In December 2010, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself. This 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 Muslim nations in the Mediterranean in 2011.
Ten nations share the sand-swirled backdrop of the Sahara Desert – a region larger than the contiguous United States. The Sahara, where dunes can reach the height of 600 feet, has been the backdrop to much of the Arab Spring. This social earthquake has surmounted Tunisia, Egypt and Libya among others in the region. Meanwhile the upheaval registered only modest tremors in Morocco.
I’ve just returned from a Chief Executives Organization tour to Morocco. Our group of 35 couples visited the country’s sometime snow-capped Atlas Mountains and the metropolises of Marrakech and Casablanca. Who can forget the vintage Bogart-Bergman flick of the same name? Well Rick’s gin joint wasn’t on our agenda. What we did see stirred confidence that change can be intelligently anticipated, even in tradition-rich Morocco. This land’s monarchy is one of the oldest 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 the U.S. Ambassador to Morocco. He’s one of the very few Jewish people in that role to a Muslim nation. Sam is convinced Morocco’s government is doing a solid job.
Here are six pieces of take-home value I scratched out on my napkin as our return flights wended their way 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 present king has already done more than his father did in a half century. Morocco’s February 20th 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.” The challenge is empowering the people, and the new government appreciates its mission.
- If you want to empower people, address the day-to-day tasks that keep them from using their skills. You probably guessed it; women have shouldered a disproportionate responsibility in gathering water in Morocco. This has been a significant barrier to them getting a meaningful education. Might this ring a bell for us in America? Consider how many women in our business world were still getting coffee just twenty years ago!
- Cultivate the long view. Successfully battling infant mortality and adding twenty years to the average Moroccan’s life span have been signal achievements. Again, increased access to a safe water supply has made a crucial difference. Marking a third birthday has become a pivotal survival milestone. Gradually Moroccan parents are now able to take a more secure view of life.
- Pay more attention to world powers than neighborhood bullies. Morocco has drawn a high share of American and European investment compared with neighboring countries. One reason: Its political and social agenda has had a more practical and progressive ring.
- Foster entrepreneurship. A long-standing ally of the West, Moroccans like Americans. They also appreciate free enterprise. Entrepreneurship and tradition flourish side-by-side in Morocco. In agriculture, the new thrust is shifting production to more profitable fruit crops. And the customer service passion we experienced from hotel staffs was awesome.
Morocco’s King proves once again one person can make a difference . . . but only if that one person puts the common agenda first.
Mackay’s Moral: Tweets let freedom ring everywhere . . . even where the king’s the thing.