After a decade of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) dominating the kingdom's politics, Morocco entered a new era this month, when the National Rally of Independents (RNI) emerged as the largest party in the September 8 general election, taking 102 of the 395 seats while the former largest party, PJD, collapsed to only 13 seats.
Aziz Akhannouch, the RNI leader was appointed by the king of Morocco to start coalition talks with other Moroccan parties to decide the shape of the national government for the next five years.
Born in 1961, in Tafraout, southern Morocco, Aziz Akhanouch learned about trade and business from his father, who had accumulated a huge fortune in the hydrocarbons industry.
In the early 1980s, Akhannouch's father sent his son to Canada to continue his studies. In 1986, he returned with a diplomat in management and administration.
The graduate son took responsibility of developing the family business Africa Gas, expanding the company's activities to become a pioneering leader in the hydrocarbons sector in Morocco. He also branched out into real estate and media.
Aziz Akhannouch married Salwai El Idrissi in 1993, the granddaughter of one of the biggest tea merchants in Morocco, Haj Hammad El Fakka.
The billionaire’s wife is a businesswoman in her own right, and serves today as president of the Aksal group, a pioneer in introducing international fashion brands into Morocco. The company is also known for its make-up brand Yan & One and holds a stake in the biggest mall in Africa, Morocco Mall.
According to Forbes magazine, Akhannouch and his family are worth a whopping $1.75 billion.
Although he has long been affiliated with the RNI, Akhannouch stayed away of the political spotlight focusing on running his Akwa holding group, which controls about 50 companies active in several economic fields, foremost of which is gas distribution, in addition to his membership in banking and administrative institutions that dominate the Moroccan economy.
The RNI is a centre-right liberal party that has participated in multiple Moroccan governments since the 1970s. It was founded by Ahmed Osman, son-in-law of the late King Hassan II.
Given the historical and political context of the party's inception, observers say the establishment of the party was at the behest of the royal palace by attempting to create a seeming balance with the other political parties that started changing the national political scene.
The RNI’s current leader, Akhannouch, served as the head of the council of the Souss-Massa-Draa region between 2003 and 2007, before serving as minister of agriculture for 14 years (2007-2021).
Akhannouch froze his candidature in RNI to preserve his seat as minister in the 2011 government, since his party didn’t participate in the 2011 government's coalition.
In 2016, Akhannouch went back to the RNI to win the leadership of the party. As the new leader of RNI, he launched negotiations with then Secretary-General of the Justice and Development Party, Abdelilah Benkirane, in order to join the 2016 government formation.
Akhannouch conditioned the exclusion of Istiqlal party in order to join the coalition. A condition that Benkirane strongly rejected on the pretext that the Istiqlal Party and its Secretary General Hamid Shabat stood with PJD after the 2016 elections as they refused to block the PJD and prevent it from forming a government.
Due to Akhannouch’s conditions, Benkiran failed to form a government, and the Moroccan king replaced him with Saad Eddine Othmani to restart coalition talks. Othmani gave up to Akhannouch’s conditions.
After his victory in the Septemebr 8 elections, Akhannouch's post-electoral alliance with the Istiqlal party, which came third in the elections results with 81 seats, as well as with the Authenticity and Modernity party (PAM), which followed RNI in the results with 86 seats, is likely to dominate the new government.
During the electoral campaign, Akhannouch gave huge promises to the public including a promise of creating 1 million jobs, even thought the country has been struggling for years to reduce unemployment on the back of chronic economic crises. Akhannouch said during the campaign that his party’s experience will enable it to stay true to the given promises by creating initiatives in the private sector.
Before the announcement of the elections’ results, Akhannouch’s party faced allegations of illegal spending during electoral campaign, from the Secretary-General of the Authenticity and Modernity Party, Abdellatif Ouahbi. Ouahbi at the time said the RNI was "flooding the electoral arena with money".
Despite this, Ouahbi joined forces with Akhannouch after the election results, seemingly forgiving him all his alleged 'misdeeds'.
The new Moroccan premier’s holding company was targeted by a consumer boycott campaign in 2018 over high prices, while he was occupying the position of minister of agriculture.
After his appointment by the Moroccan king as the new head of government, the RNI’s leader decided to completely withdraw from all business activities, including those related exclusively to the acquisition of shares and the management of transferred values, “despite the absence of any legal impediment,” as he stated in a published statement.
Akhannouch said, during the campaign, he will work “just for the homeland” without any financial reward as he will indorse this choice to be made by more businessmen ministers in the party.
But whatever he says, the Akhannouch’s post-Islamist era will be one of the marriage of money and power.
Basma El Atti is a Moroccan journalist, currently working at Moroccan media outlet Hespress English.
Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma