Saudi crown prince stops in Tunis to a warm welcome
TUNIS - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was warmly welcomed by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who awarded the crown prince Tunisia’s highest national medal.
In a symbolic gesture of esteem, Caid Essebsi, 92, braved cold and windy weather to greet Crown Prince Mohammed as he stepped from his plane at Tunis-Carthage International Airport. “You are welcome in your country Tunisia even when our traditions here say you do not welcome loved ones who are at home,” said Caid Essebsi.
“I cannot come to North Africa without visiting Tunisia. Tunisian President (Beji Caid Essebsi) is like my father,” the crown prince said. Caid Essebsi said he was proud to be considered that way.
Crown Prince Mohammed arrived in Tunis November 27 for the fourth leg of an Arab tour before heading to the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.
Experts said the visits by Crown Prince Mohammed to Arab countries and his presence at the G20 were aimed to strengthen the role Saudi Arabia seeks to play as a spiritual, cultural and political powerhouse in the Arab world and a key economic power in the global stage despite the backlash after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Analysts said Crown Prince Mohammed’s trip dwarfed a campaign by Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and their allies as well as efforts by Turkey, Qatar and Iran to undermine the image of the young Saudi leader.
The crown prince and Caid Essebsi met in a closed-door session before a wider meeting extended to both countries’ delegations. Discussions included ways to strengthen cooperation in various areas, including security and military fields. While most of his meetings in Tunisia involved Caid Essebsi, Crown Prince Mohammed also met with Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Ennaceur.
“The two sides examined the ways of reinforcing cooperation in the fields of priority like economy, finance and encouraging investment and security and military cooperation to face threats of extremism and terrorism,” a statement by Caid Essebsi’s office said. They also reviewed preparations ahead of the Arab League summit next March in Tunisia. Tunisia takes over the Arab League chairmanship from Saudi Arabia next year.
Tunisia looks for Saudi Arabia to help its mediation efforts in neighbouring Libya, which has been chaotic since a NATO-backed revolt toppled the regime of 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. Saudi Arabia with its influence in the region can help such efforts,” said Noureddine Ben Ticha, one of Caid Essebsi’s top advisers.
A day after the crown prince’s visit, a source in Tunis told Reuters that Riyadh would grant Tunisia a $500 million loan at a favourable interest rate. “Tunisia will announce in a few days important deals with Saudi, including a loan with a low interest rate, agreements on investment and other important details,” Ben Ticha told Tunisian state television.
Tunisia faces a financial crunch because of budget and trade deficits and soaring inflation, which have fuelled widespread popular dissent.
Saudi Ambassador to Tunisia Mohammed Mahmoud al-Ali said the visit by Crown Prince Mohammed “will have a great effect on the reinforcement of the current rapprochement and bolster the level of bilateral cooperation including between businesspeople.”
He cited opportunities for trade and business for Tunisia in various areas that Saudi Arabia expects through Vision 2030, which is planned to move Riyadh from an oil-dependent economy to a Middle East hub of international trade and commerce.
The project includes the massive construction projects Saudi Arabia is undertaking, including new cities such as 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 witnessed a different momentum since Caid Essebsi became president in 2015, leading to increased economic and diplomatic contacts by officials from both countries.
When former President Moncef Marzouki’s government included an alliance with the Islamist Ennahda Movement, Tunisia’s diplomacy leaned more towards Turkey, Qatar and Egypt, when Cairo was under President Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
While under the Islamist led-coalition from 2011-13, cooperation between Tunisia, Qatar and Turkey expanded across various fields, including the military. Tunisia’s relations at that time with main traditional Arab partners, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were either cold or tense.
The United Arab Emirates, which had been Tunisia’s second-largest trading partner in the Arab world after Libya, saw its relations with Tunis strained after 2011 with most Emirati investment projects frozen. The diplomatic rift peaked in September 2013 when the Emirati ambassador was withdrawn.
Caid Essebsi put Tunisia’s diplomacy back on its traditional path by giving priority to nurturing relations with all Arab countries to serve the country’s economic and diplomatic interests without the ideological bias.
Ties warmed between Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait under Caid Essebsi with Saudi Arabia pledging an $850 million investment and aid during the Tunisia 2020 investment forum in 2016.
Saudi warplanes joined Tunisian jets in drills in October in Tunisian airspace to underscore the improvement of ties between the two countries.
Civil society groups and activists from various affiliations, especially Islamists, carried out demonstrations in Tunis against the crown prince’s visit. A group of lawyers attempted to block the visit by filing a lawsuit.
Many Tunisian political leaders, however, welcomed Crown Prince Mohammed’s 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 political party, said. He expressed hope “the visit would produce positive results serving the interests of the two countries.”
Mohsen Marzouk, head of the Machrouu Tounes political party, also said he welcomed the visit, saying “it will bolster the historical ties between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia for the interest of both peoples.”