Morocco: Has Marrakech sold out to Europe?

24 May 2010
De Volkskrant Amsterdam

The bazaar in the Marrakesh medina
The bazaar in the Marrakesh medina

8,000 foreigners, for the most part Europeans, have moved to Marrakech over the past few years. Their very presence and purchasing power are changing the face of the age-old Moroccan city.

Five years ago, Bernard Pasqualini wanted to leave Corsica. He had a restaurant on the French island and enjoyed sculpting in marble there in his free time, but he could no longer stand paying such high taxes and salaries. “Workaholism is on the wane in Europe, the only thing that counts now is money,” he says. He wanted to find a sunny spot, outside Europe, to start from scratch again. The first country he stopped in was Morocco, the first city Marrakech. And after three days there he made up his mind to stay.

Europeans are buying us out

In the modern city centre he created Le chat qui rit, a restaurant that now draws celebrities from overseas. “A nonchalance and joie de vivre reigns here that many Europeans no longer know. The people here are kind and calm.” Pasqualini, a cheerful quinquagenarian, is one of 8,000-odd foreigners who’ve put down roots in Marrakech over the past few years. Most of them are entrepreneurs or pensioners who come for the beauty of the city and the laid-back mindset. Down in Morocco, desk diaries and wristwatches are rarities. Taxes and payroll costs are low, the minimum wage is €200 a month.

As a result, what’s happening in Marrakech is precisely the reverse of the prevailing trend in European cities: Moroccans are waking up to find themselves surrounded by foreign communities, chiefly French, but also Italian, Spanish, German and English. And a new sociogeographic distribution is taking shape: Europeans are settling down in the centre, in the Moroccan houses they fancy, while the Moroccans are taking to the suburbs, where new blocks of flats are being built all over the place.

Prices have never been so steep

Many Moroccans put a different spin on the phenomenon: “The Europeans are buying us out of our city.” Bernard Pasqualini bristles when he hears that. “It’s the Moroccans who are selling their houses. Do you think we’d sell our houses in Corsica? Of course not.” That’s easy for Pasqualini to say, retort Moroccans like Abdfetah Oueld Rahhal. His father sold his house in the heart of Marrakech for €100,000 back in 2003. It was falling apart, and €100,000 was such a huge sum for his father that he couldn’t say no. “Europeans can afford sums that Moroccans have never seen,” observes Oueld Rahhal.

8,000 foreigners out of one million inhabitants is not that big a deal, but their presence is increasingly conspicuous. Modern downtown Marrakech has taken on something of a Franco-Italo-Spanish air, replete with shops like Zara and Etam patronised by a mostly European clientele. There’s even a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut – and a picture of Charlie Chaplin in front of one café. The jet set have also discovered Marrakech. Actor Alain Delon and couturier Yves Saint Laurent had houses there, as do famous footballers Zinedine Zidane and Raúl. Nicolas Sarkozy and Hillary Clinton don’t own property there, but they do come regularly. Marrakech has taken on an aura of glitz and glamour, and prices have never been so steep.

A change that benefits both communities

Property prices in particular as more and more Europeans buy, fix up and then resell old houses – a trend that is catching on with wealthy Moroccans, too. Another way to make money is to put up a building on every vacant lot. It is this sea change in the cityscape that riles the French shopkeeper of L’Artisan Parfumeur. She steps out of her perfumery and shows me a rundown ochre house. “That’s what Marrakech used to look like, full of little houses,” she sighs. Then she points to a sprawling housing complex in the same street: “And that’s what it is now: Marrakech has lost her soul.”

Corsican Bernard Pasqualini finds that exaggerated. After all, Europeans have good things to offer too, don’t they? He himself has given 20 people jobs at his restaurant. He pays twice the mandatory minimum wage and lent one of his employees money to buy himself a moped so he wouldn’t have to walk 20 km home every night. “The fact that Europeans are coming to live here is a change that benefits both communities,” he argues. And many Moroccans would agree. “Europeans create jobs,” comments a mechanic, Abdfetah Oueld Rahhal. “And it’s pretty nice having them around.”

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