Morocco’s royal budget remains a taboo

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Article Summary
Despite transparency in other aspects of Morocco’s economy, the royal budget remains basically off-limits, with parliamentarians hesitant to even bring up the issue.

Sacred: The finances of the Moroccan royal palace are subject to a brief presentation before parliamentarians, who have no interlocutor from the royal court to discuss them with.

Opaque: The few details provided to the elected officials create confusion in terms of civil lists, sovereign grants and the royal court’s budget.

Excessive: The Moroccan citizen pays to the monarchy 11 times more than what an Englishman — who is [on average] 13 times richer — pays to his kingdom.

A little more than one year ago, on Nov. 18, 2012, in front of the parliament’s esplanade, an unprecedented cause brought together dozens of activists from the February 20 movement (M20) and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH). They demanded a royal budget cut. “The state is in crisis, public finances are alarming and Moroccans are tightening their belts. During this period of time, the budget allocated to the monarchy is rising. This is not normal,” repeated the demonstrators.

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“Protesting openly on public roads against the royal budget’s excessiveness was unheard of,” recalls an M20 activist. ...  

This was a [indeed] a first, but also a final.

The protest went wrong. Police intervened quickly and brutally to disperse the rally. However, the protesters’ voices were echoed in the national and international media. Social networks flared up and discussion grew louder in parliament. Two days later, Oujda parliament member Abdelaziz Aftati raised a debate over the issue. While the royal court’s budget was tackled by the parliamentary Finance Committee [Aftati], the new troublemaker of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) criticized the process: “The persons who drafted this budget must defend it. A representative of the palace [must assume this mission] and not a minister attached to the prime minister.”

His words remain dust in the wind; a year later, little or nothing has changed…

Omerta under the dome

In November 2013, Morocco witnessed a similar fate. The royal court’s budget was again subject to the vote of elected officials. This time, the street was not mobilized. “Last year, we wanted to raise awareness among parliamentarians, who have every right to bring up the subject,” argues the M20 activist. “But as they chose to remain silent, we will not keep taking blows on their behalf,” he added. Indeed, on the day of the discussion of monarchy finances, no palace representative came forward, even though the issue concerns a budget item worth 2.5 billion dirhams [$305 million] per year. Mohamed El Ouafa, who replaced General Affairs Minister Najib Boulif, assumed this difficult mission. Member of parliament Abdelaziz Aftati is still the only one who came forward and requested the presence of the palace treasurers. The Islamist member of parliament told us: “El Ouafa reassured us in the committee that the officials responsible for drafting the budget were present. Personally, I have not seen any known official from the palace.” Obviously, no other parliament member has asked questions requiring the intervention of palace officials whose presence was only felt by El Ouafa.

“MPs have always been stunned at the mention of the subject,” said economist Najib Akesbi. “In terms of the royal court’s budget, we are still in the prehistory of public fiscal transparency.” In parliament, the finances of the palace remain a taboo that no one dares to approach. “It is rather more out of modesty than fear,” according to a member of parliament who preferred to remain anonymous. “In Morocco, it is a matter of culture: one never asks superiors about their salary or expenses,” said Rachid Rokbane, head of the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS) parliamentary group. He attributes this to the parliament’s customs. “It is a tradition for parliament that some budgets, as those of the royal court, the Ministry of Defense or the government, are not subject to discussion and even voted on unanimously,” he said. Is it a tradition? Should a ritual of a bygone era when this kind of budget used to be voted on by acclamation be revived?

The king and his royal court

The royal budget is a component of the state’s general budget and is therefore partially subsidized by taxpayers. Debating the issue in a respectful manner is far from being a lese-majesty. Moreover, out of the 2.5 billion dirhams of the total [palace] budget, only 20% are to be registered in his majesty’s account. The lion’s share is classified under a catch-all item dubbed royal palace. It covers public institutions, palace departments, staff and operation of the cabinet and many other organizations. “I have too much respect for the monarch to discuss his salary, but the royal court remains for me an administration just like the others. It must be subject to control as long as it is funded by taxpayers' money,” explains Aftati. However, until this date, the documents provided and presented succinctly to the parliament barely contained four tables and 27 budget lines. Even if members of parliament wanted to discuss details, they have very little data and no interlocutor able to provide explanations on the use of this wealth. So long to transparency!

On the other hand, in democratic countries, royal institutions publish annual reports full of details about royal court expenses. They place them under very tight control and have every interest in justifying every penny spent. In Britain, for example, funds allocated to the monarchy are even indexed to crown revenue. Yes, in Elizabeth II’s monarchy, as in other European countries, monarchies became sources of revenue for the state.

“In Morocco, too, this is theoretically possible,” asserts the marketing professional. “The Alouite crown is valuable in terms of stability and unity, but it also must be become financially valuable. Photos of the sovereign are sold like hotcakes on the stalls of street vendors. Imagine the craze generated if the palace were open to the public.”

Calm the debate

Before getting there, politicians ought to demonstrate that they are capable of dispassionately addressing the issue. They should free themselves from the yoke of sacredness surrounding every issue related to the palace. In fact, the vagueness surrounding this budget does not necessarily serve the monarchy. By excluding the expenses of the royal court budget, the "cost" per capita would regain levels worthy of European parliamentary monarchies. However, boosted by 2.5 billion dirhams of the court's budget, the monarchy reflects the image of a regime that has a staggering lifestyle that is completely out of kilter with the living conditions of Moroccans.

In addition, the large resources allocated to the court favor the multiplication of extra-governmental agencies, which, in some cases, encroach upon the work of the executive branch. The government never addresses this topic, and Abdelilah Benkirane is careful not to upset the government.

“The government may dare to raise the issue of the court budget when it will be time to adopt a fiscal austerity policy,” Aftati predicts. Indicators of public finances raise concerns that this scenario is not far from materializing. But should it have to get this bad to consider discussing the finances of the royal court?

Imbalance of power

The resources allocated to the head of government and to the parliament have grown since 2001 at a much faster pace than the evolution of palace resources. The parliamentary budget has nearly doubled, while that of the prime minister has almost tripled. The resources of the palace, however, were not anywhere near that point when they started. At the beginning of the reign of Mohammed VI, the royal court already cost more than 2 billion dirhams [$244 million], which is more than four times (versus the current two times) the money provided for the functioning of the premiership and the two chambers of parliament. In 2008, the cost of the government staff was suddenly halved. But at the same time, sovereignty allocations increased by more than 110 million dirhams [$13.4 million]. The palace has been widely recruiting in recent years, and more than 600 jobs have been allocated to it in the last three finance laws, versus 280 to be split between the head of government, the house of representatives and the house of councillors.

132 million [dirhams, or $16 million]

For the past seven years, the investment budget of the royal court has  ...  considerably declined: At the beginning of the reign, palace investments used to exceed 220 million dirhams [$27 million].

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Found in: royal family, protests, parliament, morocco, elections, economy, budget
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