Skip to main content

Morocco's 'King of the Poor'

Nicknamed the 'King of the Poor', Moroccan King Mohammed VI has been one of the world's richest monarchs as a result of an unholy marriage between power and business in Morocco

At the 15th annual commemoration of his accession to the throne held last month, Mohammed VI expressed his astonishment in an official speech, asking, “Where has Morocco’s wealth gone? And who is benefitting from it?!” The question became a source of hilarity on social networking sites almost as soon as it was uttered, prompting a stream of sarcastic responses. Many of them went along these lines: “Where is the wealth? “The King of the Poor” stole it!”, in reference to the king’s nickname, bestowed on him by the French press when he took power in 1999.

It was the first time that the king had acknowledged the huge social inequalities within our country, inequalities that result from the unfair distribution of wealth. He described the existence of “signs of poverty, fragility and the severity of inequity among Moroccans.”

In addition to the rising rates of poverty and unemployment, inequity has only increased under the rule of King Mohammed VI in recent years. In the UN’s most recent report on human development, published in 2014, Morocco came in 129th place, behind countries like Palestine and Iraq that have been witness to war and conflict. The results of this report, as Lakome reported in 2013, raises questions about the eight years of human development programmes in Morocco, that have enjoyed an investment of at least 11 billion Moroccan dirhams ($1.3 billion) to date.

‘King of the Poor’ 

The paradox of the king’s speech to his people is that the ruler who has been dubbed ‘King of the Poor’ has come to be classified as one of the world’s richest monarchs.

King Mohammed VI’s wealth has mushroomed by 500 percent from a starting point of $500m when he took the throne 15 years ago, according to the French journal Marianne. In 2013, American magazine Forbes estimated his riches at around $2.5bn. People with Money, an American publication dedicated to finance and capital, put Mohammed VI at the top of its list of ‘Richest Royals’, with a yearly income of an estimated $128 million. The magazine attributed the exponential increase in income to his direct personal interest from the king’s various investment projects.

But these specialised magazines did not mention one key point: in addition to being the wealthiest ruler, earning the most interest and bringing in the most income, King Mohammed VI is also considered the most costly to his people, compared to monarchs and leaders of states much richer than Morocco.

World’s most expensive monarchy

Estimates of King Mohammed VI’s wealth often spark tension and outrage. Without any accurate statistics based on the king’s property and income, some Moroccans take to heart the figures that are available, while others doubt these numbers, alleging that his wealth greatly exceeds the statistics that are printed and broadcast. However, one set of figure that is not open to doubt is the annual expenses of the king and the royal palaces, a special budget set aside from the public finances.

The government, led by the Islamist Freedom and Development Party - the same party that called for austerity to offset the impact of the global economic crisis in Morocco -  decided to raise this year's budget for the royal palace by $1 million, according to figures from the 2014 Moroccan public budget. The budget for the royal palace for this year is 2,585,447,000 dirhams or around $309 million, listed under a special paragraph for “His Majesty the King.” In addition, $61 million is listed under the paragraph “Expenses of the Sovereign”. In total, this comes to some $64 million, for one man, a king who carries out his activities without an accountant and without any scrutiny. The rest of the royal budget is apportioned to the royal palace, as well as to administering the palaces and the other royal residences. By comparison, the royal palace budget is five times larger than that of a country like Britain, which is at least 20 times richer than Morocco.

All this is going on in a country in which 5 million of the population survive on less than 10 dirhams, or less than $1.19 a day, and where the minimum wage is under 55 dirhams, or $6.58 per day.

A ‘sacred’ and ‘vague’ budget

To add to the confusion about the budget of the royal palace is the fact that it is not discussed before either of Morocco’s two parliamentary chambers. Last November, the entire palace budget document was appraised at the House of Representatives in eight minutes. The House of Councilors, the second chamber, assessed it for only two minutes. In recent years, it has been custom to sign off on the budget, applauding and shouting “God save the King!”

With the topic treated by some as sacred, not one politician is brave enough to ask for the details of the budget or how it is spent. In fact, to avoid difficulties, parliamentarians normally stay away from the sessions in which the palace budget in approved. 

In 2012, as a result of winds of change blown in by the Arab Spring, a group of young activists in Morocco attempted to protest in front of the parliament building in the capital Rabat, to demand a decrease in the royal palace budget and greater transparency as to how it is spent. The protest was quashed, and the demonstration was dispersed swiftly and violently by the police force. Since that day, nobody has dared to discuss this “sacred” budget.

As the Moroccan economics expert Naguib Aqsabi says, “we are still in a pre-historic age as far as public financial transparency surrounding the palace budget goes.”

'Sponsors' and 'customers' at the same time

The current constitution, signed in the midst of a wave of public activism in Morocco in 2011, has removed the word “sacred” in its description of the king. In reality, though, he is still someone whose decisions are not to be discussed and who is not to be subjected to investigation by any party. The truth is that the king, according to the current constitution, retains control over all executive, legislative and judicial powers in the country. He heads the most important military, security and religious institutions. He has a monopoly over public broadcasting. He is considered the top investor in the country and, through his many diverse projects, he also controls the world of business and finance in Morocco.

This king, the most expensive in the world, is also the wealthiest of his international counterparts because of the unholy marriage between power and the world of business and finance in Morocco. He controls the biggest holding in the country, the National Company for Investments; his own investments range from banking, insurance and communications to real estate, minerals and renewable energy, as well as agriculture, hotels and staple goods. He even has interests in distribution and marketing.

As a result of his ever-increasing investments, Moroccans are no longer simply sponsors who are denied the right to discuss the king’s portion of the general budget and to question the source of his riches. Instead, they have also become customers who help to multiply his wealth. The authors of The Predatory King, a long-form journalistic investigation into King Mohammed VI’s growing wealth in the past few years published in 2012, put it thus: “The secret behind the king’s increasing riches is that he has turned sponsors into customers who buy the produce of his companies, which have a monopoly over the majority of basic services.”

For whom does the bell toll?

After the king’s recent speech, during which he questioned what had happened to Morocco’s wealth, university professor Mohammed al-Sassi demanded that the king withdraw from some of his concessions in the public sphere. He explained that such a withdrawal is “a moral duty deeply tied up with democratic life.” The professor, who is also a left-wing politician, addressed the king directly: “When you refuse to withdraw from these concessions, it means that any reform you might undertake will be reform that, while it might be a help towards catharsis and progress, still will not solve the essential underlying problems, and will not set a precedent for the rest of the nation’s institutions and decision-makers.”

But since taking power, the king has not stepped back from a single allocation, and nor has he returned any part of his wealth; even the political concessions he made came only under pressure from the street. When the monarch announces in an official speech that there is unequal wealth distribution in his kingdom, he is pushing his glasses to the top of his head and then asking where the glasses are. Or, to put it another way, he is ringing an alarm bell for himself – but for whom does the bell toll?

- Ali Anouzla a writer and journalist from Morocco, and head of the site Lakome.com, banned by the Moroccan authorities in 2013. He has founded and edited of a number of print publications. He was awarded a Leaders for Democracy prize from the American organization POMED [Project on Middle East Democracy] in 2013, and in 2014 he was selected by the French organization Reporters Without Borders as one of their “Information Heroes.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: Morocco's King Mohammed VI leaves following his meeting with the French President at the Elysee palace on 9 February in Paris (AFP)