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The changing face of Morocco-Spain relations

Families queue at the Spanish port of Algeciras to board a ferry to Morocco Reuters/Jon Nazca
Families queue at the Spanish port of Algeciras to board a ferry to Morocco
  • Morocco-Spain relationship in flux
  • Remittances form 8% of Morocco’s GDP
  • Trade grows but tensions remain

For decades now, the start of the European school summer holidays has been the time when thousands of Moroccans living in Europe pile into their cars and head south. 

This summer is no exception. Around 6 million car-loads of Moroccans resident abroad (MREs) travel back and forth across the Strait of Gibraltar during this annual, short-lived reverse migration.

Many of those MREs are European citizens nowadays, born in Madrid and Amsterdam, rather than Marrakesh and Agadir. When they go “home” for the holidays, it is to see increasingly distant relatives. 

Yet that has not stopped them maintaining their connection – financially, as well as personally. 

Remittances from MREs – the vast majority of whom live in Europe – reached a record $11.8 billion in 2023, according to Morocco’s Office des Changes foreign trade bureau. That was 8 percent of the country’s GDP.

Much has changed in other ways, too, during the years of this annual homecoming.

“You used to see all these cars and vans arriving in Algeciras to catch the ferry to Tangiers,” Edward Macquisten, chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce in neighbouring Gibraltar, tells AGBI.

“Some would have bags tied to the roof, others you’d wonder how they ever made it. Now though, it’s very different. It’s all shiny Mercedes and Rovers.”

Those cars are also now heading from Algeciras to Tanger Med, a hugely successful Moroccan port that was the largest in the Mediterranean and Africa in 2023, handling over 8.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). 

The only ports in Europe that handled more than this were Antwerp and Rotterdam, according to logistics analyst Upply.

Much is therefore changing in the relationship between Morocco and its European neighbours – with this most evident of all in Moroccan-Spanish relations.

Pillars of Hercules

Separated by only a few kilometres across the Strait of Gibraltar – known in ancient times as the Pillars of Hercules – Spain is nowadays Morocco’s main trading partner.

At present, 16 percent of Morocco’s foreign purchases come from Spain, according to ICEX, the Spanish Institute of Exports and Investments, followed by China on 12 percent and France on 11 percent. At the same time, Spain is the largest single purchaser of Moroccan products in Europe, taking around 22 percent of Morocco’s total European exports.

That trade has been growing, too.

In 2023 Spanish imports from Morocco reached €9 billion – up 4 percent year on year – while Spanish exports to Morocco reached a record high of €13 billion, a 3 percent annual increase, according to UN Comtrade figures.

From Morocco, agricultural products are dominant, along with machine and auto parts – Spain has the second largest car-manufacturing industry in Europe. 

Cars ready for export at Morocco's Tanger Med Port Reuters/Abdelhak Balhaki
Cars ready for export at Morocco’s Tanger Med Port

According to ICEX, 360 Spanish companies have also relocated to Morocco in recent years to take advantage of lower labour costs and tariffs in local free zones. Many have gone to the Tangiers–Tetouan-Al Hoceima region in particular, given its proximity to Spain. 

“These companies may not be household names, but in terms of values, they’re big,” Chris de Oliveira, an Antwerp-based Moroccan trade expert, says. Examples include Roca, a tile manufacturer; Inditex, a textile giant; and food and beverage companies Ebro Foods and Borges.

Inner tensions – but common interest

Trade across the Strait is not without its difficulties, however.

“Moroccan agricultural exports to Spain are lower cost than Spanish, homegrown produce, with Spanish farmers therefore not so keen to see them,” Arezki Daoud, chief executive for MEA Risk, says.

Protests earlier this year at Algeciras led to lorries carrying Moroccan goods being halted, angering Moroccan exporters and truckers.

This comes on the back of historic tensions between the two neighbours.

Disagreements over the former Spanish territory of Western Sahara and the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla – which Morocco claims – have been particular sources of dispute.

Morocco’s role as a jumping-off point for illegal migration and drug trafficking into Spain and beyond is also a source of contention.

Yet, in 2021 following an attempted mass-incursion by mainly sub-Saharan migrants into Ceuta, Spain accepted a Moroccan peace plan for Western Sahara. In recent years, too, Morocco has played a major role in curbing illegal migration.

“Whatever the tensions,” Daoud says, “there’s also a major common interest in trade. In 2030, for example, Spain, Portugal and Morocco are to co-host the Fifa World Cup. Developing the infrastructure for that is bound to lead to even more economic integration.”

Plans for this include a revived idea for a rail tunnel under the Strait, in addition to boosted investment in stadiums, hotels, roads and a host of other facilities.

“There’s an interesting dynamic in Spanish-Moroccan relations,” Jamie Trinidad from Cambridge University, who has written extensively on Spain’s North African possessions, says.

“We’re seeing conflicts between the two resolved much more in Morocco’s favour than we were in the past.”

Spain’s decision to recognise the Moroccan peace plan for Western Sahara, after years of rejecting it, is a major case in point.

“It was after that that Spanish-Moroccan trade really took off,” says Daoud.

As thousands of MREs board the ferries for Tangiers this summer, their shiny new cars might also be a tangible sign of that changing dynamic.

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