Tunis gets a facelift and Tunisians a dose of optimism at Arab summit

For Tunisia, the influx of high-ranking officials and visitors came as a welcome change and boon for the economy.
Sunday 31/03/2019
Arab League Summit logo
Arab League Summit logo

TUNIS - Tunisia’s capital received a welcome facelift ahead of the 30th Arab League summit, with the city’s roads, public parks and main squares tidied up and freshly decorated for the occasion.

Welcome billboards and flags of the visiting Arab League countries greeted scores of high-level dignitaries and thousands of visitors arriving in Tunis, while security services were put on high alert by the Ministry of Interior.

Residents joked that Tunisia should host more summits to ensure periodic renovation for its public spaces, which are often derided for having fallen into disarray. The city’s upgraded appearance was not the only cause for optimism, however.

For Tunisia, beset by a lingering financial crisis and a fractured political scene, the influx of high-ranking officials and visitors came as a welcome change and boon for the economy.

Not only were hotels in Tunis and its suburbs at capacity but restaurants, shops and popular venues enjoyed a steady stream of customers who brought in revenue for a recovering tourism sector.

The country’s hard currency reserves — having steadily declined for years — rose by three extra days during the week of the summit.

The event also offered Tunisians a respite from the country’s fractious politics, as local media shifted focus from the domestic scene towards broader regional issues.

Tunisian leaders said they sought to maintain the country’s traditional position of neutrality in Arab affairs, taking pride in assembling so many Arab leaders under the same roof and seeking to strike compromises on divisive issues.

“Tunisia is renowned for its moderation and rationalism,” said Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi as he welcomed Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on March 28. “We hope that the summit will give an impetus for more solidarity and cooperation between Arab states.”

The presence of King Salman, who arrived a few days before the summit, reflected deepening ties between Tunis and Riyadh since Caid Essebsi’s election in 2014.

The Tunisian presidency said King Salman’s visit was an opportunity to develop “all areas in the interest of the two brotherly peoples.”

At the top of Tunisia’s summit agenda was the conflict in neighbouring Libya. Strife there since 2011 has adversely affected trade and employment opportunities in Tunisia.

Former Tunisian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ounaies told the Associated Press that the summit could be a victory for Tunisia, “especially if it manages to advance the political process in Libya.”

Apart from visiting state delegations, hundreds of Arab and international media representatives travelled to Tunisia to report on issues pertinent to their respective countries, including the Palestinian issue, conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria and US President Donald Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.

The central media point was Tunisia’s City of Culture, a 9-hectare downtown arts complex down the road from the Palais des Congres, where Arab heads of state convened for the summit March 31.