In Casablanca, Morocco and Israel see the beginning of a beautiful tech friendship

Organizations ink 13 agreements, as representatives declare that historic ties have become economic opportunities — though full diplomatic ties are still on hold

Ricky Ben-David is a Times of Israel editor and reporter

SNC CEO Avi Hasson speaks at the 'Connect to Innovate' conference in Casablanca, May 23, 2022. (SNC)
SNC CEO Avi Hasson speaks at the 'Connect to Innovate' conference in Casablanca, May 23, 2022. (SNC)

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Israeli and Moroccan organizations signed a number of business and tech agreements on Monday, including on water and energy, as part of the inaugural “Connect to Innovate” conference organized by Start-Up Nation Central (SNC), a non-profit outfit that tracks the Israeli tech ecosystem.

The three-day event, co-organized by Moroccan company CPR, is underway in the port hub of Casablanca, Morocco’s commercial and industrial center and its most populous city. The summit, which runs through Wednesday, will host workshops, lectures, business panels, pitch sessions, and roundtable discussions meant at exploring mutual opportunities.

A total of 13 memorandums of understanding (MOUs) between businesses and government agencies were signed at the event, promising to explore possibilities in areas like agriculture and water tech, logistics, and “human capital,” where an idea is being developed to address the shortage of tech talent in Israel with Moroccan engineers and developers.

The conference opened Monday with a ceremony welcoming some 150 people across Israeli and Moroccan delegations of business leaders, government officials, and diplomatic figures, including representatives from 25 Israeli tech companies. Among these were water tech firms N-Drip and Watergen, climate tech company, and agriculture tech outfits Supplant, Fruitspec and Salicrop.

SNC CEO Avi Hasson, whose former roles include chief scientist at the Economy Ministry and head of the Israel Innovation Authority, said ahead of the event that Israel was engaging in “innovation diplomacy” where it could “take its knowledge and use it to solve common challenges in focused regions.”

Hasson said the 25 selected startups in the delegation were all working to address key issues such as water shortages and conservation, sustainability, and securing food supplies through advanced agriculture.

Attendees at the Morocco-Israel ‘Connect to Innovate’ conference, organized by Start-Up Nation Central in Casablanca, Morocco. (SNC)

The aim of the conference, he said, was to “create possibilities that bring together the private and public sectors,” and lay the foundations to help Morocco develop its own tech ecosystem.

“There are lessons to be learned from Israel, and best practices,” he offered.

Israel and Morocco were currently engaged in a process of education, research, and learning of their respective markets and regulation landscape, he indicated.

“Israeli companies see Morocco as an opportunity and a possible connection to the rest of the region,” said Hasson.

Speakers at the opening event Monday included Andre Azoulay, a prominent member of the Moroccan Jewish community and an adviser to King Mohammed VI, as well as president of the Fondation de Recherche de Développement et d’Innovation en Sciences et Ingénierie (FRDISI), an organization that seeks research and tech collaborations and whose representatives were on hand at the conference to explore opportunities with Israel.

Mr. Andre Azoulay, advisor to King Mohamed VI, speaks at the Morocco-Israel ‘Connect to Innovate’ conference in Casablanca, May 23, 2022 (SNC)

Addressing the audience in French, Azoulay praised the Israeli tech sector as a source of inspiration and a global heavyweight, and said he hoped the conference would lead to solid business relationships and developments.

Azoulay said Morocco hopes to be part of tech revolutions that are “changing lives.” He signed off his address by calling for Israelis and Palestinians to “recover their voice for peace.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed the audience in a video message, hailing the “historic event” facilitated by deep ties “that go back centuries.”

“The potential for cooperation between us is huge. We can create a new reality in food, water, AI, agriculture, medical tech and more. We can create new economic opportunities,” said Herzog.

Moroccan Minister of Digital Transformation Ghita Mezzour said the kingdom could “draw a lot of expertise [from Israel] in developing its startup ecosystem. We have so much to learn from Israel.”

“We have a lot of youth trained in IT [information technology] and we have a lot to offer. We are also a top [IT] outsourcing destination in Africa and could become an R&D hub for Israel,” said Mezzour.

Ryad Mezzour, Morocco’s minister of commerce and industry, expressed similar sentiments in his address, saying Morocco had “an amazing opportunity [to learn] from one of the most innovative countries in the world to show us the way.”

Rekindled ties

The conference comes a year and a half after Rabat signed onto the US-brokered Abraham Accords that normalized ties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.

Israel and Morocco had established liaison offices in the 1990s during a short-lived diplomatic opening, but these were closed in the early 2000s during the second Palestinian intifada. Yet relations quietly continued, with some $130 million in bilateral trade in 2021, and similar figures in previous years, according to Moroccan news reports.

A view of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco with the tallest minaret in the world. (Ricky Ben-David)

Since the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, Israel and Morocco have signed a defense pact, allowing for smoother cooperation between their defense establishments and making it easier for Israel to sell arms to the North African kingdom, and launched direct flights from Tel Aviv to Casablanca and Marrakesh, the kingdom’s fourth-largest city.

These milestones followed a high-profile visit last summer to Casablanca by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to inaugurate a Liaison Office in Rabat.

The countries have yet to establish full diplomatic ties with running embassies, and their respective representatives hold the title of “head of the liaison office” or “head of mission,” instead of “ambassador.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (right) inaugurates Israel’s Liaison Office in Rabat, Morocco, on August 12, 2021, alongside Moroccan Deputy Foreign Minister Mohcine Jazouli (center) and Welfare Minister Meir Cohen (left). (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

This delay is believed to be linked to the disputed Western Sahara region, where Morocco is seeking sovereignty, a move reportedly promised by the administration of former US president Donald Trump whose team sired the Abraham Accords. The Biden administration has indicated it will uphold the agreement.

Israel’s envoy to Morocco, David Govrin, told reporters on Monday that the respective leaders are expected to resume discussions on Western Sahara “in due time.”

Turning to economic and diplomatic matters, Govrin said the resumption of ties was “based on very solid ground,” as the bilateral relationship between Israel and Morocco is built on a “common culture and shared values.”

The two countries signed a trade agreement earlier this year, with Israeli Minister of Economy and Industry Orna Barbivai targeting $500 million in bilateral trade in the next five years, a goal Govrin said the two countries were hoping to achieve.

Israel’s new chargé d’affaires to Morocco David Govrin (Courtesy)

“I’m sure we will achieve it because the desire is there… we are doing our best to promote [business ties] and foster our relationship. We are bringing together Israeli and Moroccan companies to develop business and commercial ties. We are laying down the infrastructure and the foundation [for these ties],” said Govrin, adding that the “potential was huge” and that the two countries were “working hard” to move their relationship forward.

“It is a process. It doesn’t happen in one day,” said Govrin.

Historic ties

Israel and Morocco have shared close, if quiet, ties for decades in part because the North African country is home to the region’s biggest Jewish community, and the ancestral homeland of some 700,000 Israelis. Many of them often maintain familial and cultural ties to the country of their parents’ or grandparents’ birth and have been traveling to Morocco for decades on heritage tours, via Paris or other European capitals.

Illustrative: In this photo taken on June 16, 2009, Museum Director Simon Levy shows an ancient Torah scroll and religious artifacts made by Moroccan Jews during a visit at the Jewish Museum in Casablanca, Morocco. (AP Photo/Alfred de Montesquiou)

With a rich Jewish history and important Jewish sites, Morocco was home to the largest Jewish community in the Muslim-majority world, with an estimated 300,000 Jews up until the 1940s. Once the State of Israel was established in 1948, most left for the new Jewish state, as well as to France or Quebec, Canada.

Today, about 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco, approximately 1,000 of them in Casablanca.

As ties warm further, and now with direct flights, both countries have been hoping for an influx of tourists.

Tel Aviv to Casablanca

Some of these tourists lined up Monday morning at the airport check-in counter for the Royal Air Maroc flight from Tel Aviv to Casablanca, where the SNC delegation of about 50 people, including members of the press, was also gathered.

The excitement was palpable. Gerard and “Yvos” (Yves), two middle-aged Israeli travelers were discussing a previous trip to Morocco, as a third traveler, a first-timer, asked them if they thought he should put away the Star of David pendant hanging from his neck while in Morocco.

“No way! Leave it where it is. It’s fine. You’ll see,” Gerard assured him.

The check-in counter for a Royal Air Maroc flight from Tel Aviv to Casablanca. (Ricky Ben-David)

The check-in lines to Casablanca were filled with people greeting each other in a mix of Hebrew, French, Hebrew-accented French, and Hebrew-accented Moroccan Arabic. Also called Darija, it is the most difficult spoken Arabic dialect to understand for most Arabic speakers of other nationalities (except Algerians and to some extent Tunisians) due to the heavy influences of Berber languages and, to a lesser extent, French and Spanish.

At the gate and onboard the 5.5-hour flight, relatives of a number of Moroccan Jewish matriarchs — in colorful print dresses, head coverings, and orthopedic sandals — took selfies and talked excitedly about the family members they were to visit and the events they would attend in Casablanca, or Casa for short (pronounced Caza), like a wedding and a bar mitzvah.

Not a word was uttered about the famous 1942 film by that name.

The writer is a guest of SNC at the conference.

AFP contributed to this report.

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