French President François Hollande (center) and Morocco's King Mohammed VI (right) speak with the director of Morocco's national railway, Mohamed Rabie-Khlie, about the new high-speed line. Reuters

The Moroccan megaproject is set to debut next year. But the North African nation has more pressing needs.

The train from Tangier to Casablanca currently moseys down the coast of Morocco, making the journey in 4 hours and 45 minutes. When the North African nation’s new high-speed train debuts in June 2018, that trip will take less than half the time—2 hours and 10 minutes. It will be the first high-speed train for both Morocco and the African continent.

There’s much to be celebrated in the successful completion of this $1.9 billion project. Who doesn’t love a high-speed train—especially in comparison to those sucky U.S. trains? The high-tech rolling stock comes from French manufacturer Alstom, which supplied the 12 double-decker models; the funding came from Morocco, France, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The high-speed line is in keeping with the Moroccan government’s focus on attracting foreign investment through megaprojects. From the world’s largest solar plant in the Sahara Desert to a new airport for the capital, recent development has been big and flashy. And it’s worked: Since 2011, foreign direct investment has increased by more than 11 percent. Tourism, which supplies close to 7 percent of GDP (more than twice the percentage in the United States), has also remained strong.

Morocco’s first high-speed train line is set to debut in June 2018. (Magharebia/Flickr)

But while these statistics signal growth, they don’t tell the whole story. For one, profits from Moroccan megaprojects don’t reach most citizens. “There’s no distribution of the benefits of [the] foreign investment to the rest of the economy,” Riccardo Fabiani, a senior analyst with the Eurasia Group, told Quartz. “It’s like talking about two separate economies.”

Unemployment remains a major issue for Morocco, with a countrywide rate of over 20 percent. For young people, the figure doubles. Fabiani tells CityLab that the country’s urban/rural divide is particularly stark. “If you go outside the main cities,” he says, “the state of the roads is very poor, as is access to clean water, schools, and hospitals.” A high-speed train linking Morocco’s main urban centers will likely be out of reach, both geographically and financially, for the majority of Moroccans. “The people who will be able to afford it—residents of cities and professionals—are not that many,” he says, noting that the money and effort might be better spent on more effective education efforts.

Omar Balafrej, who heads a campaign to stop the train project, concurs. He told the BBC that the cost of the project is the equivalent of 25,000 schools. “Each time you have 10 meters of [high-speed train], it’s one school that you don’t build,” he says.

But the focus on megaprojects doesn’t look like it will shift anytime soon. Morocco has been largely able to avoid the unrest that emerged from the 2011 Arab uprisings through changes to its constitution—such as enhanced powers for the prime minister in order to curb the power of the king. Yet, says Fabiani, the changes have only been cosmetic, and the monarch, King Mohammed VI, is still the “ultimate power broker.” The high-speed train falls into this context, he says. “It’s a megaproject that has been single-handedly imposed by the king. It’s not something requested by the population.”

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