Tunisia seeks investments, new image with international forum
Tunis - Crews have been cutting grass and trimming plants along roads leading to Tunis-Carthage International Airport as part of a broad endeavour to spruce up Tunisia’s image for 1,500 foreign leaders and financiers expected to attend a crucial investment conference.
Tunisian leaders look at the gathering of officials from Western powers and wealthy Arab countries at Tunisia 2020 as an occasion to jump-start the country’s economy stalled by the tumult of political transition since the ouster of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
Tunisia’s economy is enduring its most serious crisis in decades, with ballooning domestic and foreign debt, high inflation and unemployment rates and a weakening currency.
While it is praised in the West and by civic groups in the region as a beacon of democracy, Tunisia has slipped from being an economic success with an annual average gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of nearly 5% for most of two decades through 2010 to an economically challenged country.
The World Bank ranked Tunisia 77th this year in its Doing Business report compared to 68th for Morocco — Tunisia’s main competition for foreign investment and trade.
Tunisia was ranked 69th in 2010 when Morocco was 97th — an indication of lost opportunities for Tunisia and a marker to explain why many of the 500 foreign firms that have left Tunisia since 2010 relocated to Morocco.
“Tunisia had made big progress in democracy and freedoms and it is now seeking to do the same on the economy. The international conference will be the beginning to achieve this goal,” said Wided Bouchamaoui, the head of the Tunisian Union for Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA).
“The main challenge of the country is to provide jobs for 650,000 unemployed,” said Bouchamaoui, whose organisation was part of a quartet that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
“Only with steady domestic and foreign investment can the country achieve growth. That’s why the government drafted a new investment law that was approved by the parliament in September,” said Fadhel Abdelkefi, minister of Development, Investment and International Cooperation.
“The aim of the Tunisia 2020 investment conference is to bolster sustainable economic and social development by providing financing to develop and upgrade the economy.
“There is a security climate that improves day by day and there is political stability with this government. All the attention and the focus are on succeeding in the economic field and the upcoming investment conference,” Abdelkefi said.
The government has submitted an economic emergency law to parliament, which is expected to vote on it before the end of December. The law aims to streamline procedures in granting permits and gaining financial support for investment projects.
“This law provides encouragements and opportunities for local and foreign investors with projects that employ more than 500 people and financial investment worth $25 million,” Abdelkefi said.
Government ministers and officials have organised road shows to European capitals and visited Washington and several Arab capitals to drum up support for the November 29th-30th investment conference with the message that “Tunisia is not begging for money but seeking its place on the world map of investment and partnership”.
Tunisian officials have been repeatedly telling Western backers of is democratic experiment that providing support to the small North African country would send a strong message to other Muslims in North Africa and the Middle East.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, a staunch backer of Tunisia’s reforms, and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls are among the foreign officials expected to attend the conference along with leading bankers, financiers and investors.
The Tunisian government will present projects and investment schemes as part of its 2016-20 development plan, which requires $60 billion in investments.
The European Union has pledged about $327 million per year until 2020 and France announced nearly $1.64 billion in grants to Tunisia.
Tunisia’s financial experts argue that without foreign investment and steady aid flow, the country will find it difficult to ensure economic recovery and meet the demands of its youth for quality jobs and brighter futures.