Since the early 2000s Rabat has been subject to a spate of interventions that have sought to steer Morocco’s capital on a path towards global city-dom. The myriad changes read like a checklist of urban renewal: restoration work in the historic centre, slum clearance in the periphery, riverside developments, starchitect projects and the building of new cultural and transport infrastructure. Such changes resonate with the ways in which many cities across the Arab world have recently been repositioned to intercept global flows of capital. Over the same period, a series of minor but no less conspicuous visual adjustments to the city have also occurred, from the appearance of Tifinagh – the Amazigh (Berber) script – on public buildings to an increase in references to Africa on outdoor signage.
The classic hallmarks of neoliberal urbanism and the seemingly inconsequential tinkering with linguistic and semiotic landscapes are rarely considered in tandem. In Rabat, however, both find themselves entangled in the carefully choreographed project of political and economic liberalisation that has taken place in Morocco over the last twenty years. In particular, they point to the different strategies through which state actors and elites have mobilised ideas about cultural diversity; not just as a means to rebrand Rabat as an open and tolerant metropolis aligned with the demands of international tourists and investors, but also as a basis upon which to redefine Rabat as the national political capital and a conduit of Moroccan soft power.
My Identities article, ‘Towards a ‘new’ Moroccan capital? Democratisation, diversity politics and the remaking of national space in Rabat’, explores the interconnections between urban change and the politics of diversity. It focuses on two dimensions that have acquired particular prominence in Rabat in recent years: first, the incorporation of references to Amazigh culture and language within the built environment; and second, the development of a museum sector and festival circuit that explicitly champions diversity and ordains Rabat as a cultural crossroads between Europe and Africa.
Rabat offers a chance to think about how diversity operates as an instrument of urban governance in a non-Western context. In contrast to many Global North and especially Anglophone cities, diversity in Rabat does not function as a shorthand for the impact of contemporary migration on urban life. Rather, it is bound up in the renegotiation of hitherto marginalised internal differences and is characterised by a more pronounced interpenetration of national and local scales of meaning. In order to grapple with the conditions under which diversity is put to work in Rabat, my article develops Peggy Levitt’s suggestive idea of ‘diversity management regime’ coined in relation to global museums to address the ‘strategies, labels, and power relations underlying how difference gets talked about, measured, and negotiated’.
Rabat’s diversity management regime is cut across by blatant contradictions. It ringfences certain manifestations and constituencies of diversity to the preclusion of significant others. Moreover, few people visit the new museums and fewer people actually read Tifinagh script. Nevertheless, brushing aside these developments as mere ‘diversity washing’ at the service of regime survival and global capitalism risks overlooking the current reorientation of Moroccan statecraft and the various dilemmas that this faces in the short and long term. How Rabat’s diversity management regime evolves over the coming years will be crucial to the ongoing reshaping of the city’s role as capital city and will offer a spyhole into the broader transformations of political power and socioeconomic relations in Morocco.
Image credit: Author’s own.
Blog post by Nick Dines, University of Venice Ca’ Foscari, Italy
Read the Identities article:
Dines, Nick. Towards a ‘new’ Moroccan capital? Democratisation, diversity politics and the remaking of national space in Rabat. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2021.1990569
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