Policy and piracy on choppy seas

You don't have to wander far in Morocco's capital city of Rabat to stumble across its ancient history — at least to the Roman ruins, which are a feature of the country's administrative capital today.

Some of the story has been of instability. As recently as 200 years ago, pirates ruled here.

Interestingly, the piracy was stopped by a nation you would not have thought was active here at the time: the United States.

The Europeans were used to paying the pirates off but their demands grew to unaffordable levels.

The Americans decided they would no longer pay tribute and dispatched their navy, defeating the Barbary pirates at Tripoli in the early 1800s and putting an end to piracy in the region.

This may seem like old news now but themes of insecurity and even piracy were to feature during the two-day Atlantic Dialogues conference.

Unstable region
Much of the region is now unstable, or potentially so, or, in the case of Syria, distressingly so.

Tunisia, where the Arab Spring first dawned two years ago, has had 17 governments since.

Others point glumly to the level of disorder in Libya, so much so that a group recently kidnapped Prime Minister Ali Zeidan to register their dissent.

Piracy has been on the decline off Somalia but it is spiking off Nigeria, the difference being the Somalis held the ships as ransom while the Nigerians sell the ships' oil.

Where there is disorder, the narcs also move in: so tiny Guinea Bissau is now reportedly a conduit for cocaine from South America to Europe.

Narcotics and terrorism jointly thrive in conditions of instability.

People are dying
The instability manifests in the legion of people desperately trying to get across the Mediterranean to safer shores.

In recent cases, 359 people drowned in early October off the Italian island of Lampedusa and, just last week, 92 migrants, mostly women and children, were found to have died of thirst in northern Niger.

One delegate told me the Europeans are used to sending aid to Africa in the hope it will keep the migrants out.

But they are coming in in droves. A new plan is needed.

The idea of a re-energised Atlantic as a counterpoint to the exploding growth in the Asia-Pacific has been around for a year or two now, and pundits have been getting excited over some of the numbers.

The Atlantic remains the world's foremost trading geographic region. Dan Hamilton, of the Centre for TransAtlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, notes "the volume of Atlantic commerce is staggering. Despite the rise of the Pacific, more trade and investment flow across the Atlantic than any other part of the world."

Consumers entering the Atlantic economy
Since we're talking of the two largest economies globally, that of the United States and Europe, there is no surprise here.

But, says Hamilton, "rapidly developing Atlantic countries are connecting with the global marketplace and becoming a major engine of the global economy. Never have so many workers and consumers entered the Atlantic economy as quickly or suddenly as in the last 15 years."

Development needs energy and the region has this in spades. The Atlantic Basin already supplies more of the United States' imported energy than does the Middle East, says Hamilton.

One of the breakaway sessions I attended was on the growth of the middle class in emerging economies. The numbers are as impressive.

The new middle classes are transforming societies everywhere. But in Brazil, where the new middle class is a big part of the economic success, there have been riots in 100 cities recently. Guess who was doing the rioting? The new middle class.

I never got to speak to any Brazilian about this but press reports have said the riots started over a proposed nominal increase in public bus fares.

Riots continue
This mooted increase was rescinded but the riots continued and spread.

Speculation about the causes for the unrest includes concerns that too much money is being poured into soccer stadiums for the soccer World Cup.

Taxes, corruption and violent crime are also said to be too high.

My lunch group was not exactly upbeat about the middle-class story, with someone suggesting that, based on past experience, such as in South America, the newly well-off may yet turn against their formerly poor kin and embrace fascism to protect their new-found privileges.

Brazil was more than well-represented at the Atlantic Dialogues. This is not surprising because its seaboard is prominent in the Atlantic and its economy has done spectacularly well in recent times.

Argentina shares a chunk of coastline similar in size to Brazil and was represented at the conference, but it was so low-profile it may as well not have been there.

Argentina committs economic suicide
"Argentina committed economic suicide," a Latin American specialist said, explaining that its populist, nationalistic and protectionist policies under President Christina Fernandez meant it had told the world it was not open for business.

I had imagined that the Atlantic would lap calmly on to these Moroccan shores.

Perhaps I was thinking of the Mediterranean. But not so — the waves roll in large, smashing against the rocky shore.

One delegate, a surfer from Hawaii, told me Morocco has some of the best surf anywhere.

The breaking waves and dramatic shoreline suggest a deeper, moodier past — a past when the pirates ruled here. But there is a piracy of different kind afoot these days.

The Americans have been outed for tapping the phones of, among others, the Brazilians, who are peeved about it, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is furious.

One session discussed piracy over lunch, which was on a boat. The conversation was stable, participants reported afterwards, but not the boat, which rocked gently as they ate.

Kevin Davie attended the Atlantic Dialogues as a guest of the German Marshall Fund

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote.


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