Moroccan King Mohammed VI visited three African countries south of the Sahara last week -- Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Gabon -- and convened a series of meetings the outcomes of which are poised to affect the region's development and security, as well as America's relations with much of Africa.
The north African monarch is no stranger to his southern neighbors. Since February 2005, the King has visited more than ten countries below the Sahara, including such strategically vital nations as Gambia, Congo Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger. The visits have been part of a strategy to enhance Morocco's role as a supporter of political, economic, and cultural development on the continent, as well as its role in enhancing regional security.
On the development front, the kingdom has developed a series of high-profile projects that have garnered attention in the continent's public discussion. For example, the kingdom's National Office of Electricity is now supplying electricity throughout the rural areas along the Senegal River, affecting 550 villages and 360,000 people. Along the way, the initiative is expanding expertise honed inside the kingdom's borders, and which stems from an indigenous rural electrification program that has brought electricity to 98% of villages across Morocco.
Other Moroccan-led ventures are affecting the state of medical care on the continent: Witness the Moroccan pharmaceutical industry's base in the Senegalese capital Dakar, which now manufactures and exports generic drugs, to treat malaria, diarrheal diseases and cholera in Africa's poorest countries. These non-profit ventures, together with commercial initiatives, are fostered by the Moroccan banking industry's presence in 20 African countries, as well as in the large Moroccan diaspora communities which serve as on-the-ground facilitators across the continent.
Meanwhile, on the security front, the kingdom is playing a greater role in supporting the struggle against jihadist groups and mitigating the culture of religious extremism that breeds them. In December 2012, Morocco, which was holding the rotating chairmanship of the UN Security Council, played a prominent role in the adoption of a resolution authorizing the deployment of an African military force to intervene in Mali, after an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group had conquered a portion of the country the size of France.
Further, the monarchy is reinstating its membership in the African Union (AU) after years of absence due to tensions with another AU member state, Algeria. Morocco's re-entry to the AU means that its security capacity will be boosted by a well-trained and highly equipped army, schooled in fighting terrorism and transnational crime, as well as enabling it to take advantage of Morocco's strong alliances in Europe and the United States.
Nor are Moroccan prescriptions for regional security limited to military operations: This video of the King's meeting last week with Sufi Muslim leaders in Senegal is indicative of his strategy of strengthening moderate Islamic leaders as an alternative to those who distort Islamic principles to serve their own ambitions.
These developments, in turn, present special opportunities for the United States to partner with Morocco in order to achieve its own aspirations on the continent. In a speech on January 16, US Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson offered an appraisal of the economic appeal of Africa: "Seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are located in Africa today," he noted, "yet not enough American business executives know that if you want to make a good investment today, you should look to the African continent to do so." The speech called for bridging the networking divide between American and African entrepreneurs, but was short on details for how to bring it about.
Two months later, during her last visit to Morocco as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton noted that the country's new constitution had opened up the political system, and advanced the status of women and minorities. She announced a Moroccan business development conference to be held in Washington, and also envisioned "economic integration across North Africa," with Morocco playing a prominent role. But she made no mention of nations below the Sahara.
Both speeches are forward-looking and important. But they also suggest that Americans still perceive the continent through the lens of the 20th century, when the Sahara desert still represented a sort of wall between north and south that was rarely breached. In the 21st century, this wall has come down: Thanks to new roads and modern transportation, commerce and the transfer of expertise across the Sahara have increased exponentially.
With this in mind, the Obama administration would do well to bring together Assistant Secretary Carson's observations about African economies with Hillary Clinton's vision of Morocco as a fulcrum for the United States on the continent. The kingdom serves as a connector, as well as an integrator, to the mutual benefit of both Americans and Africans.
Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and president of MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, MEDTV network and chairman of the board of Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya Arabic daily newspaper. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the Board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and also as Board of Directors of Search for Common Ground in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.