Last week I was in London. The occasion was a huge and very splendid party being given at the British Library by HH Lalla Joumala, the Moroccan Ambassador, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Anglo-Moroccan relations. King John evidently sent a couple of dips to the Sultan’s court in 1213 to ask for help vis-à-vis the revolting English barons, and is supposed to have offered to become a Muslim in return. The latter, in particular, sounds a little unlikely, in the year before he persuaded the Pope to lift the Bull of Interdiction (which had, in the immortal words of 1066 and All That forbidden anyone to be born, to be married or to die in England for the previous three years). But if all this was so – and assuming that Sultan Mohammed Ennacer gave King John the bum’s rush – Morocco was partly responsible for Magna Carta. (Thank you, Morocco!) Anyway, there was a splendid party in London, and many old friends, as well of course as le tout Maroc: an astonishing turn out of cultural figures, politicians and diplomats (my RAM flight from Casablanca the previous day was awash with the mighty); and most of Britain’s friends of Morocco were there too.
The reception gave me a focus for reflecting on the change that I have seen in Morocco’s cultural orientation in the three and a half years I have been here. When I went for my briefing meetings with British academics and journalists in 2010, before I first came to Morocco, I heard much about the increasing appetite for English, the growing frustration with the limitations of la francophonie – but also much about Britain’s odd diffidence towards the chasse gardée of French North Africa and its odd and longstanding reluctance to engage fully with Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, which remained very French in their orientation.
That has begun very noticeably to change. I have watched the relentless progress not just of the English language, but of a re-orientation in a much larger frame, spurred on by the deep social changes that broke surface across North Africa in the spring of 2011. The appetite for English is certainly growing fast. The appetite too for English education is swelling – Moroccan applications to British universities are very substantially up, always to the dozen or so best universities. We are beginning to see recruitment visits from some of them, too: Warwick and King’s College London have both been in Morocco in recent weeks. And by the same token, research links are growing with top English universities – Imperial (where a joint postdoc research seminar with the Mohammedia Engineering School, on ‘Big Data,’ opens on February 17th), Bath, Cambridge (where an agreement for research workshops and exchanges is bedding down after 18 months).
Coupled with the drive for English in research (as the Minister for Higher Education put it recently: without English a researcher is illiterate), and for English in schools, where the British Council is advising on the development of an English language baccalaureate option, this all indicates a sea-change in Morocco’s cultural orientation. English is, as one senior fonctionnaire put it to me recently, “La vraie langue du progrès.”
And on the commercial front, the day after the Moroccan party at the British Library, I attended the launch of the new Moroccan-British Business Leaders’ Forum. Chaired jointly by Lord Sharman of Redlynch, the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Morocco, and Mustapha Terrab of OCP, this is another symbol of changing times, and will focus on key areas like education, energy and finance as it develops stronger links between the two countries. Britain, intimately close to Morocco for the 400, if perhaps not quite all the 700, years before the First World War is beginning to reassert its friendship in a new and very appropriate way.