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Promenade of a Prince: Morocco’s National Zoo Affair


Al Akhbar:

Scenes of Moroccan officials fawning over the country’s 9-year-old prince Hassan flew in the face of claims of progressive rule. The scenes also hid a more sinister past of the zoo project on display and the financial interests behind it.

Rituals of bowing and hand-kissing are common during official ceremonies in Morocco when a member of the royal family is attending. In one of his first official inaugural ceremonies alone, Crown Prince Moulay Hassan, the heir apparent, is warming up to his princely duties, along with the perks.

This video, recently released by Morocco’s state news agency, shows Hassan greeted by a line of officials at the newly constructed zoological garden in Rabat. The video, shown on Youtube with a high proportion of dislikes, has stirred a shocking reaction throughout the online community.

The scene of the nine-year-old prince greeted by high-ranking officials with bows and hand-kisses comes at a time when the Moroccan regime has continuously marketed itself as “progressive.”

However, the above scene conjures up memories of ancient practices that are now being met with negative reactions throughout the region. The Egyptian site, al Ahram features a screenshot of the video with an Arabic saying which roughly translates to, “Whoever sees the troubles of others, his own troubles are lessened.”

Prior to the opening of the zoological garden in Rabat, the previous national zoo was one of Rabat’s most visited landmarks. However, deteriorating conditions led to the death, theft, and sale of hundreds of animals according to the state news agency.

By 2004, the animal population at the zoo had decreased to 154. The remaining animals were sold to other zoos and individuals at a total of €27,000 (US$34,135). One year later, the land was sold to Morocco’s largest real estate development firm, Groupe Addoha.

While the state news agency reported the sale of the remaining animals, a video illustrating the inhumane conditions of the zoo surfaced in April 2011. The video was accompanied by accounts of locals and footage of housing construction carried out by Groupe Addoha, which also provides low-cost housing throughout Morocco. Groupe Addoha has been under scrutiny for questionable practices and dealings with the state, including an undisclosed agreement signed in March 2011 with the Military Housing and Equipments Agency, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and the Administration of National Defense.

Last Ramadan (August 2011), a period when public television receives the highest amount of advertising funds from companies, Groupe Addoha was also at the center of controversy. Groupe Addoha’s commercial, which featured some of Morocco's most popular artists, was frequently played on television. The commercial advertised Groupe Addoha’s housing for low-income families in a melodic tune, along with the promotion of US$30,000 apartments and the waiver of a down payment.

A report later emerged claiming an agreement had been reached between the minister of housing, the minister of communications, and the prime minister. The agreement allowed Groupe Addoha to advertise on state television for half of the original cost. The commercial was one of the most widely aired during Ramadan.

When a request was made to retrieve records concerning the deal between these ministers and Groupe Addoha, the latter turned it down on the grounds that Groupe Addoha provides a public service through its low-cost housing.

A Wikileaks cable released on August 2011 cites Groupe Addoha’s business practices and the benefits it reaps from the government, including the acquisition of land valued at US$3 billion for US$250 million, a five-year tax exemption during the first years of operation, and a 15 percent corporate tax rate after the five-year window.

The cable goes on to address the widespread dissatisfaction of the quality and standards of the housing: “A recent study conducted by the Ministry of Housing found that many people living in the new social housing units are dissatisfied with their accommodations, particularly the small size of living spaces.”

Less than two months after the Ramadan housing promotion, residents in Marrakech protested against Groupe Addoha due to poor housing conditions.Footage of the apartments shows what appears to be poorly constructed exterior walls, broken windows, and lingering construction material surrounding the premises.

The new zoological garden in Rabat, which is costing the state close to US$50 million, juxtaposed with the ghetto-like social housing provided by private companies close to the state, is an illustration of the continuing policies fueling widespread dissent.

In the past year, in the midst of protests demanding jobs and economic reform, the Moroccan government announced a US$4 billion high-speed rail project, which many argued was unnecessary, ill-timed, and even a “waste of money” according to a former minister.

Economic reform continues to be a major demand among protesters, with the first week of January seeing violent clashes between riot police and protesters in the northern city of Taza, along with unemployed graduates demanding jobs in Rabat's downtown center, who were also met with violent police repression.

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