Mackay: How Morocco managed a far gentler Arab Spring

In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself. The 26-year-old street vendor had been rousted and humiliated once again by Tunisian police for hawking apples and pears out of a wheelbarrow. Bouazizi ignited more than himself. His death triggered the Arab Spring, a Twitter-driven revolution that engulfed a number of Muslim nations in the Mediterranean in 2011.

Ten nations share the Sahara Desert -- a huge region that has been the backdrop to much of the Arab Spring. This social earthquake surmounted Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, among others. But the upheaval registered only modest tremors in Morocco.

I've just returned from a Chief Executives Organization tour of Morocco. Our group visited the sometimes snow-capped Atlas Mountains and the metropolises of Marrakech and Casablanca.

What we saw stirred confidence that change can be intelligently anticipated, even in Morocco, one of the oldest monarchies on the planet.

Executives should analyze the dynamics of the Arab Spring. It's a case study of what can befall complacent bureaucracies (businesses included) in the lightning-speed world of Twitter and Facebook.

Morocco's course also merits study. It shows one way meaningful change can be achieved without casting an entire society into turmoil.

King Mohammed VI rules over 32 million Moroccans -- nearly all of whom are Muslim. Many once-nomadic Berbers are now farmers, whereas millions of Moroccans today live in cities. Despite broad income advances, poverty remains a problem in Morocco. Mohammed VI assumed the throne in 1999 upon his father's death. The king championed greater freedoms, especially for women, and disavowed the notion that he was a "sacred" being.

My lifelong friend Sam Kaplan is U.S. ambassador to Morocco. He's one of the very few Jewish people in that role in a Muslim nation. Sam is convinced that Morocco's government is doing a solid job.

Here are some pieces of take-home value I scratched out on my napkin as our return flights headed west:

Dig your well before you're thirsty. Small villages have been a priority, and practical issues like water and electricity have commanded center stage. If you want to avert a groundswell, plant your feet firmly in reality.

Act faster than expected. From the first day of his rule, the king has already done more than his father did in a half century. Morocco's February 20 Movement barely gained traction this year. According to the Economist, "Unlike other Arab autocrats who dithered when uprisings erupted last spring, King Mohammed VI unveiled a new constitution within weeks."

Cultivate the long view. Successfully battling infant mortality and adding 20 years to the average Moroccan's lifespan have been signal achievements. Increased access to a safe water supply has made a huge difference.

Pay more attention to world powers than neighborhood bullies. Morocco has drawn a high share of U.S. and European investment compared with neighboring countries. One reason: Its political and social agendas have each had a more practical and progressive ring.

Foster entrepreneurship. Moroccans like Americans. They also appreciate free enterprise. In agriculture, the new thrust is shifting production to more profitable fruit crops. And the customer service we experienced from hotel staffs was awesome.

Morocco's king proves once again one person can make a difference ... if that one person puts the common agenda first.

Mackay's Moral: Tweets let freedom ring everywhere ... even where the king's the thing.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.

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