Morocco booming city eyes ambitious plans to exploit strategic location
With an ultramodern port, high-speed train and the biggest car plant in North Africa, Tangiers is looking to profit from its strategic location overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar and its proximity to Europe.
Morocco's northernmost city, just a short boat ride from southern Spain, has always attracted foreign interest, notably in the period before independence in 1956, with its unique status as an international zone.
In line with efforts to tap its potential and reverse decades of neglect, King Mohammed VI launched the "Tanger-Metropole" programme last September to boost the city's development.
The ambitious four-year, $1 billion (700 million euros) plan, which will target industrial development in particular, aims "to take full advantage of all the major infrastructure already in place," the governor of Tangiers Mohammed Yaakoubi said.
First among the "Tanger-Metropole" projects is the Tanger-Med port, inaugurated in 2007, which lies around 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of the city and already welcomes two million passengers and 700,000 cars every year.
Situated on one of the world's busiest shipping routes, the port is expected to double the number of containers it handles with the construction of Tanger-Med 2, to six million annually, bringing its total cost to eight billion euros.
A zone has also been given over to car manufacturer Renault, whose decision to set up a plant in Morocco caused a stir in France last year amid fears over French jobs being outsourced.
The plant opened in the autumn, and its second phase will bring annual production to 340,000 vehicles, making Tanger-Meloussa the biggest factory of its kind in Africa, the group said.
At a cost of more than one billion euros, the site, which has directly and indirectly created tens of thousands of jobs locally, was chosen by the manufacturer because of its proximity to Europe, low labour costs and tax-free benefits.
"More than 500 businesses are now set up in Tangiers," said Rifi Tazi, director of the "Tanger Free Zone."
Tangiers has become Morocco's second industrial city and from 2015, it is due to be linked to the economic capital Casablanca by a high-speed railway, which could be the continent's first when completed.
It has required an investment of nearly two billion euros, a cost that also generated some controversy about the project's usefulness.
The economic revival in Tangiers has been accompanied by a sharp rise in the city's population, which has doubled over the past 20 years and now numbers more than a million inhabitants, bringing social problems of its own.
Many residents live in poor neighbourhoods and have yet to experience any trickle-down benefits from the multi-billion dollar investments.
Yaakoubi says the Tanger-Metropole projects will be carried out "with great care for the environment," and address some of the challenges arising from the demographic boom, with a planned clean-up of the area's coast and valleys.
As for tourism, the city is looking to capitalise on its "coastal assets" -- building a marina on the Mediterranean seafront and a fishing harbour on the Atlantic -- as well as promoting its cultural scene, with a new arts centre and theatre planned.
But the city's geographical location, in many ways its greatest asset, also has its drawbacks.
Located just 30 kilometres from southern Spain and with the Rif mountains -- Morocco's main cannabis producing region -- nearby, Tangiers has become a key transit route for drug trafficking to Europe.
It is also increasingly in the spotlight over the persistent problem of illegal immigration, with police coming under fire in recent months for their harsh treatment of sub-Saharan Africans drawn to the city in the hope of crossing to Europe.
The death of a young Cameroonian during a police raid last month fuelled racial tensions, sparking clashes between migrants and security forces, and prompting an anti-immigrant protest by the neighbourhood's Moroccan residents.
The government has promised an "exceptional operation" in the new year to sort out the status of some of the tens of thousands of sub-Saharans residing illegally in Morocco.
But the challenge for the Tangiers authorities of accommodating the steady influx of immigrants will not go away any time soon.