Taking over Morocco’s capital each year, the Mawazine brings international music to the masses and provides a platform for homegrown talent.

It’s 10pm on a Friday evening and 100,000 people have gathered at the OLM Souissi arena in Rabat. Agdal, the district that houses the enormous outdoor stage, is one of the Moroccan capital’s trendiest and most exclusive neighbourhoods. Over the past decade, it has also become known as the international music hub of the city.

Tonight’s crowd is here for the opening of the 13th Mawazine festival, the annual event that has awarded Agdal its musical reputation. Justin Timberlake is soon to begin his set, marking his debut show in Morocco.

There’s a broad demographic in attendance. A glance around reveals groups of teenage boys bumping elbows with middle-aged women in traditional dress. Sophisticated young couples are out for a night on the town. Two or three generations of a family stand together, mesmerised by the glow of the stage lights.

Tickets for Timberlake’s last show at London’s O2 Arena cost between £53 and £124 a head. In a country where the average family wage is just 5,300 dirhams (about £375) per month, how is it that the superstar has attracted such a huge number of Moroccans to his performance?

Simple: the gig is free. As are the majority of the Mawazine festival’s citywide shows. This is common practice in Morocco, where low incomes mean that expensive tickets just don’t attract the numbers, even in developed towns and cities.

“Free access to the concerts was one of the foundations of Mawazine. It’s a festival for all Moroccans; we do not discriminate against people who do not have the means to pay for a ticket. Mawazine brings together people from all walks of life around a single passion: music,” says Aziz Daki, Mawazine’s artistic director.

The festival brings global acts from a variety of genres to Rabat, and this year hosted artists from more than 30 different countries in its nine-day run. Mawazine is one of the world’s biggest music festivals in terms of spectators and drew in an impressive 2.62 million for its 2014 shows. Rihanna, The Jacksons, Kylie Minogue and Elton John are among the names to have graced the stage at OLM Souissi in previous years.

Mawazine is the central project of the Maroc-Cultures Association, which was founded at the same time as the festival in 2001. The organisation, chaired by the head of King Mohammed VI’s private secretariat, describes itself as a non-profit aiming to showcase and promote high-quality artistic and cultural activities that are “worthy of the capital of the [Moroccan] kingdom”.

Abbas Azzouzi, executive vice-president of Maroc-Cultures, believes Mawazine has significantly developed the cultural landscape of Rabat, and of Morocco as a whole.

“Our festival is an amazing promoter of world music and an unquestionable springboard for young talent in Morocco. Its eclectic lineup features Moroccan, Arab and African artists alongside renowned global stars,” he says. “The festival is a meeting point of diverse cultures. It’s also a festival that promotes strong values, such as openness to others and respect towards all cultures.”

And Mawazine’s impact doesn’t end with the cultural; it reaps significant benefits for the city’s economy too, as Daki explains. “The festival has become an event that not only transforms Rabat into a huge open-air stage once a year, but also drives economic development for the city.”

“Before the festival began, Rabat housed a few free cultural events, but these events were nowhere near the size of Mawazine and didn’t have the same impact,” he continues. “In the past, Rabat had the reputation of being only an administrative city. Mawazine has lifted it from its torpor.”

The festival produces more than 5,000 direct and indirect jobs in Rabat each year, according to the Mawazine press office, and generates business for more than 40 Moroccan and foreign enterprises. It’s easy to understand why when the scale of the festival is considered.

“Since its creation in 2001, Mawazine levied itself as a first class economic actor of the city of Rabat. It guarantees long-lasting activity to hundreds of technicians and businesses,” Azzouzi explains. “Every year, Mawazine continues to increase the revenue of taxis and nearby business, as well as ensuring a full hotel and restaurant occupancy rate. In all, this allows tourism professionals to increase their turnover by 30%,” he adds.

Azzouzi is also convinced that the media attention alone contributes significantly to the city’s economy: “Mawazine is a very special moment in Morocco’s cultural agenda, propelling the city of Rabat into the same league as the biggest musical capitals in the world. It allows the city to shine throughout the world, placing it in the centre of the news each year.”

Elhadj Ezzahid, professor of economics and finance at Mohammed V-Agdal University in Rabat, disagrees with this assessment. “The Mawazine Festival has been conceived and is managed by friends of the King. Donors – mostly businessmen from large corporations – are seeking to establish connections with the most influential people in Morocco,” he says.

“The firms involved are not from Rabat, so the distributed incomes from the festival benefit those outside of the city and abroad. Mawazine has had some effect on tourism and Rabat’s reputation, but no lasting or major effects on the wellbeing of the people in the city.”

As well as being a chance to bring celebrated international acts to Morocco, Mawazine offers an important opportunity for locals to engage with music and culture that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.

A less-publicised element of the festival involves street performances in residential, and often poorer, areas of Rabat. For the children and families of these neighbourhoods, Mawazine is not about heading over to pricey Agdal for a celebrity performance, but hearing a noise outside their shop or home and heading out into the community to join in the fun.

Mawazine has come under severe criticism from groups within Morocco, including an ongoing national campaign for the cancellation of the festival. Campaigners see it as squandering public money, although notably, in 2012 only 8% of festival funding came from the Moroccan government, and as of 2014, it receives no state funding at all.

“People think that issues like living standards, school improvements, and development of transport need direct attention and more finance. We are a poor country; many people feel that spending money on a festival like Mawazine is completely unacceptable,” Ezzahid asserts.

But, in more recent years, the festival has influenced Rabat’s infrastructure and contributed to the rejuvenation of parts of the city – although perhaps not as directly as some would like.

Bouregreg, a riverside district close to the city’s Medina, is home to Mawazine’s African stage. The multi-million dollar development of the valley is a project that aims to rehabilitate and promote the banks of the river Bouregreg. Since its beginnings in 2006, the Bouregreg Valley Development Agency has created new urban spaces, a new marina and new public transport systems.

Situated just across the Bouregreg river, the smaller suburb city of Salé hosts a beachfront festival stage specialising in Moroccan music. In the 13 years since Mawazine began, Salé has undergone considerable development; it’s been transformed from a derelict and largely ignored suburb into a thriving new metropolitan area. Hotels, shopping malls, high-end apartment complexes and business offices can all be found in Salé today, and many of Rabat’s young people have moved to the area since its redevelopment.

The Rabat-Salé tramway, opened in May 2011, has provided fast transport connections to central Rabat, and the Moulay Youssef Bridge linking Rabat and Salé by road has eased commute times and congestion significantly. This development of infrastructure did much to provide easier access to work and education for Salé’s inhabitants.

“The capital enjoys the growing success of Mawazine, its cultural dynamic and the touristic and business opportunities it provides, while the festival is able to flourish at the heart of a city [that is] both modern and full of great historical heritage,” Azzouzi concludes. “Mawazine and Rabat have a unique relationship, where each develops in harmony with the other.”

Originally published by The Guardian. Image above by Jesse Norton (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).