U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Other State Department Archive SitesU.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Home Issues & Press Travel & Business Countries Youth & Education Careers About State Video

Ask the Ambassador Logo
"View Ask the Ambassador" Transcripts

Welcome to "Ask the Ambassador" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to U.S. Ambassadors around the world.

U.S. Ambassador to Morocco Thomas Riley,, discussed U.S.-Morocco bilateral relations.

Thomas Riley, U.S. Ambassador to Morocco
Thomas Riley U.S. Ambassador to Morocco

Event Date: May 16, 2008

Mike in Wisconsin writes:

What was the culture like in Morocco prior to the Arab conquest and does any of that pre-Islamic culture remain? Was the conquest by war or was it by another process? What languages were spoken prior to this conquest?

Ambassador Riley:

Mike, given its prime geographic location at a cross-road between Europe and Africa, Morocco’s history extends back many millennia. Morocco thus has a very rich and complex pre-Islamic history, much of which is still reflected today in Morocco’s architecture, languages and religious practices. For example, Morocco was an important Roman outpost, called Mauretania Tingitana, and spectacular Roman ruins still dot the Moroccan landscape, from the Chellah in Morocco’s capital Rabat, to the enormous Roman city of Volubilis.

Prior to the arrival of Arabs and Islam in North Africa in the seventh century, Morocco was dominated by Amazigh (also called Berber) and Jewish tribes. The Amazigh peoples have been in Morocco for at least three thousand years, while Jews first settled here between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago. Amazigh dialects were the principal language of the region, and religious practices were principally traditional/animist or Jewish, although there were some Christians as well. This strong Amazigh and Jewish cultural and religious background remains a key element of Moroccan identity today, and a source of great local pride. Indeed, many of the dynasties that ruled Morocco were Amazigh. Today, more than half the population of Morocco still speaks one of three main Amazigh dialects, and Amazigh architecture, music, food and art remain vitally important. There has been a recent effort to promote literacy in Amazigh dialects, an effort the U.S. Government has been proud to support through our assistance programs. The Moroccan public television and radio stations have also been expanding the amount of Amazigh-language materials they broadcast.

Although the Jewish population has dwindled from over 270,000 in 1948 to a few thousand today, Jewish Moroccans continue to play an important role in Moroccan society, as business leaders, journalists, politicians and artists. Centuries-old Jewish artistic traditions, notably in the field of silverwork, are carried on throughout Morocco, even in areas in which Jews no longer reside. The shrines of Jewish holy figures from Morocco’s past in cities such as Azemmour continue to serve as major religious pilgrimage sites for Moroccan Muslims and Jews alike, demonstrating the strong, common national identity forged thousands of years ago.

Yogesh in Utah writes:

Which currency use in Morocco and what is the exchange rate?

Ambassador Riley:

Thank you, Yogesh, for the question. The Moroccan unit of currency is the dirham, which comes in banknotes of 200, 100, 50 and 20, and ten, five and one dirham coins. There are 100 centimes in one dirham. You can see a picture of a 100 dirham note at: http://www.banknotes.com/ma70.htm.

There are currently roughly 7.4 dirhams to one U.S. dollar. When I arrived in Morocco four years ago, there were more than nine dirhams to one U.S. dollar; thus, the dollar has depreciated by about 25% in the past four years. This dramatic depreciation has had a variety of ramifications for both Moroccans and Americans. For Americans living in Morocco – diplomats and businesspeople, but also humanitarian workers, Peace Corp volunteers, and students – everything costs at least 25% more than it did four years ago. This is a world-wide phenomenon, as the dollar has depreciated sharply against most world currencies lately, which has made life increasingly costly for American expatriates.

Another unanticipated impact of the depreciation has been on U.S.-Moroccan trade. In 2006, the U.S.-Morocco Free Trade Agreement (FTA) went into force, an important bilateral accord designed to boost economic cooperation and relations. U.S. exports to Morocco (primarily aircraft, grains and machinery) have more than doubled in just two years. For Moroccan exporters to the U.S., this exchange rate depreciation has largely cancelled out the preferential tariff benefits of the FTA. Despite this, Moroccan exports to the U.S. have still increased 38% since 2005.

Eric in Georgia writes:

Mr. Ambassador, considering the fact that Morocco is an old friend of the U.S. and in a key location, what plans does the U.S. have to expand economic and cultural ties with Morocco? Regards.

Ambassador Riley:

Eric, I just alluded to one key mechanism, the U.S.-Morocco Free Trade Agreement. Since its implementation in January 2006, this agreement has doubled bilateral trade, and has attracted a substantial amount of American investment into Morocco in sectors such as tourism and manufacturing. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has several programs designed to help Moroccan entrepreneurs take advantage of these new bilateral trade ties, thus contributing to sustainable development in Morocco. Morocco has also just opened an enormous deep-sea port, the Tangier-Med, which represents a major opportunity for expanded commerce. The U.S. Government and the port authorities of several American s tates have been working with Moroccan p ort authorities to establish cooperative agreements, in order to exchange technical know-how and bolster bilateral trade even further.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC’s) program in Morocco is another example of the U.S. Government’s commitment to working in partnership with the Moroccan Government to bolster economic ties. An independent agency of the U.S. Government, the MCC signed an agreement with the Moroccan Government in August 2007, worth $697.5 million dollars over a five year program, to promote poverty reduction through employment generation and economic growth. These funds will be invested principally to upgrade the local agricultural, fishing and artisanal crafts sectors. For more on the MCC program in Morocco, I invite you to visit MCC’s website at: http://www.mcc.gov/countries/morocco/index.php.

In 1777, Morocco became the very first country to recognizing the United States of America as an independent nation, and the Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship, signed in 1786, stands as the U.S.'s oldest non-broken friendship treaty. Thus our two countries have been engaged in informal exchanges for as long as we have been a nation. Morocco and the U.S. have had a formal educational and cultural exchanges agreement since 1967, and since then, the U.S. Government has had an active and growing program for promoting such exchanges, especially through our Fulbright program, which in Morocco is handled by a joint commission, the Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchanges (www.macece.org). Every year, we finance the travel of hundreds of Moroccans to the U.S., and Americans to Morocco, to participate in a wide variety of educational and cultural exchange programs. We also bring American music groups and artists to Morocco on a regular basis; an American fusion group called MC Rai will be performing in Morocco in July. I should point out that market forces in our two countries also serve to promote bilateral cultural exchanges. Morocco is a very popular destination for American artists, due in no small part to the numerous, world famous musical festivals that take place annually here. In the next couple of weeks, American jazzman George Benson, pop singer Whitney Houston, opera singer Jessye Norman and hip hop star 50 Cent will all be performing in Morocco.

Martin in Germany writes:

Sir! How would you describe Morocco´s efforts in the war on terror? Is the country a strong partner in fighting extremists? And is Morocco undergoing a process towards democracy and the rule of law?

Ambassador Riley:

Martin, as you probably know, the people of Morocco have suffered terribly at the hands of terrorists. We are marking this week the fifth anniversary of a series of coordinated suicide attacks perpetrated in Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca, on May 16, 2003 by fourteen terrorists, who took the lives of 33 innocent civilians. The Government of Morocco has long recognized the scourge of terrorism, and cooperates closely with us and its other allies in the fight against violent extremism.

King Mohamed VI and the Morocco Government are dedicated to a vigorous process of political and economic reform. For example, Morocco held legislative elections in 2007 that, although marred by low turnout, were nevertheless deemed by international and local observers to have been transparent, well-managed, free and fair. The King asked the leader of the party that emerged with the largest number of seats in parliament (the Istiqlal Party) to become the prime minister and form a government, the first time in modern Moroccan history that such “democratic logic” had guided the King’s decision on who to appoint as prime minister. In the area of freedom of expression, Morocco is recognized as a leader in the Arab world due to its vibrant and boisterous independent press, although there are setbacks from time to time.

Is there room to grow? Of course. Morocco still has restrictive laws on the books governing press freedoms, and even if they are rarely enforced, they serve to promote self-censorship. Moroccans openly express concerns about corruption and lack of judicial independence. That said, the Moroccan Government is committed to democratic reform, and has racked up many impressive achievements to its credit in recent years.

David in Nevada writes:

What is the state of "religious freedom" in Morocco at the present time? How are evangelical Christians viewed and treated in Morocco? Do you see Morocco as a "moderate" Arab nation? On a scale of 1 to 10 (ten being very friendly) how would you put Morocco - U.S. relations at this time?

Ambassador Riley:

David, each year, the State Department publishes an International Religious Freedom (IRF) report, with individual chapters on every country in the world. You can find the most recent report on Morocco at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2007/90217.htm. To summarize, residents of Morocco – whether citizens or foreigners – are essentially free to practice their religions without interference. There are active churches and synagogues throughout Morocco. However, it is illegal under Moroccan law to attempt to convert a Muslim to another faith, and thus anyone engaged in proselytizing among the Muslim community risks arrest and possible jail. As the IRF report notes, we regularly discuss religious freedom issues with the Moroccan Government as part of our overall policy to promote human rights.

Morocco is universally viewed as “moderate” by its extensive network of allies. As I mentioned to Martin, Morocco is aggressive in its efforts to fight international terrorism. Morocco has been very clear in recognizing the contribution of its Jewish minority, which stretches back over millennia, and is generally supportive of the remaining community. Morocco has long played a critical, positive role in promoting peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Morocco provides an important service to the international community by furnishing peacekeeping troops in war-ravaged areas throughout the world – from Kosovo to the Ivory Coast. There can be no doubt the Moroccan presence on the world stage has long been constructive and moderating.

On the state of U.S.-Moroccan relations: I am going to say “nine,” because no matter how close a relationship, there is always room for improvement. The closest of friends disagree sometimes; so, too, do the closest of allies.

Conrad in Florida writes:

Ambassador Riley: What efforts do you think need to be made to bring more sustainable farming all year to all the regions of the country of Morocco?

Ambassador Riley:

Conrad, your question is especially pertinent, as 50% of the Moroccan population is dependent on agriculture. Much of Moroccan agriculture today is supported by traditional means: small farms run by illiterate families with few prospects for integration into a modern world market. While there are segments within agriculture today that are attracting investment, these tend to be large, export-oriented and isolated from much of the remainder of the sector, with a surprisingly marginal impact on the standard of living for the majority of the population involved in agriculture.

Our USAID and MCC programs bring expertise in choosing the most suitable crops, as well as advanced technology in planting, irrigation (drip irrigation, for example) and harvesting, to maximize revenue and income to farmers and their families.

Supporting sustainable farming in all regions of Morocco year-around would require a systemic change in the role the government plays in agriculture, and a focus on key reforms related to water management, land tenure and access to finance in rural areas. Morocco today could benefit from something equivalent to the Justine Morrill Act of 1862, which created the land grant university system in the United States. The Government of Morocco would need to better engage the rural sector in education, agricultural extension and development of market mechanisms (such as standards) for the domestic market, in order to address the broad range of needs of the rural sector. On April 22, 2008, the Moroccan Minister of Agriculture announced an ambitious agricultural development plan called “Green Morocco,” which will concentrate, among other priorities, on encouraging investment in the agricultural sector and enhancing public-private partnerships.

Garfield writes:

Ambassador, what's it like living in a Muslim country?

Ambassador Riley:

Living in a Muslim country is like living in any foreign country – there are areas of similarity, and areas of difference with the U.S. My family and I, as well as the hundreds of Americans living and working here at the Embassy in Rabat, the Consulate General in Casablanca, and at American schools throughout the country, feel very welcome and comfortable in Morocco. Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco, looks very much like many major port cities on the Mediterranean, such as Tel Aviv or Athens (although in fact Casablanca is on the Atlantic Ocean). Just like in the U.S., there are extremes of wealth and poverty in Morocco. Moroccans living in major cities are often very cosmopolitan and sophisticated, wearing the latest European fashions, driving expensive cars and visiting posh restaurants and clubs. Many Moroccans living in rural areas are subsistence farmers, and have great trouble making ends meet. Moroccans are very worried these days about the rising cost of gasoline and basic commodities, and for many Moroccans, their primary concern is securing a good job to support their families and a good education for their children – just like in the U.S.

As an American living and working in a Muslim country, I think it is very important to be sensitive to the needs of our Moroccan colleagues who are observant. For Muslims, the day of prayer is Friday, which is a work day in Morocco. We therefore need to be flexible with their schedules on Fridays, to provide our Moroccan colleagues some extra time around lunch time to pray. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, most Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. This means they lack energy during the day, and sometimes need to leave earlier than normal to prepare Ftour, the evening meal with which they break their fast.

The Muslim world is also home to some of the greatest art and architecture in the world. Muslim tradition discourages artistic portrayals of human beings or animals, and as a result, the buildings of many Muslim countries (including Morocco) are principally decorated by elaborate geometric patterns, tile work (called zellij in Morocco) and calligraphy. The resulting designs are very different from Western traditions, and utterly magnificent. They are becoming increasingly popular among American architects and designers as well.

Lahcen in U.S.A. writes:

Mr. Ambassador my question is about the Sahara. Why United States does not support Morocco by all the possible ways to end this problem, and I’m sure you know that Morocco is one of the oldest and ally of United States in North west of Africa.

Ambassador Riley:

Lahcen, we share your great pride in the fact that Morocco is one of our oldest allies. The U.S. Government has been very supportive of all serious efforts to resolve the Western Sahara conflict, including the Moroccan Government’s recent autonomy proposal. We have expressed hope that the Polisario will engage in discussions with Morocco, with this proposal as a realistic starting point that could lead toward resolution of the dispute. We have publicly stated our belief that an independent Sahrawi state is not a realistic option. In our view, some form of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only realistic way forward to resolve this longstanding conflict. We have urged the parties to focus future discussions on a mutually-acceptable autonomy regime that is consistent with the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara.

The Western Sahara issue, spanning the past thirty years, continues to be a destabilizing element that stymies regional ties needed for economic expansion, and hinders government-to-government cooperation in the Maghreb. We encourage Morocco and the Polisario to engage in negotiations with realism, and a spirit of compromise.

Matthew in Texas writes:

How can the U.S. bolster the influence of smaller, more moderate Arab countries such as Morocco in order to increase American impact on Middle Eastern affairs?

Ambassador Riley:

Thanks for your question, Matthew. I think the key is to work with our allies in the Arab world as friends and partners, to support them in their own efforts to promote political and economic reform. This process will engender regional stability and prosperity in the long run, which will be to everyone’s benefit. Much of our assistance program in Morocco, through USAID, MCC and other mechanisms, is designed to do precisely that.

Brent in New Hampshire writes:

Is there slavery in Morocco?

Ambassador Riley:

No, slavery was abolished in Morocco in 1934. That said, child labor, including forced child labor, continues to be a problem in Morocco, as highlighted in the Department of Labor’s Worst Forms of Child Labor Report (http://www.dol.gov/ilab/media/reports/tda/tda2006/Morocco.pdf). We strongly support recent statements made by Nouzha Skalli, Moroccan Minister for Social Development, Family and Solidarity, that ending child labor is a priority for the Moroccan Government.

Alexandra in Oregon writes:

I am an International Affairs major who just finished my junior year in college. I am considering specializing in Middle Eastern issues. I would take Arabic, beginning with an intensive program at the Monterey Institute or similar institution. Are there many women in the State Department with that background? Is it possible for a woman to be an effective diplomat in the region? I would welcome any advice or contacts.

Ambassador Riley:

Alexandra, I am really glad you asked this question. The Foreign Service has countless outstanding women serving throughout the Arab world, including in leadership positions. Currently, two women are serving as American Ambassadors in Arab countries: Ambassador Margaret Scobey (Egypt) and Ambassador Deborah K. Jones (Kuwait). Our Embassy in Lebanon is also currently run by a woman, former Ambassador Michele J. Sison. Several senior members of my team are women as well, including USAID Mission Director Monica Stein-Olson; MCC Country Director Muneera Salem-Murdock; Counselor for Public Diplomacy Evelyn A. Early; and Management Counselor C. Alison Barkley. In sum, the Foreign Service counts many women among its cadre of outstanding Arabic speakers and Middle East specialists. They are treated with the same respect as their male colleagues, and are able to operate very effectively, even in very conservative societies such as Saudi Arabia. Indeed, female Foreign Service Officers often find that their Arab counterparts and colleagues pay no attention to their gender whatsoever, viewing them solely as diplomats and representatives of the U.S. Government.

My daughter just graduated from Duke, and she studied Arabic. In the past, very few universities had serious Arabic programs, but these days, there is a growing recognition of the importance of Arabic. My daughter has found that learning Arabic has opened up all sorts of doors for her, not only in the government, but in the private sector as well.

For many years, the State Department has been engaged in a proactive effort to recruit women and minorities into the Foreign Service. For example, the State Department funds the Pickering Fellowship program, which finances graduate school and guarantees future placement in the Foreign Service for outstanding undergraduate students. If you are interested in a career in foreign affairs, I encourage you to consider this exciting program. For more information, go to: http://www.woodrow.org/public-policy/graduate.php.

Mellreaa writes:

Are you really an ambassador?

Ambassador Riley:

Mellreaa, that’s a very good question. I have served here in Morocco for four-and-a-half years, and no one has ever asked that question before. So we are checking with Washington right now to make sure.

By the way, Mallreaa, my wife, Nancy Riley, recently wrote a mystery novel about Morocco, which is loosely based on our experiences living here. It is called, appropriately enough, “Moroccan Mystery: The Passport Series” (www.thepassportseries.com). If you are interested in life in Morocco, as well as life as an ambassador, you might enjoy reading it.

  Back to top

U.S. Department of State
USA.govU.S. Department of StateUpdates  |   Frequent Questions  |   Contact Us  |   Email this Page  |   Subject Index  |   Search
The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs, manages this site as a portal for information from the U.S. State Department. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein.
About state.gov  |   Privacy Notice  |   FOIA  |   Copyright Information  |   Other U.S. Government Information

Published by the U.S. Department of State Website at http://www.state.gov maintained by the Bureau of Public Affairs.