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Saturday, July 24, 1999 Published at 02:04 GMT 03:04 UK

World: Africa

Testing time for new king

The new king (left) may find his father a tough act to follow

By North Africa Correspondent Hebah Saleh

As he emerges from the long shadow of his father, the new king can only be aware of the many challenges awaiting him.

Of pressing concern will be the long running dispute to establish sovereignty over the southern territory of Western Sahara. The United Nations plan to resolve the issue to a referendum has been stalled for several years and observers believe the poll will never take place.

Neither Morocco nor its adversaries in the Polisario Front, who want independence for Western Sahara, are likely to allow a referendum unless they were certain of winning.

Morocco controls most of the territory, but the new king may eventually have to negotiate a new set of arrangements to end the dispute, which remains a drain on the kingdom's resources.

Struggling economy

The king also inherits a country in the grip of severe social and economic problems.

Morocco is predominantly agricultural and the health of the economy is directly affected by the amount of rainfall which has tended to vary dramatically from year to year.

There is widespread unemployment, and huge social inequalities persist, while efforts to modernise the economy have been slow to bear fruit.

Political reform

In his last years, King Hassan sponsored limited political liberalisation, which resulted in the appointment of a government headed by a respected left-wing figure who had always been in opposition. The aim was partly to absorb discontent before it was channelled into support for the illegal Islamist opposition.

But as prosperity continues to be elusive, political Islam could prove to be another challenge the new king may have to deal with.

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