Morocco is positioning itself as a gateway to Africa’s technology sector and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which shares the same ambitions for the Middle East is more than happy to help.

Last week, thousands of visitors descended on the red city of Marrakech for GITEX Africa. It was the first time the popular tech trade show was being organised outside of the UAE. For three days, the 45,000-square-metre purpose-built exhibition space at Place Bab Jdid, Bd Al Yarmouk in Marrakech hummed with activity as attendees waded through multiple simultaneous conference tracks and 900 exhibition stalls. Among the exhibitors were 100 startups from a Moroccan government-supported startup development programme selected to demonstrate the country’s startup ambitions.

Coming from the organiser of a 42-year-old technology trade show that has been held at the Dubai World Trade Centre since 1981, it represented an acknowledgement of the coming-to-age of technology startups in Africa.

The long road to Morocco

According to Trixie LohMirmand, executive vice president at the Dubai World Trade Centre, GITEX Africa, Morocco, was organised in the seven-month space between the official announcement last October. But the GITEX event brand, which now boasts itself as the biggest technology event in 2023, worked its way up from relatively humble beginnings in 1981.

In 1981, Dubai was in the early stages of recasting itself from a sleepy port town and residence of the British agent for the former Trucial States, into a modern port city. Jebel Ali Port had been commissioned only two years prior and the new highway linking Dubai to Abu Dhabi, the capital, was barely a year old. 

One of the projects being constructed around the same time as the port and highway was the 38-storey, 184-metre-tall Sheikh Rashid Tower (now the Dubai World Trade Centre). Purpose-built for events and trade shows, the tower, which was commissioned in 1979, was Dubai’s tallest building at the time and became the site of the first Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (GITE) trade show which was held in 1981. The 2009 launch of Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system at a GITEX trade show in Dubai put the regional event on the global tech trade show map. Since then, Dubai World Trade Centre has hosted successive tech trade shows each year, attracting thousands of attendees each year.

In October last year, as technology startups in Africa neared a record-breaking fundraising year, Kaoun International and the Dubai World Trade Centre announced that it was bringing GITEX Global to Africa. 

Beyond North Africa’s broken regional market

By positioning the event in all but name as a celebration of relations with the UAE, GITEX Africa signalled a decided Moroccan turn towards Middle-Eastern partners in the Gulf. The currently untenable alternative is a deeply fragmented regional market that encompasses neighbouring North African states, with the possible exception of Egypt. Last year, Morocco’s relatively stable relations with Tunisia broke down after Tunisian president, Kais Saied, met with the leader of Polisario Front, a militant Sahrawhi nationalist group claiming Western Sahara for itself. Algeria to the east has not had good relations with Rabat. And Mauritania in the southwest is a smaller and far less wealthy market, compared to a wealthy Gulf partner like the UAE.

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Morocco is also seeking to position itself as a gateway destination for technology investment, especially from friendly Gulf countries like the UAE. “Morocco is a source of pride for Arab countries,” Omar Sultan Al Olama, the UAE’s minister of state for artificial intelligence, digital economy, and remote work applications enthused at the opening ceremony of GITEX Africa. “The UAE is here to celebrate a year of fruitful partnership between the emirate and the Kingdom of Morocco,” he added. The UAE was Morocco’s second-largest source of foreign investment last year. Investments made by Emirati entities surpassed $14 billion in 2021, accounting for 21% of total FDI in Moroccan markets according to reporting from Zawya.

With Morocco’s well-established but unyielding traditional banking and finance industry, it could be a genius move to be positioned as the funnel for capital meant for emerging African markets. It is certainly a bold statement. On the other hand, increased appetite for alternative investment asset classes like venture capital has seen private investment firms and Silicon Valley investors turn to family offices and Middle-Eastern sovereign wealth funds for capital

What would be harder is convincing funds seeking to invest in technology hotbeds in Africa to route it through Morocco instead of allocating capital directly to investment firms in Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya or South Africa.

Building a tech kingdom

In speeches and panel sessions, various attending government officials from Morocco emphasised plans to make Morocco a nerve centre for technology investments in Africa. “The impact of this first African edition on the Moroccan tech ecosystem might not be immediate, but we are definitely expecting long-term benefits,” Mehdi Al Aloui, head of the startup department at the Moroccan Development Agency said.

One of the drawbacks the country will need to address is its well-reported stifling bureaucracy. Besides hindering the growth of the startup ecosystem, bureaucracy in the country is equally standing in the way of major economic reforms, one report claimed. A Startup Act can help and Moroccan officials at GITEX Africa seem open to the idea, but the country already has several startup support initiatives and programmes running. Morocco also ranks high on Doing Business Index, but analysis by The Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis, and the Middle East Institute suggest that easy and quick legislative fixes that boost DBI rankings have had little impact on changing administrative practices on the ground.

Hosting one of Africa’s largest tech trade shows and conferences this year is a bold step, but a seachange in Morocco’s fortune as a key technology player and innovation centre will both require the government to be less visible. Hosting brilliant event showcases is nice, but lifting the suffocating weight of bureaucracy and allowing private innovation enterprises to flourish, is a much bolder statement. It is exactly how Dubai and the Emirati states (also storied monarchies) built a reputation as an international investment destination and a gateway to the Middle East.

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