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Maghreb, a subordinate globalization

Ali Bensaâd
p. 9-13
This article is a translation of:
Maghreb, une mondialisation subalterne [fr]

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1Nowadays, «globality» throughout the world is obvious proof of the reality and significance of globalization. There is no country or company that has not worked at the very heart of its structures, through the dynamics of globalization, which invest even in the peripheral areas through to the most symbolic borders. It is through the interaction, either incurred or assumed, with these dynamics that the future of North Africa is now being shaped.

2It is agreed that North Africa, despite its geographical and historical proximity to Europe, is subordinate in the polarization of the global economy and it shows no obvious sign of emerging from this position. On the contrary, the divide seems to be widening. Today, the Mediterranean area is where the North / South divisions are the most considerable. It is also the only region where these differences are increasing, especially when compared to the developing  area of East Asia, whose GDP per capita was three times less 30 years ago than in the countries in the southern Mediterranean, and which is now much higher (Beckouche, 2007)! Moreover, nowhere else is the difference as large: the ratio between incomes is about 1 to 15. More specifically, the GDP per capita in the European Union is 14 times higher than in North African countries. It is 20 times higher in Germany, 19 in France and 12 in Spain (Bensaâd, 2008).

3The economic links are marked by a strong asymmetry, but they also illustrate a strong interdependence: trade with Europe accounts for more than 2/3 for North Africa whereas it represents less than 8% for Europe. In short, these links illustrate the undeniable tie that North Africa has to globalization and that could be termed “A Subordinate Globalization”.

4This partial, selective and fundamentally disparate link, is characterized by the emergence of new transnational territories linked to the relocation of European companies, free zones and industrial restructuring, resulting from the dismantling of customs as in Morocco but especially in Tunisia, and oil and mining concessions, which are the reverse of the nationalizations that occurred in the1970s, as in Algeria and Libya.

5It is also reflected in the development of agricultural exports increasing the food deficit and the additional costs of the exploitation of scarce water. The massive development of tourism and considerable land development is one of the preferred forms of this link. This has resulted in a socio-spatial segregation, a reshaping of the landscape, a gentrification of the central part of the city, an inheritance, and identity reconstructions normalized by touristic demand. This link has also resulted in a reshaping of major cities with the re-development of the centers oriented towards attracting major international companies and the creation of specialization areas exclusively targeting international markets. There are so many visible signs in North Africa that attest to the influence that globalization dynamics have on these countries, and how this hold manifests itself throughout, especially by the closeness and historical presence of Europe. Its development is reflected by the trend of investing in the coastal areas of the countries and the accentuation of regional imbalances, reinforcing the reversed reasoning of space to that of colonization.

6Hence, the various North African territories are the object of a differentiated and selective economic development according to the contradictory, but finally, complementary processes of, unification and fragmentation. They emphasize, by reformulating, “the system of domination and hierarchical dependencies” (Dolfuss, 2001).

  • 1 Planned since 2009, this issue was a call for papers in January 2010, and a first version of the ar (...)

7The Tunisian case, publicized by the current1news1, represented the most advanced model of selectivity and enhancement of territorial differentiation. The social explosion that overthrew the Tunisian regime is finding an important part of its genesis in these territorial imbalances. On one hand, a rich coastal port, open to the world economy, while on the other, poor and depressed inland areas that are young and provide the migrants needed for tourism and manufacturing industries on the coast that cannot fully absorb them. The increase in the imbalance has even shifted the differentiation onto this coastline and contracted competitive space. This territorial construction is the spatial crystallization of an economy linked to both the world market and the requirements of companies and foreign capital, an economy developed around leisure sectors rather than activities related to the population’s social needs and a domestic demand for a productive national economy. Also, it is through the territorial fracture that the social contestation erupted before federating all the exclusions.

8H. Dlala’s article on the emergence of metropolitan Tunis, written before the outbreak of the revolution, reconstructing the dynamics of territorial fragmentation induced by the liberal reasoning of “controlled” full competition, allows one a premonitory glimpse of the cracking of the social fabric under the effect of the territorial rifts. A reasoning that, beyond the territorial divide between the open, rich coastal areas and the poor inland areas, is responsible for an exacerbated fragmentation within this potentially privileged seafront. The competitive area is thus narrowed to a restricted metropolitan triangle including the Northeast and the Sahel but from where, according to the author, even areas that were highly competitive such as Sfax, a symbolically entrepreneurial Tunisian city, are excluded (Denieuil, 1992).

9The differentiated and selective economic development of the territories and the reforming of the hierarchies within, concern all North African territories. J.F. Troin illustrates this with Morocco, where globalization interferes with regionalization, driven by power, in the establishment of new territories and the elicited new hierarchies.Moreover, Mr. Côte shows that in Algeria, the emergence of the liberal economy and globalization went in the opposite direction to the previous spatial structures.“Synapse” (a medical term designating a contact area between neurones, adapted by R.Brunet to geography (Brunet, 1992)) areas, classic zones of contact and exchange, still have priority as regards economic develoment, thereby establishing a connection between an international coastal area and a national and local hinterland. The Rabat-Casablanca axis is an example of this, which extends along the Atlantic axis from Kenitra to El Djedida, or the Mitidja in Algiers or the Tunis metropolis. As M. Côte points out, the coastal concentration, inherited from colonization and fought for in Algeria during the socialist phase, has returned, but even more intensely. Thus, industrialization had been a territorial planning tool descending far towards the south, impacting on medium and small towns. Entry into the market economy and the shift from a productive economy to a “bazaar economy” (over 31 000 registered importers in 2009) has led to the ruin of the industrial infrastructure. The structural decline has resulted in territorial decline, with a sharp reduction in Algerian industrial space. At the end of 2008, 60% of foreign companies were concentrated in the province of Algiers and 70% in its neighboring provinces, strengthening more than ever the influence of the international coastal area concentrated around the capital.

10But also falling into the category of open space are areas of international transit, with only a narrow hinterland, simple “bridgeheads”, that are unsuitable to polarize the inland territories. These are primarily port areas, appearing as grafts on the mainland. This is the case for Tangier, a concrete example of a town that fits into both a “metropolization” process  - the development and reinforcing of major cities -, and a  transnational space that is open to almost four continents (Asia, Africa, Europe and America) but which,  as Chattou Zoubir’s  article shows, remains poorly integrated into the regional, indeed, national space. Despite the narrowness of the hinterland and its difficulty to polarize, Tangier is emerging as a new transnational city. Its strategic geographical location on the border,14 kms from Europe, has transformedit into an area of passage required for intercontinental land connections; its position a crossroads, facing the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. This enables the control of one of the most important maritime passages in the world, developed and enhanced by the construction of a major trans-shipment port; the scale of investment (an increase in land speculation, the development of new towns, highways, railway tracks, upgrading and improving the towns, the Tangier Med Port with new development, free trade zones ...), all of which contribute to the construction of a new transnational town. Facing Europe, it is a synopsis of Moroccan aspirations as regards the international opening. However, this area of opportunity is in fact a closed zone that is becoming more and more implacable for irregular immigrants, who come either to escape or to die. (Bensaâd , 2009).

11The Moroccan example shows that the inland territories are equally affected by the ramifications of “global” development, thanks mostly to tourism operating as a global courier. This is the case for Marrakech, studied by A. C. Kurzac, which does not yet have the assets nor the power of authority of a world city, but which seems to meet the criteria of a town in the throes of being globalized due to its integration into mass tourism, its connection networks to the world system and its power of attraction, and its influence and interaction with the rest of the world. The spatial reconfigurations, the changes of the city and its image by and for tourism, the upgrading of its infrastructures and the metropolization of its urban areas show an adherence to the globalization process.

12The analysis of the city’s socio-economic developments and its landscapes show that the new economic activities and tourism are agents of modernization, intermixing and upgrading sites to international standards. Nevertheless, they are also a means of preserving the differences and local specificities, the development of local identity and the accumulation of heritage, which is a factor in tourist attraction. However, “unofficial” touristic areas are emerging on the margins of the major globalized tourist zones, which for remote rural areas, connect directly with the world system. From a study of the rural and mountainous hinterland in the Essaouira region, Mohamed Berriane and Sanaa Nakhli have enabled us to discover a process of spontaneous “touristification” with a rise in unofficial accommodation other than hotels, in an attempt to capture a new profile of tourist attracted more by the scenery and the knowledge of the other. This connection to the world of socio-economic and local cultural systems has also led to the heritage process where the “local” has been re-discovered or re-constructed echoing foreign demand. While operating in this non-official sector, those who have accommodation facilities, associations and people, all contribute to the construction of a local product with its image and the components that it offers, all directly connected to the world system without any intermediary. In the same vein, David Goeury, using the Zaouiet Ahansal Valley case study that is a national symbol of poverty, illustrates how confinement as a national constraint can become a global opportunity as well as the complex relationship that exists between confinement and globalization. The marginalization by colonial administration due to a long resistance of this valley in the High Atlas, at the heart of the Kingdom of Morocco, and its long confinement has today, led to its resonance around the world as ‘’a different area’’: a heterotopia. Thus, confinement has become an attractive feature, and rural poverty, the conservation of otherness, is sublimated as a specificity for the use of atypical tourists and researchers. Hence, it has a specific form of globalization without there being any intermediation from the state. Globalization, far from becoming standardized, could thus maintain the aesthetic difference such as resource sites and support the establishment of ideals.

13Opening up to the world has also had an effect on the representations (Abeles, 2008) which now go beyond the conception of national identity. The vision, turned towards the exterior like the satellite dishes covering all North African settlements, re-iterates this idea, from the shanty towns to the more well-off districts, or the religious domain restructured by the Islamic transnational, reforming or fraternity networks, or by the implantation of evangelical networks.K. Dirèche‘s article reveals a process in North Africa that occurs outside globalization, but within the religious domain. It illuminates through the new spaces and neo-evangelical networks globalized in North Africa where conversions are multiplying. Places of worship are gradually appearing everywhere accompanied by public demands for freedom of worship and awareness. These have triggered a real national debate in Algeria and Morocco along with relatively authoritarian and often repressive reactions from political and religious authorities. Preaching and training networks for local religious leaders are revealing their full complexity in the connections that are often blurred in the European and North American churches. This Christian presence in North Africa is far removed from the Catholic and Protestant churches of colonial times, fueling a public debate on citizenship and religious diversity, which is echoing throughout the discussions relating to state law. It is a question that has become central, as the Tunisian Revolution illustrated, finding in ICT a tool for the dissemination of democratic aspirations and a way of circumventing censorship by the authorities. Moreover, Sihem Najar questions the effects of globalization through the prism of the social uses of these technologies, focusing on the Tunisian diaspora, which today, is engaged in a construction process and the setting-up of complex relational networks.

14This new communication tool has contributed to the emergence of new identities and identifiable reasoning and new social link transformations, whether they be social interactions within the diasporic communities or links that are maintained with their communities and the outside world. In addition, the Tunisian diaspora has played a crucial role in contributing to the creation, on a digital canvas, of public spaces of expression and helping their Tunisian compatriots to avoid censorship and access information that had been censored by the government in power.

15Through his research, P.-N. Denieuil found that in diasporic conditions, experience and identity reconstruction are also elements in the Franco-Tunisian women’s role of, “actorness”, “entrepreneurs on both sides”, whose motivations for entrepreneurial activity are far from being “strictly economic”. They are transformed as much by their entrepreneurial adventure as by otherness and the crossing of identity boundaries. These women have mostly constructed a mixed identity, with an overlap of the two cultures drawing from different identity registers. This flexible and adaptable identity to their different environments has created a true “situational” identity, with this new constructed autonomy never breaking permanently from the existing order. The entrepreneurial path is part of a strong trend in the feminization of migration, of women’s undertakings of traveling alone. They do not reply to European companies’ job proposals, but invest themselves more in the development of the North African labor market, which is characterized by a feminization of certain activities such as trade. This visibility of women in public spaces is new in North Africa, and results from the active opening of urban spaces and diversity. They also have a strong tendency of establishing entrepreneurship abroad or, as an immigrant, a small individual and/or family business so as to overcome educational and employment difficulties and ensure upward mobility (Madoui, 2007).

16Since Algeria began its transition to a market economy, the entrepreneurial spirit has been penetrating all social levels. The market economy is no longer taboo, and it is within this context of promoting entrepreneurship that a new image, studied by M. Madou, has emerged: the religious entrepreneur. While the social mind-set remains fixed on the issues of an identity claim established by political Islam, a new generation of educated entrepreneurs, some of whom studied either in Europe or the USA before returning to the country and starting their own business, are bringing up to date Islamic principles and current management theories. They are trying to adapt to and reformulate the Algerian social and cultural realities to make them more accessible. They desire, and are working on, an even greater opening of the Algerian economy to neo-liberal globalization, which for them, is a real business opportunity. Politically disillusioned, they have introduced the Islamic work ethic to the current management and competitiveness of their businesses and are making use of the social networks to find new markets, recruit personnel and also build social links so as to use the “Islamic market” as an answer to the problem of underdevelopment in Algeria and other Muslim countries.

17Although the productive and banking sectors are still hesitant in Algeria, liberalism has fully impacted on the commercial sector. Since the end of state monopoly on foreign trade, a new category of importers that was able to meet the needs of an Algerian society in need of consumption has emerged. The Algerian import trade has undergone two transformations. Although it initially focused on Marseille, supply has now gone global. The goods imported from China, Indonesia, the Middle East and Turkey, as well as developed countries such as France, Italy, Germany, the United States, etc., are increasingly diverse. The second change concerns the volumes and investments at stake: the container economy has replaced the suitcase or the shopping bag economy. In their article, Brahim Benlakhlef and Peter Bergel consider the transformations in the import trade as a pointer to the changes taking place in theAlgerian society today. These changes have helped a new class of entrepreneurs. Some are self-made men who knew how to seize opportunities, others are attached to family dynasties, established in the business world for a longer time. Their rapid accumulation of wealth was accomplished by the choice of new homes and leisure, through clothing and physical activities, and trips never before experienced in Algeria. However, the change is equally spatial and it concerns different areas: new trading channels, new retail space, new mobility, new secure housing estates and new houses. Both researchers hypothesize that the “nouveaux rich” of global trade are the driving force of a major socio-spatial change, recognized in Algerian society for around ten years.

18However, these “adventurers”, the pioneers of global trade that the two authors describe, do not act alone. They sometimes go through institutions, using their civil service status, but moreover, they use the social structures of the tribal organizations from which they come. Sublimated firstly in the struggle for freedom, and then in national constructions, “deterritorialized” and in some cases reinvented, the tribe has remained an important social and identity referent that the official political position hastens to conceal while orchestrating it(Bensaâd, 2006). Thus, the tribe is a paradoxical stowage platform in the globalization of the Moorish diasporic business networks that A. Bensaad has been studying. This stowage has the ambiguous return-effect of transforming the tribal framework and upsetting its hierarchies while strengthening the tribal fabric as an entrepreneurial and vote-catching tool, and all this with questions being raised between distinctive identities and globalization.

19From the margins of the Sahara, on the boundaries of conventional traderoutes and often in violation of the formal rules that govern them, the diasporas rely on a social structure stigmatized as an “archaism”, an anachronism of the modernity and antinomy of globalization. These diasporic traders have created a worldwide capillary network, weaving their webs through vast international peripheral spaces. From these, they have now succeeded in investing in the large international hubs of trade and establishing themselves as effective actors and beneficiaries of globalization. Their economic power and especially the capitalization of the social and relational density of their trading networks have made it an influential social and political vehicle whose effects are frequently felt in both the country of origin and the host country as well as in the international political arena.

20Access to modernity “returns” to traditional structures used to “shock” and “convert” from (and to) modernity. This subtle combination between the opening to the international spaces and globalization and the mobilization of traditional referents, illustrate the capacity of the social groups located on the extreme margin of globalization dynamics, to integrate and bring them back to the grass rootsThe social groups, which appear to be passive victims of the global village forces, globalization and the state-nations, are in fact capable of implementing subtle forms of resistance and visibility.” and “annexing the world in their own modernity practices” (Appadurai, 2001), which is also reflected in the emergence of marginal areas in the direct opening to the world.

21The emergence and vigorous growth of the unofficial trade sector and connection, often by transgression, to new world areas such as Dubai, the Asiatic “dragons” or Istanbul, contributes to shaping the new functions of the territories that avoid the states’ administrative policies and economic investments and subvert the established organizations. New networks are being developed mainly within the country but also on the peripheral coastal zones. One example is the emergence of multiple “Souk-towns” like those called “Dubai Souk”, where new centres, often developed in unofficial districts, compete with modern districts. Not long ago, Tadjenanet was a poor and isolated Constantinian town. Today it is the nationwide distribution center for household appliances imported from Asia through unofficial channels. Derb Ghallef, in Casablanca, handles billions of Dirhams in transactions and Joutia, in Rabat, outclasses all the shopping malls in the capital. The insignificance of intra-North African exchanges has resulted in the development of illegal trans-national exchanges along the border, whose routes and places of transit vary depending on the circumstances and which cross or exploit the different national thought processes of spacial organization. The Rif, a marginal area, longtime ostracized by the national territorial policies, is now one of the most open areas to the outside world with which it has intense contact, either through smuggling through the border areas of Ceuta and Melilla on one side and Oujda on the other, or cannabis.

22Finally, trans-Saharan trade, reactivated outside the states’ policies, indeed, in opposition to them, is at the root of the emerging sectors, commercial routes and trading areas and transit of a supranational dimension, reviving the meridian routes linking North Africa, the Sahel and the urban centers that are located there. Tamanrasset, a veritable Babel Tower bringing together dozens of nationalities is, in the heart of the world’s largest desert, the Ténéré, a real transnational city (Bensaâd A., 2009), and Layoune, on the arid shores of the Atlantic, is actively involved in the globalization flow through smuggling and irregular migration via the nearby Canary Islands, a commercial free zone, on the tip of the Schengen area (Troin, 2002). Thus, it can be said that globalization, in its current phase, also proves itself to be the marginal entrance to the world stage.

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1 Planned since 2009, this issue was a call for papers in January 2010, and a first version of the articles was collected in October 2010 before proofreading, that is three months before the start theTunisian revolution. This chronology only illuminates more the premonitory dimension of certain articles. Even though the time of the research is not that of the news, it appears that the latter has caught up to support it

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Bibliographical reference

Ali Bensaâd, “Maghreb, a subordinate globalization”Méditerranée, 116 | 2011, 9-13.

Electronic reference

Ali Bensaâd, “Maghreb, a subordinate globalization”Méditerranée [Online], 116 | 2011, Online since 24 January 2012, connection on 01 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Ali Bensaâd

Géographe, Université de Provence,

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