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North Africa: shared pasts, different futures?

Strand Building, Strand Campus, London


The economic development of North African countries (Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia) has for the past half century been built on a liberal economic model which was based on exporting the mineral and farming resources of the region (oil and gas, phosphates, farming produce) and tourism. Exports markets were essentially in Europe from where most tourists came. Yet today, a sense of economic failure stalks the region – though many observers believe Morocco is doing much better than its neighbours to the east. At the same time a sense of drift seems to describe relations between the two shores of the Mediterranean. Southern Mediterranean countries are more critical than ever of the European Union which seems to view its neighbours essentially through the prism of illegal immigration. The war on Gaza has hugely increased the mutual distrust between the two shores. As Turkish and Chinese firms win more contracts and investment funds from the Gulf invest ever more in countries like Morocco, European countries – not least the former colonial powers, are perplexed. Absorbed by the challenges they confront internally, divided about how to respond to the twin crisis which they confront in Ukraine and Gaza, Europe have lost the capacity for thinking strategically, showcased when it launched the Barcelona Process in 1995.

The four countries for their part could do worse than to revisit an economic development model which has privileged exporting minerals and farming produce, done very little to add value to natural resources that lie in the ground, increased social inequality and underused human resources. Three factors explain why the region’s development has been hampered since independence. Attracting foreign investment – Tunisia set the ball rolling in 1972, has not been very successful because “ there is hardly a region of the world where capitalism is more remote from its ideal type than in the Arab-speaking region” (The People Want, Gilbert Achcar, Saqi Books 2023). Crony capitalism closely allied with the state does not offer the predictability needed for long term investment, even in a country such as Morocco whose monarchy provides greater institutional continuity than its neighbours. The sharp decline in state investment encouraged by the World Bank and the IMF from the early 1980s (Morocco and Tunisia or provoked in Algeria by the halving of the price of oil) was not offset by an increase in private investment. Where state investment has been maintained as in Morocco’s phosphate/fertiliser and port (Tangiers Intercontinental) sectors, growth has been maintained, thus giving the lie to the economic strategy promoted by the World Bank. Most private investment was directed towards speculative sectors such as tourism, real estate and corrupt state-licenced activities. Critics argue that the drastic reduction in public employment explains the large rise in the informal sector.

States in north Africa are dependent on rent which “in turn leads to some states benefiting, due to strategic and security considerations. From rents drawn on richer states’ hydrocarbons rents, or determined by foreign powers’ eagerness to maintain a regional system of hegemony whose key motivation is narrowly linked to the region’s resources.” The ill-judged NATO backed intervention in Libya brought in European actors, the US, the UAE, Turkey and Russia. Israel’s growing presence in Morocco makes that country’s relations with Algeria even more fraught. This growing outside interference makes destroys any hope of frontiers between north African states being opened and rules out greater trade and investment flows between the four countries. This buttresses the national crony capitalism that characterises a region which does not master of its own destiny and is unable to find play a role on the world state.

Faced with such challenges, will north Africa elites be capable of rethinking the model of economic development which has failed them for 50 years. Only when the four countries revisit their modern economic history will they be able to build a more socially inclusive vision of the future. A radical economic rethink might only be possible if and when state apparatuses are able to distance themselves from the head of state which is more easy in a neo-patrimonial state than a patrimonial one. Europe it seems is condemned to put stability before change or revolution. In so doing its condemns itself to permanent uncertainly on its southern boarders. It condemns itself to never ending flows of young migrants. Migrants who are educated are of immediate benefit to Europe but a huge loss for the countries which they leave.

Is north Africa drifting away from Europe? Are there ways Europe could encourage change or is it condemned to support short term stability against long term instability? Will short term economic expediency continue to prevail against strategic thinking which could, over time, turn the four countries more valuable economic partners? Over le temps long, each country may come up with a better understanding of itself and its modern history; of the role of family and gender, of the central role of its cities. Success, if and when it comes, will be predicated on making the state more accountable and transparent, less corrupt. It will be predicated on the capacity of the elites to engage in a broader debate with more educated civil society. If and when economic institutions are reformed, existing ones in Europe need not be copied but most observers will agree that higher rates of growth and employment are unlikely to be achieved if crony capitalism is not consigned to the dustbin of history.


  • Omar Bessaoud, Associate Professor at CIHEAM, Montpellier
  • Nejib Akesbi, Agronomic and Veterinary Institute Hassan II, Rabat
  • Fatma Oussedik, University Professor, Algiers; Scientific Council of the Revue Diogene, Paris, & the American Centre for Maghreb Studies, Oran
  • Maher Gaida, Auditor/Accountant, former Vice President Tunisian Institute of Chartered Accountants
  • Mary Fitzgerald Middle East Institute, Washington DC
  • Ricardo Fabbiani Project Director North Africa International Crisis Group
  • Hassan Benabderrazik, Partner AgroConcept, Rabat
  • Francis Ghiles Associate Research Fellow CIDOB, Visiting Fellow, King’s College London
  • Jonathan Hill, Director of Institute of Middle East Studies, King’s College London


Opening remarks

  • Jonathan Hill

Introduction to conference

  • Francis Ghilès
  • Ricardo Fabbiani

Elites played a key role in building Tunisia after independence, in launching bold reforms in Algeria in 1988 (which failed) and in accompanying reforms in Morocco after 1990. Why have they failed in Tunisia since 2011 and in Algeria since the end of the civil war? Why are Moroccan elites meeting with more apparent success since 2000? Having Libyan elites ever been associated with economic development?

Session one

The Moroccan economy is often presented as the success story of north Africa.

Does the reality match the image? Why does Algeria’s economy appear to be stuck?

  • Francis Ghiles (chair)
  • Nejib Akesbi
  • Hassan Benabderrazik
  • Omar Benssaoud
  • Mary Fitzgerald

Coffee break

Session two

Has the Tunisian democratic experiment failed and if so, why? How can the economy of Tunisia be put back on the road to growth? Society is changing in both countries, so are its elites – in what ways? Women are playing a greater role – how does this show?

  • Francis Ghiles (chair)
  • Maher Gaida
  • Fatma Oussedik
  • Ricardo Fabbiani
  • Hassan Benabderarazik

Closing remarks

The event will be followed by a drinks reception. All are welcome to attend.

At this event

Jonathan  Hill

Director of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies

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