L’Afrique, c’est chic

It’s foothold time in Africa.

The past fortnight has seen a glut of UK heavyweights opening up shop in Morocco, with first Allen & Overy (A&O), then Clifford Chance and finally last Thursday (28 July) Norton Rose announcing plans to open offices in Casablanca.

We’re stoically resisting the temptation to quote Bogart, but curiosity in the market has been piqued about the reasons behind this North Africa strategy. Current thinking is that it’s as much about these firms dipping their toes in as a way of developing wider African practices as it is a response to the high levels of power and infrastructure projects.

To be fair to Norton Rose, it’s a little harsh to describe its latest international office as giving it a foothold. The firm already has offices in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, as well as an associate office in Dar es Salaam. For once Clifford Chance and A&O are playing catch-up.

It makes sense for these firms to pile in. The high price of oil is one of the factors convincing the country’s government to seek heavy investment in Morocco’s infrastructure needs. A significant ­number of public finance tenders are on offer, ­particularly power and renewables schemes, along with gas projects in the north of the country. ­Having a presence on the ground is never going to hurt any firm that fancies a piece of the action.

One London-based investment banker who spoke to The Lawyer last Friday said he was about to take his third trip to Morocco in five weeks. In the previous five years he had not been once.

Morocco is working on reinventing itself as a kind of Dubai alternative, complete with luxury hotels and golf courses, which will go down well with all these­ ­English lawyer arrivals.

More seriously, the stability of the country ­relative to several of its neighbours is attractive, while from a legal market point of view Morocco is practically ­virgin territory when it comes to large international firms. In contrast, sub-Saharan countries and South Africa are increasingly well served.

Despite all this there is some surprise among rival firms that Morocco has become so popular.

As one partner put it: “Turkey’s far more vibrant.”In just two weeks Casablanca’s become almost as crowded as Johannesburg.