DESPITE an unusually rainy February, Morocco is not generally short of sunshine. Its government wants to exploit the good weather by spending $9 billion to build five solar-power plants capable of producing around 40% of the kingdom's energy by 2020. Foreign investors have been bidding to build the first plant, near Ouarzazate, south of the Atlas mountains.
A solar-powered bonanza beckons. Morocco has virtually no oil or gas of its own and imports 98% of its energy, which leaves it vulnerable to price fluctuations and skews its trade balance. In 2008 it spent $9.2 billion, about 11% of its GDP, on energy. Hence its interest in solar power, as well as other sources of renewable energy, such as wind turbines.
Some people think the plans are optimistic. Bernhard Brand at the University of Cologne says that the capacity at the planned plant near Ouarzazate and the timetable for getting it going are ambitious. Much smaller projects, such as a hybrid plant at Ain Beni Mathar, which combines gas and solar power, have experienced delays and complications.
The government has set up a solar-energy agency to coordinate planning between investors and the government in an effort to cut out bureaucracy and red tape. But finance may be a problem. Investors are still nervous about the economic viability of solar power, so Morocco must cast its net wide. The World Bank's Clean Technology Fund has pledged $200m to show its support for the technology. King Muhammad, Morocco's ruler, may, reportedly, back the scheme with some of his own fortune. That is just as well: solar energy is much costlier than the oil- or gas-powered sort and would need subsidising.
TOURISTS may be forgiven for thinking that drinking alcohol in Morocco is legal. You can happily buy the stuff in supermarkets, bars and smarter restaurants, but Muslims, who make up the vast majority of Moroccans, are strictly forbidden to drink it. Islamists dislike this compromise—and were delighted when the mayor of Fez, the religious capital, recently suggested it could become Morocco’s first entirely dry city.
It is not the first time that the Islamists have opposed the country’s tolerant attitude. In December Ahmad Raissouni, a hardline cleric, issued a fatwa calling on Moroccans to boycott supermarkets that sell alcohol. Two years earlier Islamist politicians had been outraged by the holding of a wine festival in Meknes, a conservative city at the heart of Morocco’s wine-producing region. Columnists in the populist press grumbled that Morocco was losing its Islamic identity.
Secularists have not been silent. After Mr Raissouni issued his fatwa, a human-rights group called for the ban on alcohol to be dropped altogether, arguing that, since it does not apply to foreigners, it thus discriminates against Moroccans.
It is a touchy issue, since Morocco wants to open up to the West and make tourism one of its main sources of income. The country’s 12,000 hectares (nearly 30,000 acres) of vineyards produce 35m bottles a year and provide 10,000 jobs in a time of high unemployment. Moreover, the state is the biggest vineyard owner and benefits from taxes on wine sales. Though Fez’s city council endorsed the mayor’s proposed ban, it is unlikely to go into effect. Tolerance, for the time being, prevails.