Saudi crown prince arrives in Tunis for talks with President Caid Essebsi

Experts see the crown prince's regional tour as underlining Saudi Arabia's continued presence on the world stage.
Tuesday 27/11/2018
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, in April 2018. (AFP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, in April 2018. (AFP)

TUNIS - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz arrived in Tunis Tuesday evening for the fourth leg of an Arab tour ahead of his participation in the G20 World Economic Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

The crown prince was greeted at the airport by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.  A welcome ceremony was held at the presidential wing of the Tunis-Carthage airport where the two leaders had brief talks, before heading to the Carthage Palace where their official discussions are scheduled to take place. 

According to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV channel, Crown Prince Mohammed is expected to fly on to Argentina, for the G-20 summit at the end of his visit to Tunisia.  The channel said the visit to Tunisia will last only "a few hours."

Experts see the crown prince's regional tour, which also brought him to the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, and his presence at the G20 summit in Argentina as underlining Saudi Arabia's continued presence on the world stage and economic and political clout in the region following backlash over the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in the country's consulate in Istanbul last month. Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and their allies in the region, as well as Turkey, Qatar and Iran, sought to undermine the image and credibility of the young Saudi young leader following the Khashoggi case. US President Donald dealt a blow to such efforts, reiterating the US's firm commitment to Saudi Arabia. 

The Saudi crown prince and the Tunisian president are expected to discuss ways to spur bilateral relations, enhance investment and bolster trade between the two countries. Political and regional issues of common interest, such as the conflict in Libya, are also expected to be on the agenda.

Tunisia takes over the Arab League chairmanship from Saudi Arabia in March 2019, when it hosts the Arab League summit.

"Tunisia has excellent historic relations with Saudi Arabia and Tunisia seeks to improve them further. Thus, the importance of the visit by the crown prince to strengthen the brethren ties and expand cooperation,” president Caid Essebsi’s top political adviser, Noureddine Ben Ticha, told The Arab Weekly.

Among the two country's common challenges are “the fight against terrorism," Ben Ticha added. 

Tunisia is looking to Saudi Arabia to help in mediation efforts to restore peace and security in neighbouring Libya, which has undergone years of civil turmoil since a NATO-backed revolt toppled the regime of former strongman Muammar Qaddafi.

“We are pursuing the initiative of President Beji Caid Essebsi to try to bring together the efforts of  Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia towards resolving the crisis in Libya," said Ben Ticha. "Saudi Arabia with its influence in the region can help such efforts."

Asked whether Tunisia is expecting economic aid from Saudi Arabia, Ben Ticha declared: “Tunisia counts on its own potential and own resources first but the support by the Arab brothers is always welcome. Cooperation is traditional and it is deeply rooted in the past. Any strengthening of that cooperation is welcome."

“What is important is to reinforce bilateral cooperation and exchange views in the regional issues,” he added.

Tunisia is facing a financial crisis due to its high budget, trade deficit and soaring inflation, which has fueled popular frustration and anger.

Saudi Ambassador to Tunisia Mohammed Mahmoud al-Ali told The Arab Weekly: "The visit by His Highness the Crown Prince will have a great impact on the reinforcement of the current rapprochement and bolster the level of bilateral cooperation, including between businesspeople.””

He cited the opportunities for trade and business for Tunisia in various fields in Saudi Arabia promised by the kingdom's Vision 2030 reform programme. 

Vision 2030 aims to transition the Saudi economy from dependence on oil revenue to a regional hub of international trade and commerce at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and Africa.

International experts say the implementation of the vision could have an even greater impact than the kingdom's development of oil 80 years ago.

The ambitious project includes massive construction projects throughout the kingdom, including in new cities like Qiddiya, the planned home for a nascent Saudi entertainment industry, and Neom, a special economic zone that will function as an urban-scale tech incubator.

Relations between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia have improved since Caid Essebsi took over from former President Moncef  Marzouki in 2015, leading to increased economic and diplomatic contacts by officials from both countries.

Under Marzouki's rule, marked by an alliance with the Islamist Ennahda party, Tunisia moved closer to Turkey, Qatar and Egypt, then led by Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.  

Under the rule of the Islamist led-coalition in Tunisia between 2011 and 2013, cooperation between Tunisia and Qatar and Turkey expanded across various fields, including the military.

During that time, Tunisia’s relations with its traditional Arab partners, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, grew cold and tense.

Relations were particularly strained with the United Arab Emirates, which had previously been Tunisia’s second-largest trading partner in the Arab world after Libya, with most Emirati investment projects frozen after 2011.The diplomatic rift peaked in September 2013, when the Emirati ambassador was withdrawn.

Caid Essebsi returned to Tunisia’s traditional diplomatic approach, prioritising relations with all Arab states to serve the country’s economic and diplomatic interests.

Ties warmed between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait under Caid Essebsi’s presidency, with Saudi Arabia pledging $850 million on investment and aid to the country at Tunisia's 2020 investment forum in 2016. Last October, Saudi warplanes joined Tunisian jets in an air force drill over Tunisian airspace, underscoring the improved ties. 

While objections to the crown prince's trip were expressed by Islamist figures and a number of civil society activists, many Tunisian political leaders welcomed the visit.

"This is an important visit and is part of Tunisia's basic foreign policy orientations," Mehdi Jomaa, former prime minister and president of the Badil (the Alternative) political party, told The Arab weekly. He expressed hope that "the visit would produce positive results serving the interests of the two countries."

"Any visit by Saudi officials to Tunisia is welcome," he added. "Time-honoured ties between both countries are marked by brotherhood and joint cooperation."

Mohsen Marzouk, head of the Masrou' Tounes"(Tunisia Project) political party, also welcomed the visit, expressing hope "it will bolster the historical ties between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia for the interest of both peoples," he told The Arab Weekly.