco and put significant pressure on France and Spain to end their involvement in the country.

Mohammed V and supporters of Moroccan independence negotiated with the French and Spanish through 1955, and ultimately agreed upon a deal which would restore Mohammed V to the throne and expel the two European powers from the majority of Moroccan territory. Following acceptance of the French-Moroccan Agreement, France relinquished its protectorate status from Morocco in April 1956 and Spain began retreating from the country following similar agreements in 1956 and 1958. Despite these gains for Morocco, the Spanish did not relinquish control of the cities of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco, and continue to administer these cities as a part of Spain today.

Mohammad V was declared king of the newly independent Morocco in 1957 and continued to rule the country until his death in 1961, establishing the country as a constitutional monarchy. He was succeeded by his son Hassan II, whose rule faced significant unpopularity and unrest due to allegations of corruption and repression of dissent.

One of the most significant events of Hassan II’s reign was a conflict involving the territory to the south of Morocco known then as Spanish Sahara. Morocco had claimed the region for centuries, but it remained part of a Spanish protectorate after Moroccan independence. In 1975, the United Nations determined through a national referendum that the vast majority of the Saharan people desired independence, and Spain met with representatives from Morocco, Mauritania and the Algerian-supported Saharan independence movement known as the Polisario Front. Spain ceded the northern area of what would be called Western Sahara to Morocco, and gave the southern third of the country to Mauritania in 1976. This decision fractured the Polisario as some leaders supported Moroccan control of the region, while the remaining Polisario members dissented and quickly declared the region to be the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The Polisario battled both Mauritania and Morocco until Mauritania relinquished its claim to the southern region of the Western Sahara in 1979. Morocco then annexed the entire Western Sahara and a cease-fire between the Polisario and Morocco went into effect in 1991. Morocco continues to administer the Western Sahara and negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario have stalled while the dispute remains unresolved.

When Hassan II died in 1999, his son Mohammad VI became king of Morocco. In the past decade, he has helped reform the government and has improved the country’s record on human rights. One of the more recent issues facing the government is the growing threat of terrorism from Islamic extremists and groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Several bombings in Casablanca in 2003 and 2007 have been blamed on extremists, and two Moroccan men were arrested in connection with the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Morocco also underwent mild political unrest associated with the Arab Spring movement in 2011 as protesters demanded restrictions on the power of the king. In response, Mohammed VI announced the creation of a new constitution which was passed by a referendum vote in July 2011. The constitution shifted some of the powers of the king such as the appointment of government officials to the appointed prime minister and executive branch.

Today, Moroccan government is a constitutional monarchy with a multi-party parliament consisting of two elected legislative bodies, the Assembly of Representatives and the Assembly of Councilors. Morocco’s current prime minister is Abdelilah Benkirane and he serves as the head of government. The king still holds considerable power in the country and has the ability to appoint or remove the prime minister. He also appoints judges to the country’s Supreme Court, the highest judicial body in Morocco.

History & Government Resources

INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES

Morocco currently claims and administers the Western Sahara, whose sovereignty remains unresolved, resulting in a large refugee population. The Polisario Front continues to claim the region as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and is still supported by Algeria with its headquarters in Tindouf, Algeria. Many nations reject Moroccan administration of the Western Sahara and 41 nations including Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Mexico and Venezuela recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, represented by the Polisario. Most of the 102,000 Sahrawi refugees are sheltered in camps in Tindouf, Algeria; the Polisario administers these camps.

Morocco protests Spain’s control over the northern coastal enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, though this dispute has remained subordinate to the otherwise strong relationship between Morocco and Spain. Algeria’s border with Morocco remains a problem for bilateral relations, as each nation accuses the other of harboring militants and fostering complacency towards arms smuggling. Algeria closed its border with Morocco following the outbreak of the Algerian civil war in 1994 and the border has since remained closed. Nevertheless, Morocco and Algeria have maintained diplomatic relations since resolving some of their issues over the status of the Western Sahara in 1988.

With a high unemployment rate of 10%, nearly 20% for those under 24, and high poverty rates particularly in rural areas, Morocco, like other countries in the Middle East, has a large and under-served youth population. That, coupled with its proximity to war-torn Libya, where the emergence of the Islamic State in North Africa has bred further chaos, could portend future threats to Morocco’s relative stability. The country has been affected by intermittent terrorist attacks; Casablanca was bombed in 2003 while Djema El Fna square in Marrakesh was heavily damaged in 2011.

International & Regional Issues Resources

PEOPLE & LANGUAGE

tamazigh text
An Example of Tamazight Language Writing

Throughout history, different ethnic groups have inhabited Morocco. These include the indigenous Amazigh population (popularly referred to as Berbers), Arabs, Romans, Portuguese, Spaniards, Turks, Phoenicians, and the French. Nearly the entirely population (99%) is a mix of either Arab or Berber ethnic groups. Morocco’s estimated population is 33,322,699 as of 2015, and is growing at a rate of about 1.04% each year. The average life expectancy is 74 years for men and 80 for women. Arabic and Tamazight (a dialect of Berber) are the official languages of Morocco; French is often used in business, government, and diplomatic settings. English is also a popular language in schools and among young populations.

Average Life Expectancy (Men)

Average Life Expectancy (Women)

Despite reforms in education in 2004 such as the National Literacy and Non-formal Education Strategy, the quality of education in Morocco is lacking according to the Human Development Index (HDI). This index measures life expectancy, education and income for the United Nations Development Program and Morocco is ranked 129 of 186. The literacy rate in Morocco is 79% for men and 59% for women. The Moroccan government has been working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to improve its educational system.

Education in Morocco is divided into primary and secondary stages.  Primary school is free and compulsory for nine years from the ages of 7 to 15. The compulsory requirement is often not enforceable in remote areas of the Atlas Mountains, but the completion rate of primary school has risen to 80% in 2005 from 47% in 1991, according to data from UNESCO. Secondary school is also free, but not compulsory, and lasts for an additional three years following primary school. Higher education, also known as the tertiary level, can be pursued at any of Morocco’s 14 public universities and many other private universities, vocational schools, and technical schools. Among the most distinguished universities are the Mohammed V University in Rabat, the American-style university Al-Akhawayn in Ifrane, and the University of Al Karaouine in Fez, considered by UNESCO to be the oldest continuously operating university in the world.

Healthcare in Morocco suffers from dated practices and equipment, as well as limited accessibility. In more remote areas in the Atlas Mountains, access to medical facilities is extremely poor. According to Health Ministry figures from other North African countries, Morocco has one doctor per 1,600 inhabitants, compared with one for every 800 people in Tunisia and one for every 600 in Algeria. Nearly a third of Moroccans also have little or no access to proper sanitation, putting them at risk of illnesses such as gastrointestinal infections, typhoid, malaria, and trachoma. Tuberculosis also remains widespread, with 26,000 cases reported in 2015 by the World Health Organization (WHO). The Moroccan Ministry of Health is working with the WHO to implement a universal healthcare system, as currently only about half of the population can afford either private or public insurance.

People & Language Resources

RELIGION

The Moroccan constitution proclaims Islam as the state religion and it is practiced by 99% of Moroccans. Almost all Muslims in Morocco follow the Sunni branch of Islam and King Mohammed VI claims to be a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammad.  About 1% of the population practices Christianity, which expanded first under Roman rule and again during Spanish and French colonization. The CIA World FactBook also estimates that the country has about 6,000 Jews who are predominantly descendants of those who migrated to the region following the destruction of the Second Jewish temple in the Roman province of Palestine in 70 CE. Jewish quarters, known as Mellah, once thrived in numerous cities but the majority of Morocco’s Jews have emigrated to Israel. Moroccans are free to practice any religion they choose, although it is illegal for Muslims to renounce Islam or for anyone to proselytize religions other than Islam.

Religion Resources

CULTURE

Moroccan culture is influenced by Arab, Islamic, African, Berber and European traditions. Its mix of Sufi-like spirituality, more relaxed and open Maliki school of Islam, African and Berber legacies, and European style of administration is unlike any other country. Beginning in the 1940s, Paul Bowles and other Beat artists like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were drawn to the country for its heterogeneous and underground culture. These writers brought attention to the country through their literary works and collaborations with Moroccan artists. Port city, Tangier, was a particularly popular destination. As a result, one can find a surplus of literature and musical production on the country.

The standard article of clothing in Morocco for both men and women is known as the djellaba. Men wear this loose-fitting robe in muted colors of brown, gray, and green. The djellaba has long sleeves and a hood. Men may be seen wearing the small red cap known as a tarboosh, or fez, on special occasions but more often adorn the kufi skullcap. Brimless hats are common in the region as they are less likely than brimmed hats to interfere with the bowing associated with daily prayers. Women often wear their own version of the djellaba. These are typically more colorful and decorative than their male counterparts, and sometimes feature silk thread and gold embroidery. Women also occasionally wear a haik, a cloak of fine white cloth worn around the head and body. The haik is often found in rural areas away from the metropolitan lifestyle of the city.

MoroccoOldTimers
Moroccan cuisine is quite distinct from typical Levantine Middle Eastern food like hummus, falafel, or shwarma. A large variety of spices from the Mediterranean region are used such as cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, and coriander in Moroccan dishes. Couscous is a traditional Moroccan Berber dish featuring tiny balls of pasta served with stewed meat, vegetables and a flavorful broth. Chicken, lamb, and seafood dishes featuring kabobs are also popular. In Morocco, these are referred to as kefta or brochettes; sausages are also common.

The Moroccan national dish is called tagine, named for the large clay pot in which it is cooked. TaginepotThe dish is a spiced stew which includes vegetables and beef, lamb, or chicken. A common tagine is one made with preserved lemons and green olives. Moroccan flat bread is served with almost every meal and often is used to scoop food in place of utensils. Morocco is known for its pastries but at homes, families generally eat fresh fruits, like citrus and melons, for dessert.

Moroccan mint tea is the most ubiquitous beverage throughout the country. Using Chinese gunpowder tea, fresh spearmint, and copious amounts of sugar, the drink is boiled several times to maximize the flavors. It is served at every occasion. Morocco’s location in Africa, adjacent to Europe, and on many trade routes from the east, meant that its culture and cuisine reflect a fascinating amalgamation that its people have perfected over time into unmistakably Moroccan traditions.

Culture Resources

Art

Morocco has a rich history of artistic expression. Colorful artistic patters adorn the walls of mosques and shops throughout the country and often utilize repetitions of simple shapes and designs to form complex mosaics. One such design is known as zillij. Zillij is an Islamic tile artwork that was designed to inspire meditation while adhering to Islamic restrictions on visual depictions of representational art. Artists chisel a single colored tile into a precise shape and then replicate this process hundreds of times to create intricate patterns and tessellations. Carpet weaving is also a popular form of art in Morocco and an important source of income for some families. Traditional Berber carpets are often woven together from camel hair or sheep wool and use saffron, mint or pomegranate to add vibrant colors to the yarn. Designs depict daily life but may also feature local tribal motifs. Travelers can often buy these colorful woven carpets and prayer rugs in souks (marketplaces), which are a common site in Moroccan cities. The process of selecting a carpet and negotiating its price with the carpet sellers is an art form in and of itself.

The country is also home to several museums which feature displays of historical relics and artwork from leading Moroccan artists. The Museum of Antiquities, located in Tangier, once served as the kitchen for the Sultan’s palace and today houses numerous artifacts from the time of the Romans. One such artifact is a model of a Carthaginian tomb in one of the museum’s main rooms. The Marrakech Museum also features architecture and mosaics from all periods of Moroccan history. These exhibits occupy the Dar Menebhi Palace, which was built in the 19th century and was converted into a museum in 1997. The interior walls of the palace are lavishly decorated with mosaics and works of Islamic calligraphy and the site is known as the “jewel of Marrakech.”

Buttressing Morocco’s reputation as a source of creativity and artistic production, the city of Asilah, on the northwest coast, invites Moroccan and international artists to decorate its white walls each year with bright and elaborate murals. The annual festival attracts visitors from around the world and has gained significant interest in contemporary arts media and communities.

Art Resources

Sites

Morocco is home to many popular sites which highlight the diverse history and geography of the region. These vary from religious sites to natural landscapes and architectural wonders. Mausoleums of venerated religious and national leaders are common destinations in Morocco. One such site is the Mausoleum of Mohammad V, completed in 1971, in the capital city of Rabat. This is the final resting place for King Mohammed V and his sons. It features ornate marble carvings of Islamic calligraphy and zillij tile mosaics. The mausoleum was constructed on the site of an unfinished mosque and some relics, like the unfinished Hassan minaret, still adorn the scenery around the mausoleum.

One of the most exquisite displays of natural beauty is the Menara Gardens just west of Marrakech. Located on the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, these gardens were designed and built in the 12th century during the rule of the Almohads. The orchards of the garden feature olive, cypress, and fruit trees and the site holds a large reservoir at its center for irrigation. Morocco is also home to many prominent mosques, including the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. Completed in 1993, this mosque is the largest mosque in Morocco and it is the 7th largest in the world, and features the tallest minaret which stands at 210 meters (689 ft). The building and surrounding courtyard can accommodate up to 105,000 worshippers, and much of the structure extends into the Atlantic Ocean.

Morocco also holds an important site in the early history of the United States as Morocco was the first country to recognize the newly independent American colonies in 1777. In 1821, Sultan Moulay Suleiman of Morocco gave the country its first diplomatic property in Tangier, which became America’s first public property in another country. The building stood as the American consulate until 1956 and was converted into a library and education center that houses the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies. The institute serves as a museum and a cultural center with artifacts from the long history of U.S.-Moroccan relations.

Sites Resources

Music

Moroccans generate several diverse musical styles which highlight the country’s historical complexity. The Berber musical style is community oriented and is performed in open air village squares. This music features flutes and drums and is usually played at large ceremonies such as weddings or festivals. Another traditional style of music is milhun, a type of classical poetry that is sung and typically associated with traders and artisans. The lyrics feature popular folk poems or Islamic verses.  This music is traditionally accompanied by an orchestra which utilizes the stringed oud, different varieties of flutes, and several types of cymbals.

A popular musical style which mixes rural and urban folk music is known as chaabi. Chaabi music is often see in communities along the Atlantic coast, and is sometimes performed during private and public celebrations. This music features both a male and female lead singer with a violin and backup vocal accompaniment. Today, this style has incorporated modern musical technology by adding keyboards and electric guitars.

Although more commonly found in Algeria, the rai musical style also enjoys some popularity in Morocco. This hip-hop style has spread throughout North Africa, and is commonly enjoyed among the younger populations of the region. Its lyrics often mention social issues such as the negative influences of the European world on Morocco and governmental abuses of power.

Gnaoua (Gnawa) music is unique to Morocco though its popularity has spread to surrounding countries and the Diaspora. Heavily influenced by African traditions and instruments, the mystical style was developed among former sub-Saharan African slave communities in Morocco. Consisting of ancient African Islamic spiritual songs, the genre is characterized by its use of repetition and castanets. Groups are led by masters, known as “maâlems”, and consist of several members who clap, dance, and accompany their leader vocally and instrumentally. Gnaouan musicians can often be identified by their dress, typically appearing in matching djellaba and ornate caps with tassels. An example can be seen in the left image above. 

The style is very popular among Moroccans and what was once a spiritual experience has become more profane. The tradition is highlighted each summer year in the southern coastal town of Essaouira at the Gnaoua World Music Festival. The festival provides a platform for exchanges and a meeting point of music and dialogue between foreign artists and the mystical Gnaoua. In this celebration of musical fusion, the Gnaoua masters invite players of jazz, pop, rock and contemporary world music to explore new avenues of collaboration. The festival attracts up to 500,000 visitors every year over four days. Le Festival des Musiques Sacrées du Monde (World Sacred Music Festival) is a week-long annual event featuring international spiritual, religious and folk music in the ancient city of Fes. The festival began in 1994 and celebrated its 22nd occurrence in 2016.  

Music Resources

Sports

Popular Moroccan sports including soccer, skiing, and golf. Morocco also boasts some of the best hiking in the world. Many hiking trips navigate the grand peaks of the Atlas Mountains, while others explore the vast expanses of the Sahara Desert along the eastern border. Some expeditions combine both hiking and skiing for a unique outdoor adventure. Morocco’s diverse topography also contributes to its distinct wildlife; birdwatching is a popular activity, for example.

The country also features several prominent golf courses near Marrakech and along the Atlantic coastline. Some of these courses like the Al Maaden and Samanah courses feature beautiful views of the Atlas Mountains.

Morocco has been successful in several Olympic competitions. The country has competed in almost every summer Olympics since 1960 and has won a total of twenty-two medals. Moroccans have excelled in particular in track and field; distance runner, Hicham el Gherrouj is the current holder of the 1500 metres, mile and outdoor 2000 metres world records, as well as a double Olympic gold medalist. Morocco has also sent athletes to several winter Olympic competitions in 1984, 1988, 1992, 2010, and 2014, but has not won an Olympic medal in those games. The Moroccan national football (soccer in the U.S.) team is known as the “Lions of the Atlas.”  Morocco’s team has competed four times in the FIFA World Cup. Their best performance was in 1986 when the team advanced to the second round. The Lions of the Atlas have also won the Africa Cup once in 1976 and the Arab Nations Cup in 2012. Marrakech hosted the 2014 Club World Cup.

Sports Resources

LATEST NEWS & COMMENTARY ON MOROCCO

Middle East Policy Council

Scholarly essays, commentary and forums on the Kingdom of Morocco

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The New York Times

News about Morocco, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Morocco

Photo gallery of images from Morocco

Tourism in Morocco

A video about the growth of tourism in Morocco’s rural areas

Carnegie Endowment for Intl Peace: Morocco

This site gives information about Morocco and highlights news stories.