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Will Oil Change the Face of Morocco?
By Nizar Al-Aly

RABAT, Sep 4 (IPS) Morocco will be able to finally tackle its economic and social problems now that the country expects to join the ranks of the world's oil producers, analysts in this North African country say.

''The oil discovery comes at a time when Morocco has reached a deadlock in matters of economic resources,'' says economist Abdelaali Benamour. Morocco faces the problems typical of developing countries, including heavy foreign indebtedness, acute joblessness and slow and irregular growth. According to World Bank statistics Morocco's real growth rate was 0 percent in 1999. More than 13.1 percent of the country's 28-million people live below the poverty line, unemployment is 23 percent, 55 percent of the population is illiterate and Morocco owes the international community 19.1 billion US dollars, the World Bank says.

''For a country like Morocco, finding oil is a gift from heaven,'' says Benamour, who nevertheless warned that this ''blessing'' might become a ''curse'', if not used as an engine for real growth.
''Oil should be dealt with cautiously and its revenue well exploited to avoid falling into the same trap as the Gulf countries that are now mere consumers of foreign products,'' he said.

Energy and Mining Minister Yossef Tahiri said there are an estimated 2 billion barrels of oil in the eastern area of Talsint near the border with Algeria. Under an agreement concluded with Morocco, the US Lone Star Energy Corporation, off-shoot of Skidmore Inc., will exploit three sites in Talsint covering over 6,000 sq. km. Besides Talsint, the US firm has two other licenses to drill in other areas in Morocco: in Loukous to the north, Labrouj in the centre of the country and Safi-Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. The licenses cover an area of 37,000 sq. km. Reserves in these areas are estimated at between 10 and 12 billion barrels before drilling. Morocco, which imports 50 million barrels of oil per year, will be self-sufficient in fuel for at least 25 years saving the country the 500 to 800 million dollars its spends yearly on importing petroleum, says Tahiri.

The oil find will bring radical change to the nation's social and economic life, analysts here say.
Ahmed Aboudi, director-general of the Moroccan Centre de Conjoncture, an independent think-tank analysing economic trends, says that oil will provide the government with an important tool to embark on a successful economic policy.
The economist warns, however, against using the revenues to raise salaries.
''They (the revenues) should rather be spent on spurring investments and generating jobs that the country needs,'' Aboudi says. ''Distributing the revenues among the citizens will kill the national industry and will encourage foreign products,'' he cautioned. The oil find will not fail to have geo-strategic impacts, the observers say.
''The new economic evolution will give Morocco a greater say in regional affairs, especially on the issue of the Western Sahara,'' notes Benamour. ''Morocco will act from a stronger position on this particular issue.''

Morocco is at loggerheads with Algeria and the Polisario (Frente Popular para la Liberacion del Sagiat al-Hamra y el-Rio de Oro) over the issue of the Western Sahara - a mineral-rich desert territory occupied an annexed by Rabat in 1975 after Spain vacated the area.
The issue is now in the hands of the United Nations which is seeking to hold a referendum to determine the future of the territory.
Khaled Jamai, editor-in-chief of the wide circulation daily L'Opinion, says the oil find will strengthen the monarchy in Morocco. ''The discovery consolidates the monarchy and the country's political stability, as it gives hope to the people, especially to the poor and the jobless graduates who see their future with great fear.'' According to him, ''the Islamists, whose discourse could have been acceptable to the hopeless youth, will no longer be able to exploit such hopelessness to strengthen their presence on the Moroccan political scene.''

The analysts stressed the need for Morocco to put in place a genuine development strategy to make good use of its new wealth. They urged the country to grasp lessons from neighbouring Algeria, whose oil potential did not spare the country the bloody strife for control of the government currently being waged between religious and secular political forces.

The young King Mohammed VI seemed to have grasped what is at stake, when he vowed in a recent televised speech to continue endeavours to modernise the country and to fight against poverty.

In a move to show his determination to do forget the past and do what is best for the country he appointed Abraham Serfaty - his father's long- time foe - as assistant director-general of the country's oil company (ONAREP).

Serfaty, a Jewish communist leader who was jailed and exiled by King Hassan, is an experienced mining engineer. He had served as mining director at the Rabat-based Mohammadia Grand School of engineer, before his political quarrels with the late king.

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