My Lords, at the outset I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for arranging this debate. The United Kingdom and Morocco enjoy a long and happy history—a heritage of which I believe we should be proud. Earlier this month, the British Embassy in Rabat celebrated the 800th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries, a point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. In April this year the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs made his first official ministerial visit to London. An estimated half a million British tourists travel to Morocco every year to take advantage of its outstanding natural beauty and renowned hospitality. This tourism helps maintain our relationship, and Morocco is economically dependent on it.
I believe that the recent social revolutions across north Africa and the Middle East, coupled with the economic turmoil across much of the western world, present an opportunity to look again at our priorities. It is a chance to refocus where we should be looking to build stronger bridges for the future and dedicating more of our efforts. I firmly believe that Morocco should be one of the countries we should focus on, and with good reason. Like some other countries in the Arab world, Morocco is engaging in fundamental democratic reforms. While it remains essentially a kingdom, a new constitution was adopted in July 2011 establishing a more democratic system of governance. A key political change is that the majority party in Parliament, rather than the King, now has the right to nominate the Prime Minister. Strong human rights provisions were also included in the reforms, although I appreciate they have had mixed results.
Last September, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, reported his findings following a visit to Morocco. He was concerned at the continued use of cruel treatment by some security forces on the ground and in prisons. However, he also noted that the general situation regarding the practice of torture has improved and that a culture of human rights, with a genuine political will, is slowly emerging. Morocco has implemented a National Human Rights Council and announced that it will ratify the optional protocol of the UN convention against torture later this year. In recent years, further rights have been granted to women and the King has also stated that tackling unemployment and poverty are two of his main priorities. Unemployment has shrunk significantly over the past decade and spending on social programmes and subsidies have increased substantially.
In all, it seems as if this new constitution is laying the groundwork for introducing laws that will build greater levels of engagement with and transparency towards the general public. It is important we recognise how the conviction that fuels such reforms can spread across borders, calm tensions and set examples for others. These measures are a beacon of hope in an ever insecure region. Can the Minister highlight the role that Morocco has taken in promoting or contributing to regional stability?
Our Foreign Secretary recently reaffirmed his support for the progress that Morocco has been making towards implementing the new constitution, particularly through the Arab partnership, with efforts to tackle corruption and encourage political participation. I very much share this sentiment and, on that note, I would be grateful if the Minister could also provide details of any programmes that we are supporting in Morocco through civil society.
Our relations with Morocco can be enhanced further by undertaking more trade. As I have stated many times before in your Lordships’ House, one of the keys to building and advancing successful relationships between countries is by having increased levels of trade. Such trade allows for increased diversity and consistency of goods and services, leading to the widening and opening up of markets. This in turn nurtures cultural and technological exchange and helps bring countries closer together, benefiting economies on both sides. Indeed, 2012 was a landmark year, as the bilateral trade between our two countries passed £1 billion for the first time. Despite suffering a setback, Morocco’s GDP growth rate in 2012 was 2.9%, which is a respectable figure within the context of the global downturn and higher than that of many western countries. It is also projected to accelerate to an average of 4.8% over the next few years.
Morocco boasts a number of economic achievements that have, unfortunately, gone unnoticed and to which we should be paying much closer attention. Last year, it built the largest port in the Mediterranean, Tanger-Med—again, this is a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison—as a strategic way of capitalising on its geographical position as a primary gateway between Europe and Africa. It is also establishing itself as a hub for international investors looking to get into Africa, with the creation of Casablanca Finance City. Morocco also enjoys free trade access to 55 different countries, representing more than 1 billion consumers and 60% of the world’s GDP. Bearing all these points in mind, it is no surprise that Ernst & Young recently ranked Morocco as the second most attractive African country for foreign investors.
I spoke last month in the Queen’s Speech debate on the importance of the UK investing in Africa. We must act now, before other countries beat us to it.