Once in a Century Quake Deals Blow to North Africa’s Bright Spot

When Morocco’s top tourist city was rocked by the country’s deadliest earthquake in six decades, Hicham Aamran and his family fled to a nearby square, terrified their apartment building would collapse.

(Bloomberg) — When Morocco’s top tourist city was rocked by the country’s deadliest earthquake in six decades, Hicham Aamran and his family fled to a nearby square, terrified their apartment building would collapse.

They’ve camped there ever since, sleeping in the open and too afraid of aftershocks to return to their Marrakech home, as the North African kingdom reckons with the social and economic toll of a natural disaster that’s left more than 2,000 people dead.

The catastrophe deals a stunning blow to the country of 37 million that views itself an island of stability in North Africa and which has been a bright spot for investors wary of the region’s other fragile economies. Marrakech, famed for its buzzing markets, ornate courtyard homes and nearby ski slopes, is due to welcome thousands of officials to the annual International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings in October. 

“The strength of the tremor was too terrifying to stay indoors,” said Aamran, an assistant manager at a car-rental firm. He said he fears for relatives in the town of Imintanout, about 80 miles (128 km) to Marrakech’s southwest and near the quake’s epicenter: “They need real rescuers, and bread.”

Morocco’s strongest temblor in 120 years struck the High Atlas mountains late Friday, tearing across the poverty-stricken al-Haouz and Taroudant regions and flattening villages of mud-brick homes while blocking the winding roads key to aid and rescue efforts. The World Health Organization says 300,000 people in Marrakech and beyond have been affected; a Red Crescent official warned the response would take “months if not years.”

Tourism Industry

Parts of Marrakech’s UNESCO-listed historic center sustained serious damage, with masonry raining down on parked cars and some of its storied alleyways collapsing. One much-shared video on social media showed the 12th-century Kutubiyya mosque shaking as screams punctured the night sky. 

About 10.9 million tourists visited Morocco last year, a vital driver of the economy alongside agriculture and trade with the European Union, that helped the country rebuild its credit quality. While a short-term hit seems likely, the country’s size and diversity of attractions may provide a cushion. Tourism in Turkey, which was hurt by disastrous earthquakes in its eastern provinces in February, mostly rebounded with surging summer arrivals to the Mediterranean coast and Istanbul.

Flights from Europe’s major airlines were still arriving in Marrakech on Sunday. 

The quake probably won’t “impact Morocco’s economy as a whole, but it will hurt the local economy, especially the many villages that live off tourism on the outskirts of Marrakech and the city itself,” said Rachid Aourraz, head of research at the MIPA Institute, a think tank in the capital, Rabat.

Income Inequality

The events also shone a spotlight on Morocco’s regional income and development disparities. While Marrakech has long been the haunt of statesmen, celebrities and billionaires — from Winston Churchill to Richard Branson to David Beckham — a short drive away lie settlements with poor access to basic services.

In the Atlas, prominent businessman and philanthropist Karim Tazi said the situation was “dramatic,” especially for dozens of smaller villages, with authorities racing to clear roads and get blood donations to local hospitals. “Unfortunately a large number of people are still under the rubble,” he said by text message on Sunday.

For Youssef Barakat, who works at the Kasbah Angour hotel in the High Atlas, the quake felt “like the sky fell.” Several of the hotel’s 27 rooms will need major repairs, forcing them to shut for at least two weeks.

“Our building is modern, which is not the case for the vast majority of houses and small hotels in the area,” Barakat said Sunday. “Too many villages were destroyed and there is a lot of death.”

Economic Pressure

There’s been no estimate yet of the total damage caused by the deadliest quake to strike Morocco since 1960, when 12,000 people were killed around the Atlantic coastal city of Agadir.

Any large-scale reconstruction would pile more pressure on an economy jolted by two years of successive droughts and as the government earlier this year ramped up efforts to improve the country’s finances. The more supportive credit dynamics led to the country’s return to international bond markets earlier in March.

Before Friday’s earthquake, authorities were targeting economic growth of 3.4% this year and planning to trim a budget deficit from 4.5% of gross domestic product to 4% in 2024. The country’s poorest were set to get improved access to subsidies via a direct-aid program.

Read more: Morocco Returns to Bond Market as Newly-Junk Credit on the Mend  

In Morocco’s favor is a string of allies. The US, France, Turkey and the UK were among many countries pledging assistance, including first responders and search dogs. So, too, have Israel — with which Morocco made a landmark peace deal in 2020 — and Algeria, a longtime foe that says it will open its airspace for aid efforts. King Mohammed VI has thanked those offering help, without saying they’ll be accepted.

IMF Meeting

The World Bank conveyed its “profoundest condolences” and full support to Morocco. “Our sole focus at this stage is on the Moroccan people and the authorities who are dealing with this tragedy,” it said in a statement, making no reference to the meetings due to start in less than a month. 

Morocco’s hosting of the events, the first on the African continent in half a century, was expected to bring thousands of high-spending visitors to Marrakech. 

The meetings were first scheduled for 2021 but faced two years of delays due to the Covid pandemic. There’s been no word on whether the quake will affect plans, although much of greater Marrakech has emerged unscathed. 

It’s not just the country’s poorest that may be affected. King Mohammed was overseas when the disaster hit, and although he returned swiftly it reminded Moroccans of the long periods the 60-year-old monarch spends outside the country, few of which are officially disclosed. The king owns multiple properties in France. 

People close to Morocco’s “Makhzen” — the centuries-old web of advisers, security officials, military men and business interests that orbits the monarchy — have expressed increasing discontent over his absences, as well as a much-publicized friendship with a trio of German-raised cage wrestlers known as the Azaitar brothers.

The financial impact of the quake will become more clear over time. Many of those worse hit by Friday’s disaster rely on small-scale farming or other low-paid jobs and “can’t afford the massive cost of rebuilding their homes,” according to Aourraz.

The government, too, may struggle. “They are dealing with swathes of damaged regions that require roads, water, electricity, and much more,” he said. 

–With assistance from Eric Martin.

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