In an unusually hot summer in which temperatures have reached unprecedented highs in the Mediterranean Basin, particularly affected by the devastating consequences of the climate change, natural disasters are exacting a high death toll, putting on full display the crisis of governance in the Maghreb. The Storm Daniel that struck eastern Libya causing at least 11.300 dead and 40.000 displaced can be ascribed to rising global temperatures paving the way for the rise of ‘medicanes’ in the Mediterranean Sea. The burst of two dams after years of neglect and mismanagement of critical infrastructures (of which the civil war has certainly been the main driver) did the rest, exposing the untenability of a status quo in which civilians ultimately pay the price.
On the other hand, the 6,8 earthquake that on the 8th of September caused almost 3.000 victims in the High Atlas in Morocco, shook to the core a country not suffering from extreme political polarisation and split institutions, but a model of resilience after a decade of unfinished transitions in the region. Nevertheless, the result of the controversies surrounding the delays in the rescue operations has been almost the same, casting a shadow over the monarchy itself. The remoteness of the area (the epicentre was near Imindounit, 70 km south of Marrakesh) certainly played a role, but also shed a light on the regional disparities between the coastal areas and industrial hubs, to which the Makhzen (in Moroccan political parlance “the government”) has always allocated more resources; and impoverished regions, historically detached from the Maroc utile since the French colonisation but also after the independence.
A two-speed system that has caused resentment in marginalised regions like the Rif, where localised protests in 2016-2017 raised concerns in Rabat, but that could spell troubles in the Atlas Mountains, particularly if promises of prompt economic recovery will not be met. The tourism industry, which has only recently started to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, could suffer a significant blow, adding up on the wheat crisis affecting North Africa due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Recent estimates from the US Geological Survey says that the natural disaster could cost the Moroccan economy as much as 8% of its GDP, deeply undermining the fundamentals of one of the more stable countries in the region.
For all these reasons, international partners have rushed to help Morocco stand back on its feet, sending in humanitarian aid that, nonetheless, has been a mirror of the diverging geopolitical interests surrounding the kingdom and, more importantly, the Western Sahara dispute. The selective response of Rabat, which has accepted assistance from only four countries (Qatar, Spain, the UAE and the UK) so far, represents a reverse form of the earthquake diplomacy with which Syria toyed earlier this year to get back into the Arab fold. Declining offers is certainly a way to put pressure on rivals and allies alike, but playing politics over a natural disaster that costed already so many lives may also represent an unaffordable gamble for a king already under criticism for his slow response and elusiveness back home.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region