Moving Moroccan Culture Policy from the Hands of the Elite to Everyone Else’s


Moroccan cultural production struggles with on the one hand being perceived as a ‘bourgeois’ luxury while on the other being subject to arbitrary funding by the Moroccan government. Salma Belkebir, a Rabat-based architect and lover of art & culture has a closer look at the funding policies and arts production.

Whether we ask about state attempts to define a cultural model, or the crumbling it has seen—and which we have been witnessing for over 30 years now—the question of culture in Morocco has always been about politics. Certainly, big budget festivals like Mawazine, Tanjazz and Jazzablanca allow for due divertissements; But what happened to the founding of a general cultural policy at the hands of the citizens? What happened to the breeding grounds for flourishing creativity, such as youth and cultural centers, which are now barely operational and do no form tomorrow’s citizens?

This Moroccan cultural scene—which has fostered music’s big names and great painters, actors, writers and filmmakers—is in constant agony. Who does not know Nass El Ghiwane, Abdellatif Laâbi, Mohammed Hassan al-Jundi, or Fatema Mernissi? Who does not know Mohamed Rouicha, Hadda Ouakki or Najat Aâtabou? These leading figures, and so many others, have brought the national and popular culture to its height. When it comes down to it, what significance is given to cultural politics in Moroccos? What do these policies call for and what do they represent? And if a genuine social project is not clearly outlined, defined and voted upon, how can it even hatch?

In this article, I will voice my humble opinion on Morocco’s (not so-) cultural politics; the scene is set, so to speak, and ready to unveil what hinders its development. We will concentrate on a project, which is not among the least: “Rabat’s Grand Theatre.” built as a national icon to house the culture of the capital. Finally, we will try to define how these major urban development projects can contribute to the (not so-) cultural policies dehumanisation; why it is so important to understand the significance, foundations and applications of the term ”culture,” and to invest in it sustainably.

Autopsy of a Cultural Policy in Pain

Trying to define what a “cultural policy” is, we might say that it is “the set of strategies implemented in order to translate the cultural priorities of the city and of its individuals. Naturally, this strategy is constructed for the territory and its urban framework according to its context, history and civil society.”. Hence, the reader will notice that the historical, human and territorial dimensions are paramount.[1]

In our national context, we have, on the one hand, a heritage still being defined, and on the other its experiential expression by means of cultural politics. Looking at the comparative history of cultural politics, one notes that any coherence between the two struggles to be found or clearly defined. In short, culture has not always been at the forefront of political concerns, being this misplaced object grafted onto the ministerial departments.

The culture professional, visual artist and Doctor of Aesthetics and Art History, Said Bouftass, has said that “Today, we see the pedagogical lack from which this term suffers. We are light years away from the sense-making where culture allows humans to build themselves, to stimulate our intelligence, and to create bridges between peoples and civilizations.” [2]

Until 1968, our “Ministry of National Education and Fine Arts” was responsible for “culture.” and exerted its authority by means of various services inherited from the former protectorate’s “Directorate of Public Instruction,” wrote ethnologist and sociologist André Adam in his contemporary chronicle of ”Cultural Policy in Morocco.” By decree on 8 July 1968, Mohammed el-Fassi—previously Minister of National Education in the first Moroccan government, at the time Rector of the Moroccan Universities—was appointed ”State Minister in charge of Cultural Affairs and Traditional Teaching.” Adam continues: “On 13 April 1972, a new amendment includes culture in the ’Ministry of Traditional, Higher and Secondary Teaching,’ which falls to Habib el-Fihri. Finally, on 25 April 1974, culture is separated from Islamic Affairs and Habous and returns to the ”State Minister in charge of Cultural Affairs,” Mohammed Bahnini’.[3]

Culture remained subject to the Ministry of the Interior until 1992, when the Ministry of Cultural Affairs gained its independence. Questions of artistic expression and creation were then put on hold for many years to come—that is, despite the simultaneous development of an alternative cultural scene. Accordingly, only following the 1998 changeover in government do we speak again of a “Ministry of Culture.” Several ministers took turns at this—each with a vision of culture different from the previous—before Mohamed Amine Sbihi took over from 2012 to 2016 in pursuit of his “Strategy of Cultural Morocco.” We will get back to this later to further develop and understand his predominant challenges.

At the end of the day—when working on the promotion of a book and meeting culture professionals of regional directorates, or on the preservation of heritage—we speak about cultural governance. In Morocco, the lack of a coherent and long-term political vision of culture is a standing obstacle to the achievement of anything, big or small.

On the one hand, all this ministerial shuffling has contributed to the dispersion of cultural policies, given that each program put in place was often disconnected from the previous; On the other hand, they have reaffirmed the difficulty of deploying sustainable cultural action, which is still struggling to find its place, given the lack of funds and a long-term vision. Any strategy should be based on a vision, and a depoliticized vision of culture would only serve to further empty it of what it is that makes it a vision.

Mohamed Amine Sbihi’s cultural strategy is certainly worth looking at, basing itself on five key points: community culture, support of artistic endeavors, promotion of heritage, cultural diplomacy and good governance. Speaking about cultural governance, we find ourselves in a managerial approach to culture that is totally disconnected from local realities, which checks the conception of a public cultural policy as frail and incomplete.[4]

During my mandate as the president of a cultural association DABATEATR, from 2015 to 2017—I was able to see firsthand how some bodies within the Ministry of Culture stifle certain initiatives with bureaucracy; even to the point of calling into question the promise of lasting support advocated by the ministry. It should also be noted that in Morocco, art and culture organizations can in no way rely on sparse national funds (less than 1% of the national budget is allocated to culture), and that consequently, it is foreign funding that keeps them alive.

In 2018, the Ministry of Culture is investing 330 MDH in culture (30 million euros), while the Bouregreg Valley Development Agency is investing 120 MDH in the unique Rabat Grand Theatre project. In a country where cultural infrastructure at the local level is very poor, these numbers show that we are far from those portfolios, which would allow for an implementation of real strategies for artistic production beyond occasional activities (festivals and moussems), even building and investing in performance spaces. It should be pointed out that Morocco has launched the construction of 54 cultural institutions between 2012 and 2016, which is truly commendable, but not still sufficient. Nevertheless, those walls need to be reinforced through the training of qualified human resources that might staff work within them, and through the professional involvement of the artists (including painters, choreographers, writers and filmmakers) with whom this country abounds. Investing in continuous training, such as apprenticeships, at the option of young artists—so that they may measure themselves and be inspired by the light of other competences—is another necessity.

In most cases, these sparse and insufficient amounts cannot afford the actual “mounting of artistic projects”, which includes writing, dramaturgy, staging, music, technical and artistic assistance, per diem of artists, and more.

“Without a doubt, the Ministry of Culture should consider not distributing crumbs to several theatre companies, but to choose those which deserve to see their finished works presented to the public,” says Rabat-based choreographer and cultural activist Salima Moumni. This optimist and dreamer in love with her country longs to see more weight and more space given to choreographic arts in Morocco. If today, dance is an art in its own right, ten years ago it was non-existent as a discipline within the Ministry of Culture, Salima reminds us; she recognizes the evolution of this art, but deplores the state’s lack of engagement in public cultural policy. All the same, she hopes that the new academy of music and dance will be a venerable place of professional training, and finishes our interview—as if stating a common fact—by concluding that ’there are no cultural politics, only artists fighting on their own, like madmen’. Madmen—or homeless, as Moroccan writer Ahmed Massaia would say: “The artist still suffers from being a homeless person, dragging around on his back his creation, as an unwanted baggage.” Giving more visibility to talented artists, and focusing less on elitist cultural patronage—towards which also our country gravitates—are the priorities. I consider it above all prerequisite that our cultural policies are in line with the kind of society we want to build in this country, torn as it is today between a grandiloquent and exclusive vision of culture, and the need to give Moroccan citizens the long- and much-advocated democratization of culture.[5] [6]

In this regard, Said Bouftass argues that “Culture is the wholeness of a kind of society, the complex motor of human action. A child of today, having benefitted from culture, is guaranteed to be a citizen on whom society can count a decade later.” Why do people blow themselves up on the borders of spatial lawlessness? Why is it urgent to think about not “bringing culture” to the forgotten areas of Sidi Moumen, Sidi Taibi or El Kelaa des Sraghna —but to reinstate it in the social fabric.[7]

 This gap is well illustrated by grandiose projects, such as the Rabat Grand Theatre.

Commoditization of Culture: The Rabat Grand Theatre Project

Morocco’s administrative capital, Rabat, has for several years been undergoing important socio-spatial and urban transformations within the framework of the urban development project “Rabat—City of Lights” (“Rabat Ville Lumière”), initiated by the Rabat Region Development Agency. Several major projects have been launched, such as the Rabat Grand Theatre, which was designed by the late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, a superstar of international architecture and first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize in 2004.[8]

This project, which was launched as part of phase 2 — “al-Sahat al-Kabira” of the Bouregreg Valley development project and amounts to 1.4 billion MDH (120 million euros) — was conceived as the capital’s new architectural and urban landmark. As Territorial Development scholar Leïla Hamidi pointed out, the then-Director of the Bouregreg Valley Development Agency Lemghari Essakl stated in 2010 that the Rabat Grand Theatre project “was going to compete with the world’s biggest cultural structures in terms of architecture and acoustic equipment.” “The main objective of this future development is clearly to conceive a monumental cultural edifice in order tolift [the capital of the kingdom] into the ranks of great cultural capitals of the Mediterranean,”’ concludes Hamidi.[9]

Thus it has been made clear that the main objective of this theatre may not be to make this space a place of artistic flourishing — one of training, teaching and education in the name of culture — but in fact to improve the city’s image, maximize its competitive position among the Mediterranean metropoles, and ultimately to attract the interest of national and international investors. The culture of our era is clearly that of the image. Likewise, the 2020 vision for strategic development of the tourism sector in Morocco highlights the introduction of investments and building projects in order to improve the competitive position of Moroccan cities.

This notwithstanding, can we allow—as a developing country in 123rd place on the Human Development Index—to invest this amount of money, some of which comes from taxpayers, in improving the capital’s brand image? A strange order of priority.

The Rabat Grand Theatre project is not part of a vision of creating an artistic and cultural link between the impoverished youths of the popular Salé and Rabat Medina neighborhoods. These young people need spaces for art creation, rehearsals and teaching; just as the theatre groups need venues to perform their acts; filmmakers, movie theatres to project their films; and painters, small galleries to make themselves known. Many arts professionals yearn to consecrate their time, and to teach tomorrow’s citizens what art and culture education is.

Now, from the perspective of the architect, there are two points that I would like to emphasize: Firstly, that this project, with its futuristic architecture, is out of touch; for one thing with the landscaping potential of the Bouregreg Valley, for another with the local socio-economic context. Secondly, how does an international architecture agency permit an operational delay of more than four years? One answer might be that of Nabil Rahmouni, architect and Director of the association Sala Moustaqbal, when speaking of the subject of phase 1—“Bab el-Bahr,” which was intended to accommodate upscale housing. According to Leïla Hamidi, Rahmouni explained that “only French and foreign companies and consulting firms were petitioned as prime contractors. However, the labor force employed on the construction sites is of local origin, and therefore accustomed to the traditional construction techniques used in Morocco. Thus, the overlay of construction techniques meeting international standards and a local workforce creates many inconsistencies and bottlenecks on Bouregreg’s current construction sites.” We may conclude that the outsourcing of work to foreign consulting firms and prime contractors created major delays on the construction site, with a consequential increase in construction costs.[10]

This Grand Theatre project thus leads us to ask several questions: For whom is this space built? To what kind of socio-cultural activities will it be dedicated? And WHO will be its users? Answering these questions, to which we already dispose of quite illuminating observations, helps us understand how (not so-) cultural transmission policy is organized in our country, and to what extent—through these kinds of projects being ourselves part of a neo-liberal and depoliticized cultural policy—getting involved in “ONE CULTURE FOR ALL” truly becomes at the same time urgent and complex.

Let’s Invest in Culture!

Culture is neither superfluous, nor an object we can do without; and it is so important to be aware of that. Addressing this matter, cultural anthropologist Amina Touzani argues that “Even if we fear to state it categorically, our governments conceive of culture as a ‘bourgeois’ luxury for those who practice it, and a superfluous divertissement for those whose interest it attracts, instead of viewing it as a factor of inclusion and a dimension of life. As soon as other priorities come into the picture, the financing of culture is quickly and gladly worn away. Every time, it took ten years, twenty years, and more, of postponing certain—to our best belief—albeit viable projects. This is the case of the National Library, of the National Museum, and others…” In my opinion, it is this elitist vision of culture we need to overcome today in order to push an inclusive culture, which allows for an egalitarian social development in equal favor of the privileged, deprived and exposed social classes.[11]

Culture is this vector of encounters and social coherence, it is the motor of diversity. Culture is that which makes it possible to stir awareness and build informed citizens who question their being in the world. Culture calls for goodness and graciousness, reveals hidden talents and gives voice to our deepest desires.

Culture is what defines us as a group of individuals, that which joins us, brings us together and differentiates us. It is above all a mirror of the development of our societies, so that to defend an inclusive concept of culture is to participate in a better, egalitarian and unified Morocco.


[1] Definition given by the Cultural Agency of Grand Est, France (http://www.culture culturelle/definition).

[2] Comment made to the author by Said Bouftass on 16 September 2018.


[3] Adam, A.: ‘La politique culturelle au Maroc’, p. 107 129 in Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord, Editions du Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique 1973, see also http://aan.mmsh.univ 1973 12_43.pdf

[4] Transl. from the French: La culture de proximité, le soutien à la création, la valorisation du patrimoine, la diplomatie culturelle et la bonne gouvernance. Cf. LOISIRS/150191 Le Maroc lance une strategie culturelle qui rompt avec les visions folklorisantes.html


[5] Interview with Salima Moumni in Rabat on 12 September 2018.

[6] Massaia, A.: Un désir de culture. Essai sur l’action culturelle au Maroc, Edition la croisée des chemins 2013.

[7] Comment made by Said Bouftass on 16 September 2018.

[8] Major architecture prize awarded annually, referred to as the Nobel Prize of architecture.


[9] Hamidi, L.: LE PROJET D’AMENAGEMENT DE LA VALLEE DU BOUREGREG : UN PROJET SOCIAL ? Focus sur les populations des pêcheurs, poissonniers et barcassiers. Polytech’Tours 2011. P.47


[10] Ibid. p. 46.

[11] Touzani, A,.La politique culturelle au Maroc, Ed La Croisée des Chemins,223p, 2016.