CASABLANCA — Her laugh is infectious, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a high school drama class or a Hollywood hair salon. But this is the Arab world, not Tinseltown. And Miriem Bensalah Chaqroun is no lightweight.
She leads Morocco’s General Confederation of Moroccan Enterprises (CGEM), a giant trade association roughly analogous to the U.S. chamber of Commerce.
Bensalah is also a licensed pilot, a Harley-Davidson rider, a race car driver, a competitive golfer — and a 49-year-old mother of three.
Already the CEO of Morocco’s largest bottled water and soft drink company for 23 years, Bensalah has never been a lightweight. She leads the company’s holding corporation, which also includes insurance, real estate, grain trading and tourism subsidiaries.
Her unanimous election by CGEM’s board in May to be its first female president made her the first of her kind in the Arab world, and it was no fluke: Every other candidate withdrew after she announced her candidacy.
“Please. Call me Meriem,” she said in the CGEM’s conference room, looking and sounding like the opposite of a battle-tested industry titan.
Doing business in the new Muslim world
Morocco is entering a period of unprecedented democratization, and Moroccan women couldn’t pick a more interesting role model to watch. She’s bullish on her nation’s people, even to the point of thoughtful patience with the Islamist Justice and Development Party (known by its French acronym “PJD”) that voters elected last November to lead the parliament for five years.
The PJD made waves after its ascent to power for quickly discarding its promises about economic prosperity in favor of a series of hard-line ideological reforms. (RELATED: What Barack Obama can learn from Morocco)
First came a proposed — and failed — ban on live-TV broadcasts of poker and other gambling activity in favor of broadcasts of the Muslim call to prayer, five times a day. Then the PJD moved to ban alcohol advertising. Businesses that depended on tourism dollars to survive pushed back.
“In a democracy, you see, everyone has a useful role,” Bensalah explained. “Our role is to make sure that the economy stays at the center of the [Islamist] government. If I have to lobby, I lobby. But always for something, never against them.”
The fragile PJD-led ruling coalition has a lot on its plate, she said, and is by no means out of the woods.
“If they don’t work properly among themselves, you know … It’s a very bizarre coalition. It’s the PJD with communists. The communists are revolutionary. They have no — shouldn’t be with each other. So it’s very specific to Morocco. … We had never seen a coalition like that in any country. So it’s one of a kind. We are very curious to see how they’re going to mesh.”
And the ruling Islamists’ growing pains, she suggested, were both predictable and forgivable.
“They’re not fast learners. Come in a year-and-a-half time.”
“What I should have said,” she said minutes later, “is that their profile — their educational profile — they are more [rooted] in theory. … They are not managers. We managers have to adapt. We are quick.”