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Rabat Renewal: How To Modernize Morocco's Ancient Capital

At a crossroads in Rabat
At a crossroads in Rabat
Pascal Airault

RABAT — At the mouth of the Bou Regreg River in Morocco, the small blue boats go from one shore to the other. The tireless rowers have assured the exchange of goods between Rabat and Salé, a commuter town on the other side of the river.

"We wanted to preserve the boats, because they are an integral part of the region's heritage," explains Lemghari Essakl, general director for the Bou Regreg Valley Planning Agency. "We have permitted them to organize themselves, and it was also important that they could change their small boats."

The environment in which the vessels travel from one side of the river to the other has changed dramatically in the past several years. The capital of Morocco is undergoing a metamorphosis. Among the most visible changes are a new bridge, marina and tramway. These additions share the city with its centuries-old heritage, the two medinas of Rabat and Salé and the Kasbah of the Udayas. Historic Rabat has not lost its soul to modern progress, nor has it lost its pure Arab-Andalusian style.

Photo: Cliff Williams

It all started at the beginning of the new millennium. After five different plans in 50 years, all of which ended in failure, Rabat, an imperial city that became the country's capital in 1912, was still desperately turning its back on its environment. It was turning away from the ocean, and also from its rebellious municipal neighbor across the river, Salé.

In the hopes of giving the city new life, King Mohammed VI gave a research department (that later became the Bou Regreg Valley Planning Agency) the task of completely remodeling an area of around 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres), from the estuary to the Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah dam.

The projects were completed by an interdisciplinary team of archeologists, historians, architects, urbanists, engineers, investors and others. They had to adhere to several goals: preservation of historical heritage, environmental protection and clean-up, improvements in services for residents, and economic revitalization, especially job creation. At the same time, the legislation included language meant to prevent conflicts between the different levels of government and the various local associations involved in the project.

In the flow

The project began in 2006. Seven years later, we can see the results: sand dredging from the river, less pollution, healthier riverbanks, rampart restoration, a new marina, and traffic lanes and connections between different urban spaces.

Since mid-2011, Rabat residents have enjoyed a state-of-the-art tramway that transports more than 100,000 riders from one side of the city to the other every day. A new bridge over the estuary makes going from Rabat to Salé much easier than before, and a tunnel under the Udayas facilitates traffic along the coast.

Photo: Simon Music

Of course, not everyone is pleased. For example, the still-incomplete residential projects at the river mouth in Salé are controversial. The way that the property was acquired and the compensation given to residents who were displaced have come in for serious criticism. But viewed in their entirety, the city's new additions are welcome in a capital that was threatened by archaic housing developments, increasing litter and pollution.

The planning operations are moving slowly, but a second bridge over the Bou Regreg is advancing, as is a new 120-hectare (296-acre) development at Bab al-Bahr. Work on the highway that will connect Salé to the airport started in September.

In coming years, the city's Atlantic coast will see the addition of a port that can accommodate cruise ships, as well as a port for sailing and pleasure boating facing the Kasbah of the Udayas, as well as a new hospital. And that's not even counting the numerous construction projects creating new housing, businesses, offices and tourist attractions, especially around the grand esplanade that looks over the Bou Regreg River.

Planning also continues for additions to the Hay Riad business development area, which was originally created in the 1970s with the goal of reducing congestion in the city center. The area is now home to several government ministries and administrations, as well as the headquarters for many Moroccan companies.

In the southeast, the Technopolis park developed by Medz, a branch of the French-Moroccan joint savings bank, continues to fill up. Rabat's new international university is located there, as are many international companies. A hotel company has recently bought land to build hotels for the businesspeople who visit the area. The technology center has established incentives to attract investors while it is waiting for the expected tax-free zone to be created.

When it is finished, the 300 hectares (741 acres) will be devoted to high-tech industries, with the goal of especially promoting research and development and technology transfers between the universities and private companies.

The stakes are high, since employment is a major concern in Rabat, and the capital's metro area continues to grow. The city has about two million residents and, according to projections, it will more than double by 2030. That's why it is so important to widen economic development zones and to support the establishment of new companies. The metamorphosis of Rabat has only just begun.

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As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

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But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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