Ten years of Mohammed VI

I happened to be watching Moroccan television in July 1999 when the programme was interrupted. A newsreader appeared, announced the death of King Hassan and burst into a flood of tears. My Moroccan companion looked startled ( since the death was unexpected) but remained totally dry-eyed – which I suspect was the reaction from most of the king’s subjects.

Hassan’s successor, Mohammed VI, has just completed 10 years on the throne and I’ve been looking around for assessments of his reign so far. I didn’t find many – perhaps because he keeps such a low profile.

As kings go, Mohammed is definitely an improvement over his father. But then, it would be hard not to be. Le Figaro (instant translation by Google here) contrasts father and son by saying that Mohammed would rather be liked than feared. 

Global Voices speaks of high expectations initially, followed by disappointments – especially in the area of press freedom. Similarly, Reporters Without Borders detects both “advances and reverses”, and Human Rights Watch sees a “mixed picture”.

Radio France Internationale is fairly upbeat about King Mohammed's economic achievements. On the social front, in 2004, he also steered the introduction of a new family code, hailed at the time as “one of the most progressive laws on women's and family rights in the Arab world”. 

Agence France Presse portrays him as a reforming moderniser but also quotes a historian as saying he has moved the monarchy back to its traditional role, where “the king is present just about everywhere, omnipotent”.

Omnipotent, perhaps, but often invisible. The royal palace has no press spokesman and the king hardly ever talks to the media. I have heard it said that he guards his privacy because his fun-loving lifestyle would not be appreciated by ordinary Moroccans if they knew about it. But Le Figaro says “discretion” is part of his character. Even government ministers rarely see him; he just sends his advisers with instructions.

If the general verdict is that Mohammed has done fair-to-middling for Morocco, he seems to have done considerably better than that for himself. According to Forbes Magazine, his family’s personal wealth, which stood at $500m in 2000, has multiplied five-foldsince then. Besides his 20 palaces and several thousand hectares of farmland, he has vast business interests which include a near-monopoly in phosphates.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 July 2009