Morocco regulator in pledge on monarchy-owned firms

Reuters, Friday 30 Sep 2011

Antitrust authority promises an even-handed, transparent approach to state businesses after a decade of operating under tight restrictions

Morocco's antitrust authority pledged total even-handedness in dealing with businesses owned by the monarchy, but exception may be made in sectors that help preserve social stability and firms that are leaders in other sectors, its head said in an interview.

The Council of Competitiveness, whose role is advisory, may have to wait until the second half of 2012 before its remit is changed to allow it to intervene in competition issues, Chairman Abdelali Benamour told Reuters on Friday.

Since its inception in 2001, the council has not been able to access government data to assess the scale of under-the-table deals involving licences and contracts handed to individuals or foreign firms without going through tenders.

Such licences have involved sand quarries, mining, fishing and public transport among other sectors, as well as contracts worth billions of dollars to supply state-run firms with machinery and equipment.

"We have been living in a market economy for so long but we didn't digest what this actually means," Benamour told Reuters. "We are not used to working transparently."

Through the National Investment Company (SNI), the royal family is the biggest private stakeholder in the country's economy.

SNI's 2010 net consolidated profit accounted for about 27 per cent of total net profit by firms listed on the Casablanca bourse.

There are no official figures on the size of the Moroccan royal family's stake in SNI, but market sources put it at around 60 per cent. SNI officials decline to comment on the matter.

SNI has come under greater public scrutiny amid protests inspired by revolts in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt.

The protesters also want a separation between power and money, and lower wealth gaps in a country with high poverty and illiteracy rates, and an ingrained deference toward the king.

"(King Mohammed) told me that we will change the remit of the council and that it will be able to intervene to safeguard competitiveness," Benamour said.

"Do you think that it is in the palace's interest to own businesses that are not competitive? ... All cases will be examined. As far as we are concerned there are no limits."

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