IN FOCUS PICTURES DUBAI Morocco hopes new aeropark will take its young aerospace sector to the "second" stage

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Amid military pomp, much royal protocol and tight security on 30 September, King Mohammed VI inaugurated Morocco’s first dedicated aerospace industrial park in Casablanca – the country’s largest city. Although it has had a sizeable aerospace sector since the arrival of Snecma in 1999, those behind the project hope the park will be the “second step” in the North African nation’s ambition to be the number one outsourcing location on the periphery of Europe for aerospace manufacturers.

The 140ha (346 acre) development, which has slowly been taking shape for several years, is already home to units belonging to subsidiaries of Snecma parent Safran and United Technologies. Bombardier is the latest high-profile arrival. The Montreal-based airframer started work earlier this year from a temporary facility, with about 100 assemblers producing flight controls and other structures for the CRJ family. The company will open a 14,000m2 (151,000ft2) permanent factory in the middle of next year.

Morocco, like near neighbour Tunisia, has many features which make it attractive to aerospace investors – particularly those from the Francophone world. Its education system mirrors France’s and many school-leavers also speak English. Casablanca is a short flight from Europe, and Morocco’s good infrastructure and ports make transport competitive. And, importantly, as a centuries-old and largely popular monarchy, it escaped – unlike Tunisia – the upheavals of the Arab Spring.

The creation of the Midparc industrial complex and free zone, near Mohammed V International airport, is the culmination of many years of effort by Hamid Benbrahim El Andaloussi, who heads Morocco’s aerospace association GIMAS. The former Royal Air Maroc manager played a role in persuading Snecma and, subsequently, companies including Alcoa, EADS, Ratier Figeac, Souriau-Esterline, Thales and Zodiac Aerospace to establish themselves in the country.

There are already around 100 foreign and locally-run aerospace companies in Morocco, ranging in size from 10 employees to the biggest – Safran wiring division Labinal in Rabat – which employs around 1,000. The total workforce in aerospace is 10,000, and the sector has grown by 20% for each of the past two years, according to GIMAS. “Morocco is a gateway to Europe, like Mexico is to North America,” says Benbrahim.

He argues that as labour rates in central and eastern European countries have risen, Morocco has become more competitive. “We are not low cost, but we offer the best cost for the highest quality,” he insists. Political stability and Morocco’s relatively liberal society is also key. “We are an open country which has stayed free,” he says. “The Moroccan monarchy is the second-oldest in the world. This is very important for investment, when you are making a decision for 20 to 30 years.”

The industrial park, which has room for more than 300 factories, is part of a government “industrial emergence” initiative focused on education, infrastructure and subsidies. The aim is to make relocation as stress-free as possible for a potential investor. “You don’t even need to search for a location. We can co-operate, and within a day you can be in a temporary plant and starting to manufacture,” says Benbrahim. Services such as banks, restaurants and building maintenance are all on hand.

Another benefit is the relatively new Moroccan Aerospace Institute (IMA), based next to the Midparc, which offers “sandwich” training to both assembly workers and specific courses for middle managers, and will be able to train up to 1,000 people a year. IMA says its “flexible” courses – of between six and nine months in areas such as composites, electrical systems and wiring and sheet metal – are adaptable to meet the needs of companies looking to recruit or upskill their workforces quickly.

RFM, a UTC Aerospace Systems subsidiary, has been at the Midparc for two years. A unit of French propeller specialist Ratier Figeac, RFM employs around 100 people – 40% of them women – in a 4,000m2 facility manufacturing cockpit equipment for customers such as Airbus and Bombardier. “We came here five years ago to work with subcontractors, but it was so successful we decided to develop our own site,” says manager Christophe Delque.

Although RFM carries out no design engineering in Morocco, it has just taken on its first exclusive production contract making a new model of sidestick for Airbus cockpits, of which it will produce 130 units a month. With output increasing, Delque expects to be employing another 50 staff by the end of 2014. Importantly, RFM is also responsible for creating 100 or so more jobs at five or six local contractors, making built-to-print metal sub-structures.

Safran nacelle unit Aircelle has been in Casablanca since 2006, and is one of the biggest tenants on the park, doubling the size of its factory to 20,000m2 in 2008. Its output spans commercial and business aviation, with components for CFM International, GE, PowerJet and Rolls-Royce engine nacelles on aircraft including the Airbus A320neo, Embraer E170, Superjet and Bombardier Global Express families. Its workforce of 500 includes just three French expat managers.

Bombardier plans to invest $200 million on its Casablanca venture, and expects to be employing 850 workers by 2020. Souad Elmallem, country representative for Africa, says the airframer considered Turkey and Tunisia, but opted for Morocco. Since making its decision in November 2011, she says, “we have been encouraged by the growth of the aerospace cluster and the engagement of all stakeholders in the region".

"We are confident there is a bright future for the whole aerospace industry in Morocco,” she adds.