Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s visit to the United States at the invitation of US President George W Bush has become a crucial watershed in the political and economic relations between America and the Arab world

Tunisia & the USA: Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s visit to the United States at the invitation of US President George W Bush has become a crucial watershed in the political and economic relations between America and the Arab world

Anver Versi



The handshake between Tunisia’s President Ben Ali and US leader George Bush was pregnant with far weightier symbolism than is usually the case when two heads of state meet. Ben Ali’s visit to the US, accepting Bush’s invitation delivered in person by US Secretary of State Colin Powell in December 2003 in Tunis, was laden with more import than cementing the existing excellent relations between the two countries. It was the coming together of two worlds, the Western and the Arab, at a time when tensions between the two are at snapping point.

Although Ben Ali travelled to the US solely in his capacity as Head of State of Tunisia, there was no doubt that the eyes of the Middle East and the north African Maghreb region (in eluding Algeria, Libya and Morocco) were fixed on him. Over the years, Tunisia’s diplomatic skills have chiselled out a unique position for the country as the bridge between the world of Arab Islam and the West.

Tunisia’s credentials in this regard are impeccable. Quietly, unpretentiously, but persistently, the country has acted the honest broken bringing together often disparate parties from the region and outside it to the negotiating table. The latest success was in working behind the scenes to persuade Libya to abandon its stance on weapons of mass destruction.

This point was highlighted by President Bush when he told Ben Ali: “Tunisia can help lead the greater Middle East to reform and freedom, something that I know is necessary for peace for the long term.” Ben Ali responded: “We share principles together, Mr President and that is the establishment of states on the bases of democracy, human rights and combating terror.”

Perhaps more importantly and this is a point often missed by Western observers al though Tunisia is situated on the African continent, it is Arabic and Muslim at heart.

The constitution and the legal system are secular but the official religion is Islam. Right from the time of its independence in 1956, the country’s leadership stressed education for both boys and girls, as demanded by Islam. The result is that Tunisia has one of the world’s highest literacy rates. The Islamic injunctions on the rights and high status of women over rode cultural and traditional mores on gender and today Tunisian women enjoy greater equality in the professions and earnings than in many Western countries. Islam’s insistence on an egalitarian society and the right of individuals to improve their living standards has resulted in one of the highest per capita incomes in the developing world, almost 80% home ownership and one of the lowest poverty levels in the world.

President Bush acknowledged this when he praised Tunisia for establishing a “modern and viable education system and for giving equal rights to women”.

There are few better examples of the living proof of the Islamic spirit of respect for other religions and races than Tunisia. People of different ethnic backgrounds have lived together so intimately and so easily that, when you are in Tunisia, even the idea of looking at people’s colour seems as preposterous as grouping people according to height or weight.

Equally preposterous is the idea of cordoning people according to their faiths. Islam demands respect for all religions. There is a very sizeable community of Jews who have lived happily and prosperously in Tunisia for hundreds of years. The El Ghriba synagogue in Jerba is one of the most important Jewish shrines and thousands of Jews from all over the world attend annual celebrations Lag be Omer.

Seeking after knowledge, progressing, working hard for yourself and your community, equality of the sexes, justice before the law, respect for other faiths and creeds, helping the poor and always striving to do good are all part of the letter and spirit of Islam. This is not ‘moderate’ Islam as is sometimes erroneously labelled. It is Islam pure and simple.

Therefore, that Tunisia is modern, progressive, prosperous, at peace with its neighbours and itself and Islamic is not a contradiction of terms. Tunisians will tell you that it is because they have remained true to the real spirit of Islam that other boons have followed.

This is an important distinction to make–especially in the West where a distorted view of Islam, based on the activities of a few who also claim to be Muslims, has sometimes reached dangerous proportions and in fact, has provided the so called ‘fundamentalists’ with a significance and size well out of proportion to their real, minute dimensions.


There is another, unfortunately widely held misconception in the West that for some reason or the other, Islam and democracy do not mix. This is the opposite of the true state of affairs. Everything in Islam promotes the ideal of democracy from the concept of the ummah, the duties of elected officials, taxation, social welfare, a fluid legislation, checks and balances and the protection of human rights. Autocratic rule is un-Islamic. Some of the countries which are predominantly Muslim, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Senegal, Mall, Tanzania, Sudan, Iran and so on are all fully functioning democracies, If a handful of states which are autocratic also happen to have Muslim majorities, it does not follow that all states which have Muslim majorities are automatically autocratic.

However, all democratic states, by definition, shape and construct their systems of government according to their national priorities, their histories, their cultures, their value systems. One size does not fit all the British parliamentary system with a constitutional monarchy, the American federal system with an executive president, the French presidential/prime-ministerial system, the German federal organisation with a chancellor at the head all are democracies shaped by their societies.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell recognized this distinction during his visit to Tunis in December when he said that the US did not wish to export its model of democracy but was keen to see the installation of democracies where they do not exist. On this point, he will find nobody to quarrel with in the region–the struggle for most people in this area for the last 50 years has been precisely that–a democracy cut from their own cloth.

Tunisia is a model Arab and Muslim state and it is where most other countries in the region want to reach, its continued success is proof that Islam and modernity go hand in hand. It is also a body blow to those who for political reasons, seek to persuade the world that Islam and modernity are mutually exclusive and that to chose one is to lose the other.

Tunisia’s own battle against terrorism, when political groups, pretending to be Islamic but in reality distorting Islam completely out of shape in order to create a state of anarchy, was fought and won long before America woke up to the reality of this horror on September 11.

Thus, at this juncture in the world’s history, when many pieces are in flux, President Ben Ali’s visit to the US assumed a significance well beyond diplomatic and trade relationships. This visit could lay the ground for rearranging the pieces in the Arab world so that order can be restored to chaos, peace can be given a chance to prevail, hostility can be transformed into friendship, suspicions can be laid aside, respect for each other’s needs can be recognised and a strong partnership can be forged.


* GOVERNMENT Multi-party democracy.

* HEAD OF STATE President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

* POPULATION 9.8m (2002).

* MAJOR CITIES Tunis (capital),Sfax, Bizerte, Sousse.


* CLIMATE Mild in the north and along the coast Semi-arid in interior and south

* TEMPERATURES December 11.4 Celsius. July 29.3 Celsius.

* CURRENCY TND 1.51550 (Tunisian Dinar) = 1 (February 2004).

* NATURAL RESOURCES Oil, phosphates, iron ore, lead, zinc, salt.


* LIFE EXPECTANCY 72.9years (2001)

* LANGUAGES Arabic (official) French widely spoken, some English, Italian and German

* RELIGION Islamic majority, Christian and Judaism.

* ADULT LITERACY RATE 74.4% (2000)


* GNP PER CAPITA TND 3,125 (2003)


The relationship between Tunisia and the United States of America goes back to the birth of the American nation. Tunisia was one of the first countries to recognise the USA and one of the first to establish a trade agreement with it, in 1799.

Since then the intensity of the relationship has ebbed and flowed according to political and economic considerations. The visit by Tunisia’s President, Zine El Abidine Ben All to the USA following an invitation by US President George Bush is expected to deepen and strengthen this relationship in terms of diplomatic activities, trade and mutual defence needs.

TRADE: In 2003, the US imported around $82m in products from Tunisia and exported almost $144m in products to Tunisia. While there is a general acceptance of US products in Tunisia, import duties levied on American products make them less competitive against similar products from the European Union (EU) with whom Tunisia has a free trade agreement. A Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) signed between the two countries is precursor to negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement. The first TIFA council meeting was held in October last year and the second one will he held in the spring of 2004.

At present, 80% of Tunisia’s trade takes place with the EU.

US INVESTMENTS IN TUNISIA: Total US investment in Tunisia is around $552m.

There are over 50 US companies in the country, mostly in the energy, IT manufacturing for export, telecommunications and medical equipment supply sectors. US companies have created over 11,000 jobs.

US companies have won significant government contracts. For example, General Electric won a major contract in 2002 to supply three gas turbines to the state utility company and an American-lad consortium won a contract for 470 MW power plant to supply over 20% of Tunisia’s power requirements. Some of the best known American companies operating in Tunisia include: 3M, Boeing, Bristol-Myers, Caterpillar Power Ventures, Citibank, Coca-Cola, Deloitte and Touche. ExxonMobil, Ford Motor Company, GE, GM, IBM, Lear, Lucent Technologies, Microsoft, Oradist, Pfizer, Philip Morris, and Sara Lee. A joint venture, Societe d’Electricite d’El Bibane (SEEB) between Caterpillar Power Ventures and Canadian firm Centurion became the first independent power producer in Tunisia to convert flared gas into energy. Alpha Ford is collaborating with Ford Motor Company to assemble Ford Rangers on a ‘completely-built-up’ basis–an ambitious venture which is the first of its kind in the region.



Over the last 15 years, Tunisia has collected an enviable tally of economic and social kudos. Eight out of 10 households own their own homes; 75% of the population is middle class; education is universal; the social security system is the envy of the developing world; poverty is a mere 4%; per capita income is the highest in Africa and the Maghreb.

Economic growth has been sustained at around 5% for over a decade; population growth is 0.9%, leaving a per capita growth in income of around 4%; infrastructure has quadrupled since 1987; women form over 25% of the workforce.

Some 2,500 foreign companies are based in Tunisia; it is the third highest recipient of FDI in the Middle East despite its small size and lack of oil; it has the highest ratio of computer and car ownership in Africa. And it is the most competitive economy in Africa. Tunisia has been ranked 33rd out of 95 countries on the latest Davos Forum’s Business Competitiveness Index and Tunisia, alone among African and Arab countries, has open access to international capital markets.

Tunisia’s National Solidarity Movement which has beaten back poverty and successfully integrated marginalized groups into the mainstream has been so successful, it has been adopt ed by the United Nations as the International Solidarity Movement.

Newsweek describes Tunisia thus: “Alone among Arab states, Tunisia has made real progress building an economy based on resources other than oil”. The former US Ambassador to Tunis, Rust Deming says: “I believe Tunisia is well placed to be the first truly modern Arab republic.”

US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, speaking in Tunis during his visit last year, said: “Our bilateral relationship is very, very strong. We are great admirers of Tunisia and the progress that has been achieved under President Ben Ali’s leadership: One of the highest literacy rates in the world, openness in the society to participation of women, and the political and economic performance which has taken place over the years.”

While Tunisians can justifiably bask in this universal approbation, it is easy to take Tunisia’s success for granted unless one remembers that at independence half a century ago, it was on the same level as other countries emerging from a stifling century of colonial rule. But while most others have floundered in their quest for political, economic and social development, Tunisia has forged ahead.

Why and how has Tunisia succeeded where so many others failed?

While the US won its own independence 228 years ago after a relatively short period of colonial rule and was thus able to fully release the energy and ingenuity of its citizens, Tunisia, in common with other countries in the region, became independent only 54 years ago after a far longer and more pernicious period of colonialism.

There is a tendency to underestimate the destructive nature of colonial rule on a people’s ability to develop. The colonial powers were not concerned about the development of the people over whom they ruled; on the contrary, it was in their interest to keep development at the barest minimum. In addition, whatever development there was, in terms of infrastructure or technology, was geared towards benefiting the foreign powers at the expense of the native populations.


When colonial rule ended, the countries liberated found themselves backward in almost all spheres of life. They not only had to completely reverse the colonial systems of exploitation and replace them with national development programmes, they were always playing catch up in a world where all the economic deck was stacked against them.

In addition, there was a babble of voices and views about what direction the countries would take, personal ambitions were unleashed, unscrupulous profiteers, local and foreign, made a bee-line and various ideological strains discovered a new battleground on which to wage their wars.

This was the series of daunting obstacles facing most developing countries as they entered independence. In addition, colonial rule had deliberately created a permanent system of poverty traps in order to keep the population ‘in order’.

The first order of business therefore was to try and break the poverty cycle, collectively and individually and do this while maintaining political stability, national unity and communal and ethnic harmony. An order so tall that the majority of developing countries are still struggling to achieve the balance.

Given this backdrop, it was clear that the most important element would be leadership. The leadership had to have comprehensive knowledge of the people–their aspirations, their fears, their capabilities and their limitations. It had to have achievable vision and the drive and ability to make the vision possible and it had to be a leadership acceptable by all. In short, the call was for great leadership.

Good leadership is a rare commodity. Great leadership, like a perfect gem, appears once in several generations. Tunisia’s fortune was to be blessed by two great leaders in one lifetime.

The first president, Habib Bourguiba identified education, the emancipation of women and the building of a sound economic foundation, based on innovation and enterprise, as the national goals.

Progress was slow as the colonial superstructure was dismantled and a new one built as hardened mental attitudes and cultural traits began to change.

Towards the end of his long tenure, the ailing and increasingly senile Bourguiba lost his grip on the government. With the economy stagnant, social and political fissures widened alarmingly. There were riots and baton charges.

A new and dangerous element, which had arisen from failed hopes, bitterness and frustration in neighbouring countries, spilled over into Tunisia in the form of religious extremism.

The extremists, claiming Islamic credentials but with bidden political agendas, were well schooled in the mechanics of anarchy. They unleashed waves of terror against which the government seemed helpless.

With the country tottering, it was time for a radical change of leadership. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a young man with background in diplomacy and national security, and untainted by association with the old fractious political parties, was invited to take over the national leadership.


His first act in power was to stop the squabbling by inviting all Tunisian factions, including those in exile, to come around and together hammer out a new national blueprint.

The core of the blueprint was rapid economic growth based on the country’s human resources and an equitable sharing of the national wealth, national unity of purpose and revitalizing Tunisia’s rich cultural legacy.

He staffed his cabinet with some of the most pragmatic and result-oriented people he could find and insisted that the administration and civil service carry out every last detail of each project. It is remarkable that Tunisia, under Ben Ali’s leadership, has achieved all the goals set out in each development plan and surpassed targets more often than not.

The social agenda, national security and the rule of law were also priorities. The ingenious National Solidarity Fund (in which government matches voluntary donations from individuals, companies and other organizations) not only helped batter down the poverty rate from around 30% to less than 4%, it served as a method of social cohesion as previously marginalized groups were brought firmly back into the mainstream.

The threat posed by extremist terrorism was as real and urgent as that now presented by international terrorism. The terrorist groups were not opposition parties or disenchanted factions. They were bent on creating a state of anarchy, destroying all institutions and generating a climate of fear and panic.

Ben Ali was not prepared to wait for symbolic ‘mushroom clouds’ to rise above the cities before he acted. He stamped down hard–much as the US and Europe have been forced to do in their own anti-terrorism legislations.

The threat of internal terrorism has now practically disappeared, thanks to rapidly rising living standards, the spread of education, the emancipation of women and the active projection of the true nature of Islam.

Terrorism thrives in poverty, ignorance, superstition and fear; remove these, Ben Ali argues, and you drain the swamps in which it breeds.

Developing human capacity included a massive investment in education, training and retraining at all levels. To not only survive in the modern world but to prevail, says Ben Ali, one has to be the best. This seeking for excellence has led to a nation-wide programme of industrial upgrading, ‘mise a niveau’. By 2010, when all trade harriers with Europe have been eliminated, core Tunisian companies will be able to compete with the best Europe can offer on an equal footing.

As Tunisia repeatedly achieved its development goals and as more and more families graduated to middle-class levels, so its reputation for political stability and economic progress began to increase in Africa, the Arab world and now worldwide.

The result is that Tunisia is the best known and best understood country in Africa and the Arab world.

The economic windfalls have been heavy. “You trust people and countries you know and like,” says Yasin Ismail, a Malaysian garments manufacturer. “We always also kept hearing of Tunisia in a favourable light so when we were looking to expand our operations in this region, Tunisia naturally came first to mind.”

Tunisia’s high profile globally also helps Tunisian exporters find markets and a welcoming reception everywhere. “Nowadays, when you mention Tunisia, people immediately associate it with efficiency, honesty and general pleasantness,” says Nabil Akhel, a translator. “Its great to be a Tunisian abroad,” he says. “Our publicity guys have been doing a great job.”

Tunisia’s success has not come easily–it has been hard, unrelenting work and a constant striving for excellence. Its watchword has been pragmatism, not ideology. But, fortune has also smiled on this country and given it the leadership it deserves.


The Mediterranean basin, apart from being the crucible of civilisation, is also the centre from which Arab, African and European worlds radiate. Cultural, religious, political and economic vibrations from each of these regions travel to and fro along the spokes setting off significant tremors in the countries they traverse.

With the geo-political situation in flux, Tunisia’s initiative to bring all the significant players together in the first summit of its kind has been welcomed. The ‘5+5 Dialogue Summit’, held in Tunis in December, was attended by the heads of state of five Arab Maghreb Union countries (Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Libya and Tunisia) and five southern Mediterranean countries (Portugal, Spain, Italy, France and Malta).

Discussions focussed on a wide range of issues, from common security in the face of international terror, political stability, economic cooperation and trade to finding a lasting solution to the Palestine crisis and the thorny question of migration.

The talks were free, frank and to the point. The Tunis Declaration, published at the end of the summit, will provide a working blueprint for future cooperation. Among other items, delegates committed themselves to re-launch the Middle East Peace Process in conformity with international legality in order to find “a just, comprehensive and final settlement of the Isreali-Palestinian conflict.”

All heads of state were equally resolved to support “the restoration of the sovereignty of Iraq” and to accelerate the transfer of power to Iraqis.”

In his closing remarks, Tunisia’s President Ben Ali said the first summit had made it possible to reach a common approach through the Tunis Declaration. “Our dialogue has been at the same time profound, sincere and serious,” he remarked.

The United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan congratulated Tunisia for taking the initiative on “organising such an important event”. He added: “the summit was a good opportunity to further reinforce the political, civilisational and cultural dialogue between western Mediterranean countries, with a view to strengthen confidence between its peoples, encourage harmonious co-development in the region and consolidate its security and stability.”



Tunisia contains some of the most important World Heritage sites. Its cultural roots go back three thousand years to the glory that was Carthage. The subsequent history of the world can be said to have flowered from this beginning.

Here in Tunisia, one can see and touch the milestones of world history the Numedian and Punic civilisations, the Roman occupation, the Vandal destruction, the Byzantine elaboration, the Arab conquest, the Turkish lordship and the French colonisation. The cycle has gone full circle and the Tunisian of today is custodian of one of the world’s richest national heritages.

It is to protect this fragile but unbroken historical chain that an exciting new venture was given the go-ahead by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Some $32m has been allocated to develop the Carthage-Sidi Bou Said National Park. The aim is to halt the urban sprawl that is threatening to encroach on one of the world’s richest archeological seams.

The park will contain six segments: the ancient city of Carthage; La Marsa nature park, Sidi Bou Said village, the gardens of Amilcar, the Yasmina sports and leisure park and the Carthage coast.

One of the first projects will be a $3m memorial to Hannibal, one of the greatest generals of all times, who took 40,000 men and 38 elephants over the Alps to punish Rome.

Next in line is a $5m reconstruction of the ancient Punic port, seat of one of the most extensive commercial networks of the old world.

Carthage, according to Francisco Carillo, a Unesco representative in Tunisia, is an “unrivalled marvel with many riches still to be uncovered”.

The park will provide the structure and facilities needed to recommence archeological digs. This is a spectacular conservation project. Several foreign countries have joined the World Bank and Unesco in participating in the project. When it is completed, Tunisia will be the only country in the Mediterranean to have made such a massive conservation undertaking so close to a capital or major city.

Tunisia’s cultural treasures are not limited to Carthage and its neighbourhood. The whole country is dripping with cultural gems.


Go to the Bardo museum in Tunis and feast on the sumptuous cultural banquet spread out before you. A new section, Mediterranean Treasures, contains a wealth of rare and precious ancient Greek objects. Here you will see dazzling mosaics, including one of Ulysses straining against the songs of the Sirens. There is superb Roman sculpture and mosaics, Arabic calligraphy and coins and thousands of other objects collected and preserved over the millennia.

In the fabled Medina of Tunis you will find the famous Ez-Zitouna Mosque, relatively unchanged since the founding of Islam in Tunis.

Take a trip to Kairouan, the first Islamic centre established in the 7th century and marvel at the Great Mosque of Okba ibn Nafaa where it is believed resides a hair from the Holy Prophet’s beard.

Visit Sfax or walk around the vast Roman amphitheatre at El Jem. Go to Kerkouane and gaze at the only example of a Punic settlement that has miraculously remained intact to this day.

Join the Jewish pilgrimage, Lag be Omer, on the 33rd day after Passover to El Ghriba–the first synagogue in North Africa–on the island of Djerba. Do all this and you only begin to scratch the surface.

There are at least 26,000 historical and archeological sites in Tunisia, with 670 monuments in the medina of Tunis alone.

A new project, ‘City of Culture in the heart of Tunis is already being talked about by experts as possibly the greatest cultural complex in the Mediterranean. It will include a Civilisation Museum, an art museum and galleries, three large auditoriums, a cinema and a media library.

In addition to the Carthage National Park and the City of Culture projects, a number of cultural circuits are being developed throughout the country. By 2005, an extra 20 circuits are expected to be completed. These will range from archaeological circuits, themed tours such as mosques or fortresses and visits to bygone civilisations. Cultural tourism should increase visitor numbers by 20% to 30%, tourism officials say.

While the extra revenue will be welcome, the aim is not just to chase the tourist buck. The goal is to protect and preserve Tunisia’s cultural heritage. “We will move very slowly to ensure that we don’t destroy our heritage and environment” says an official.


Despite all its economic and social successes, Tunisia has never taken its eye off the vital importance of culture in the grand scheme of things. It provides a unbroken link to the country’s history and therefore roots the national identity

Tunisia currently spends a full one percent of GDP on culture.

The annual budget for culture is expected to grow from $45m in 1999 to $140m in 2004. Budgetary allocation is as follows: Cultural exhibitions (24%); museums and institutions (20%); cinema (14%); literature (14%), theatre (9%) and poetry (4%).

The country’s cultural wealth does not just reside in monuments but in the people themselves. This is why half the culture budget will go towards developing and enhancing human cultural achievements.

Tunisian cinema already enjoys a well deserved international reputation for quality. Film-makers such as Moufida Tlatli and Farid Boughedir have won a clutch of awards from prestigious international juries.

The country has a distinguished tradition in literature and poetry and Tunisian theatre is beginning to create waves on the international stage.

The colours, the forms and the quality of light in Tunisia have inspired both local and international artists such as Paul Klee and Auguste Macke. Additional art galleries will expose the works of such Tunisian masters as, Aldelaziz Gorgi, Rafik El Kamel, Add Megdichi and Rachid Koreichi, an Algerian who lives in Tunisia, to a much wider audience.

There are some 50 festivals between June and September each year in addition to the biannual Carthage Film Festival. With the annual Jazz festival in Tarbarka attracting greater world wide attention, Tunisia can now claim to be the culture capital of Africa.

With so much culture oozing from its pores, it is hardly surprising that culture tourism is high on the agenda. Currently some five million tourists visit the country but only 10% take the trouble to leave the sun and sand and visit cultural sites.

The potential is therefore enormous when you consider that millions of tourists visit countries like Britain, or cities like Florence, Venice and Rome purely to soak up culture. The Ministry of Tourism, in conjunction with the Ministries of Culture and Environment are working on plans to diversify tourism and bring Tunisia’s cultural treasures to the attention of the world.


Tunisia became the African soccer champions in February when the home team beat a strong Moroccan side 2-1 in the finals of the Nokia African Nations Cup tournament at the Rades Stadium, Tunis.

This was Tunisia’s first ever victory in the 47 year history of the tournament although Tunisia has reached the final twice–losing to South Africa in 1996 and to Ghana in 1965. Tunisia has hosted this prestigious tournament three times, in 1965, 1994 and 2004.

The bi-annual African Nations Cup is now one of the premier international tournaments on the soccer calendar. African footballers have become the most sought after foreign players in the massive European leagues.

Earlier, the entire country of Tunisia went wild with jubilation when the home side beat the pre-tournament favourites, Nigeria, 5-3 on and penalties setting up an all-North African final.

The final, which was played at pulsating pace, was easily the best match of this year’s tournament. Tunisia went into the lead with a goal from their Brazilian national, Dos Santos. Morocco equalised through Mokhtari Yousseff. The winning goal, a deft flick by Ziad Jaziri, has made the young forward a national hero.

The tournament in Tunis has also been de dared as one of the best ever in terms of organisation, facilities and international coverage. This will stand Tunisia iii very good stead as it makes a bid to host the 2010 World Cup against other African venues–South Africa, Morocco and Libya.



Tunisia, with a land area of roughly 163,000 sq km is small compared to its Maghrebi neighbours such as Algeria and Libya; unlike both, it has hardly any hydrocarbon reserves and half the country is desert. Yet Tunisia leaves them both and the rest of Africa–standing when it comes to economic performance.

This is the Singapore of the Mediterranean. Relying on a well-educated, highly motivated, technologically literate workforce, Tunisia has grown into a buzzing, innovative industrial centre situated bang in the middle of one of the world’s most affluent markets.

To the east and west lie oil rich Libya and Algeria; to the south, vast areas of sub-Saharan Africa open up; to the north and north-east spreads the Mediterranean, with the heel of Italy’s boot only a long stone’s-throw away.

From the European rim of the Mediterranean, the trade routes form a vast, interconnected network extending from Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey through Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries and into the former Soviet empire. With several East European countries now joining the European Union, the Eurozone is becoming the biggest single market in the world.

As the single currency, the euro, spreads further afield, trade and currency barriers disappear and prices and quality are standardized. As the dollar is to the US in terms of inter state trading, so the euro is to Europe in terms of inter-country trading.

It is no wonder then that the Eurozone has become such a magnet for international investment–nobody wants to be left out when there are such rich pickings to be had. The problem is that the rush of investments, expansions and new enterprises has resulted in soaring costs. The fierce competition for land and labour and the equally fierce struggle for market foothold means that only the strongest and best equipped can hope to survive.

Enter Tunisia. It is strategically situated to serve this massive market and although it is not in the EU, it is an associate member. By 2010, it will become a full associate member with free flow of goods and services.

The cost of doing business in Tunisia compared to Europe is low; business legislation is clear and in line with international norms; red-tape has been slashed to a bare minimum; telecommunications, upgraded via a series of logical steps, is excellent; air and sea transport links are comprehensive and internal road and rail net works are some of the best in the Arab world.

But the most important element in Tunisia’s attractiveness as an investment destination is the people. There is a ready pool of talented, skirled and well educated workforce. Primary and secondary education is virtually universal and the country’s universities turn out thousands of graduates every year. Vocational training courses, subsidized by the government, help young people enter industry at technical and managerial levels. Computer literacy, bolstered through government grants to families to buy their own equipment, is widespread among all sections of society.


Investing in Tunisia is virtually pain free. One stop investment centres quickly and clearly outline all the options available and guide you through the formalities. There are two free trade zones mainly for export oriented enterprises, one in Bizerte and the uther in Zarzis. In addition there are around 80 fully equipped industrial parks. Information on banking facilities, transport, customs clearing and forwarding, shipping and cargo handling services, transport, labour laws etc are provided rapidly and in detail.

Banking is modern and digitalised with a full range of ATM machines located around the country. The financial sector is very solid and the local currency, the dinar, has maintained its value roughly equal to the dollar. Inflation is very low, currently at 2.7%.

While President Ben Ali’s administration has pulled out all the stops to make Tunisia the investor’s ideal destination, the government itself keep well out of business. Taxation is rational and low compared to similar investment destinations.

Corruption, the bane of developing countries, is totally absent in Tunisia’s business environment. Speaking to Newsweek, American entrepreneur, Tom Wendt who makes jet-engine parts for General Electric said: “I didn’t have to pay anybody to do business here”.

Given all these attributes, it comes as no surprise that some 2,500 international companies, some of them household names such as Levi’s Jeans, BMW, GAP have set up shop in Tunisia and more are coming.

Tunisia is already the fourth largest supplier of garments to the European Union and its market share is likely to increase as the size of the EU expands. Foreign companies, sometimes in joint-ventures with Tunisians, make car and computer components, electrical and electronic goods, processed foods and oils and a vast array of other manufactures for a hungry international market.


In a region abounding with volatile politics, Tunisia is an island of stability. Under the stewardship of President Ben Ali most of the causes cited for social and political turmoil such as poverty, disenfranchisement and lack of opportunities have been addressed and dealt with. Tunisia has the highest per capita GNP, the highest incidence of home ownership and the lowest level of poverty in the region. With an annual growth level of around 5% for the past decade, Tunisia has practically lost its ‘developing country’ status.

This makes for a stable and contented country–usually the first criteria investors look at when deciding where to invest.

In addition, a vigorous industrial up grading programme, (mise a niveau) has targeted some 2,500 Tunisian companies. Results have been spectacular as state-of-the art management, production and distribution procedures replace traditional methods.

This general raising of the entire productive base to European-level ideals not only spurs economic growth, it has important cost efficiencies for foreign firms based in Tunisia.

There are around 50 US or US-related companies in Tunisia involved in the manufacturing and hydrocarbon–mainly gas–sectors. This is a surprising low figure given the excel lent relations between the two countries and Tunisia’s proximity to one of the world’s most dynamic markets. One can only assume that the word has not yet reached all the ears it should have. President Ben Ali’s high profile visit to the United States in February has hopefully helped spread the word further.

COPYRIGHT 2004 IC Publications Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning