By Yann Le Guernigou
TANGIERS, Morocco, Sept 29 (Reuters) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday inaugurated work on a future high-speed train link in Morocco, the first such project in Africa and the Arab world, and welcomed constitutional reform introduced by King Mohammed.
“France is determined to accompany Morocco politically of course but also economically,” Sarkozy said in Tangiers after talks with the Moroccan monarch, who in July won landslide approval for a referendum that explicitly granted executive powers to the government but retained the king at the helm of the cabinet, army, religious authorities and the judiciary.
The two countries signed an agreement four years ago to build a high-speed train network to link Casablanca, Morocco’s economic capital, with Rabat and Tangiers at a cost of 33 billion Moroccan dirhams ($4 billion).
When the project is completed in 2015, it will cut the 350-km (215-miles) train journey from Casablanca to Tangier from 4 hours and 45 minutes to just over 2 hours.
The 2007 agreement allows French firms, including power and transport engineering group Alstom SA , to design, build, operate and maintain the high-speed rail link, known as TGV in France.
“The French should know that the Moroccan TGV is work for the French. It is worth thousands of hours of work,” said Sarkozy.
Morocco also plans to build a 220-km rail link between Tangier and Kenitra for a total cost of 20 billion Moroccan dirhams. The project would be partly financed by French loans and partly by donations from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The high cost of the projects have raised eyebrows in some quarters. “During this period of crisis, this money could have been used to finance projects that create jobs,” said Mohamed Berada, a former Moroccan finance minister.
National rail operator ONCF says the high-speed rail links are necessary to meet rising traffic, which rose from 14 million passengers in 2003 to 34 million projected this year.
“It answers a true need of Morocco,” said ONCF Managing Director Mohamed Rabie Khlie. (Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Giles Elgood)