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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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