Diplomatic Pouch / December 18, 2014
By Larry Luxner
Rachad Bouhlal is Morocco’s first diplomat ever to be named Ambassador of the Year by the Washington-based National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce.
Bouhlal, 63, won the award Dec. 12, nearly three years after replacing Aziz Mekouar as Rabat’s top envoy to the United States. More than 200 dignitaries converged on the Willard InterContinental Hotel for a luncheon and ceremony in his honor.
As guests feasted on organic mesclun greens, duo of grouper and Gulf shrimp, seasonal vegetables, mashed potatoes and blackberry swirl cheesecake — not to mention imported Moroccan sweets — one speaker after another lavished praise upon the soon-to-be-departing Bouhlal.
“This ambassador has made many friends in our state,” said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who visited Washington specifically for the NUSACC event. “He has done an amazing job getting around the country at a time when politics in Washington is pretty dysfunctional. He’s figured out that the way to get past that is to visit other states. He’s very comfortable meeting new people, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think he was campaigning for office.”
Markell — accompanied by Tom Keefer, deputy executive director of the Port of Wilmington, and Anas Ben Addi, a Moroccan-American and director of the Delaware State Housing Authority — said he felt “particularly fortunate” that Wilmington is now the port of entry for all Moroccan clementines shipped to the U.S. East Coast.
Last year, the port signed an unprecedented five-year agreement with Fresh Fruit Maroc, a Moroccan association of citrus growers and exporters, to ensure that Delaware continues to be the North American distribution hub for the sweet fruit through 2017.
Dwight Bush, the current U.S. ambassador to Morocco, congratulated Bouhlal on his award in a letter read to attendees, while three of Bush’s predecessors — Ed Gabriel, Marc Ginsberg and Michael Ussery — participated in the event.
“I regret I couldn’t be there in person to witness my dear friend being recognized as ambassador of the year,” Bush said. “Quite frankly, I’m not surprised in the least, because Ambassador Bouhlal represents the best of the diplomatic craft. He is a consummate professional, a wise advisor, and a reasoned and responsible advocate for his country. The diplomatic corps needs more people like Ambassador Bouhlal.”
The lunch marked the 10th anniversary of NUSACC’s Ambassador of the Year award. Previous recipients have come from Egypt, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. The award, the only one of its kind, recognizes Arab ambassadors for outstanding service in support of U.S.-Arab commercial relations.
Gerry Feierstein, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and principal deputy assistant secretary of state, called Bouhlal “one of the stars of our diplomatic community.”
“He’s done an outstanding job of promoting U.S.-Moroccan engagement at a time of considerable turmoil and transformation in the region,” said Feierstein. During his tenure, he said, “the U.S. relationship with Morocco — which has always been deep and broad — has been further strengthened, due in large part to his efforts, as well as those of diplomats from both countries working diligently to foster cooperation and goodwill.”
He added: “Morocco is one of our closest counterterrorism partners in the region. The kingdom plays a critical and highly valued role these days as a member of the anti-ISIL coalition to reverse the growth of violent extremism in Iraq and Syria.”
David Hamod, NUSACC’s president and CEO, praised Bouhlal for helping organize the Morocco-U.S. Business Development Conference in Rabat, held last March. The following month, Bouhlal promoted the U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue, which was led on the American side by Secretary of State John F. Kerry. In addition, Bouhlal attended the National Governors Association meeting held in Dallas last July, and supported last month’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Marrakesh — an event that drew 6,800 participants from 50 nations.
“This has been a remarkable year for Morocco-U.S. relations,” Hamod said. “Ambassador Bouhlal has been at the forefront of this heightened level of activity, criss-crossing the United States to deliver Morocco’s message of economic opportunity. To date, he has visited half of America’s 50 states.”
In late June, for instance, Bouhlal joined 28 other ambassadors for a four-day trip to Seattle, as part of the State Department’s “Experience America” program. While there, he met with top executives of Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon.com and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as with former Washington Gov. Gary Locke.
Ken Hyatt, U.S. deputy undersecretary of commerce, noted Morocco’s economic growth, which exceeds 5 percent a year.
“There are great opportunities to use Morocco as a hub — to Europe, to Africa and to the United States,” he said. “We have a long history in our relationship, and I am very optimistic about the future of U.S.-Morocco commercial relations.”
Finally, when all the speeches were finished, Bouhlal himself took the podium, graciously accepting the NUSACC on behalf of his country and King Mohammed VI.
“Our relations with the United States started 237 years ago — in December 1777 — when Sultan Mohamed Ben Abdellah initiated trade relations with the new republic of the United States,” he said. “I have tried to strengthen these relations by putting economic issues at the top of our priorities of the Strategic Dialogue, which was launched in 2012.”
He continued: “In the last few months, important American companies have decided to invest in Morocco: Chevron, Ford, General Electric, Boeing and MoneyGram, to name just a few. They are attracted by such features as political stability, an open economy, education and training, and no risk of expropriation.”
A free trade agreement signed in 2004 has also helped bilateral ties tremendously. NUSACC research based on U.S. Census Bureau data shows that Moroccan exports to the United States have grown 12 percent annually in the last 10 years, while U.S. exports to the North African nation have jumped by 20 percent annually over that same period.
“What Rachad has done in the last couple of years is truly remarkable. And we would all agree that His Majesty made a good decision in bringing you here,” said Gabriel, who now represents Jacobs Engineering. “Your personality, your language skills and your deep connections in Morocco have all contributed to your ability to work Capitol Hill, the administration and especially the business community.”
Jacobs, which has 1,200 employees in Morocco — making it the largest U.S. employer in the country — sponsored the NUSACC luncheon along with General Atomics, Kosmos Energy and Royal Air Maroc.