Turkish management of Tunisia's Enfidha Airport stirs controversy

"It was as if we gave Enfidha Airport away to the Turks for free,” said trade union leader Noureddine Taboubi.
Sunday 17/11/2019
A Tunisian policeman checks tickets of British tourists leaving the country at the Enfidha International airport on June 27, 2015. (AFP)
A Tunisian policeman checks tickets of British tourists leaving the country at the Enfidha International airport on June 27, 2015. (AFP)

TUNIS - Statements by Noureddine Taboubi, secretary-general of Tunisia’s largest trade union, that Tunisian authorities struck a “suspicious” deal with the Turkish operator of Enfidha-Hammamet International Airport, sparked controversy with the agreement seen as being subservient to Ankara.

The economic rapprochement between Tunis and Ankara faces opposition from a wide range of Tunisian economic and secularist circles because of what they see as the burdensome legacy left by Tunisia’s Islamist-dominated government when it allowed Turkish partnerships after 2011.

Activists on social networks have been circulating a video clip showing Taboubi, secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union during an interview with Tunisian French-language newspaper La Presse in which he said that “an agreement was made giving the Turkish side a reduction of about 65% in the concession to exploit Enfidha-Hammamet International Airport by scheduling its debts.”

“With this agreement, which unfortunately was buried in total secrecy, it was as if we gave Enfidha Airport away to the Turks for free,” added Taboubi in a statement to the newspaper's website.

Taboubi said he called for an investigation into the circumstances of the agreement and to hold accountable those who unilaterally took the decision without consultations with the people's deputies.

In a statement issued November 12, the ministry of transport said negotiation with the Turkish operator was "built on the fundamental principle of preserving the rights of the Tunisian state in order to avoid any dispute with investors leading to international arbitration."

It also called on all parties to "avoid the dissemination of false information".  The ministry did not however discuss the details raised by Taboubi.

In 2007, the Turkish TAV Holding Group won the tender for the construction of the airport. Under Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's rule, the group was granted the exclusive privilege of operating it for four decades. TAV created a subsidiary in Tunis, TAV Tunis, to manage the airport.

Following the toppling of the Ben Ali regime, major changes in the power structure in Tunisia occurred and successive governments, driven by the Islamist Ennahda Movement, leaned on officials to favour Turkish partners through deals that had negative repercussions on the local economy.

Analysts said Tunisia is risking a lot in the venture, especially because many blame the governments during the past nine years, of which Ennahda was a member, for the country’s economic slowdown.

Economist Moez Joudi said the parties in this affair should be held accountable. He raised questions about the issue if the government does not clarify the legal framework for the airport deal with Turkey.

“It is necessary to conduct an audit on any party that breached its obligations because the agreement is essentially a mechanism of interaction between a country and foreign companies to build and exploit a particular facility,” Joudi said.

He said Taboubi's statement suggests suspicion within the trade union about the legitimacy of the deal because of the ideological and political rapprochement between Turkey and Ennahda.

The agreement stipulates that TAV would continue to exploit Enfidha International Airport to compensate for losses and expenses incurred before 2011 and then make profits before returning the airport to Tunisian management.

“The Turkish company is making profit and the Tunisian state, in turn, makes a profit through the establishment of a project that was not funded by Turkey after 2011 and in which it did not hope to make a profit and it is clear that one of the parties did not respect the agreement,” Joudi said.

He pointed out that exclusive privileges given to TAV undermined the credibility of Tunisia and that there were favouritism and ambiguity regarding the deal.

TAV in June made commitments to the Tunisian government to reinvest in Enfidha Airport after the Tunisian Transport Ministry threatened to withdraw the concession. Sources said the decision was reached after negotiations with Tunisian Minister of Transport Hichem Ben Ahmed following disagreements over conditions of use and maintenance of the airport by TAV, which invested $500 million in constructing the airport.

It seems TAV wants to take advantage of exempting Tunis-Carthage International Airport from Tunisia's Open Skies agreement with the European Union to open its airspace to low-cost airlines to benefit the Enfidha International Airport.

Economist Mongi Mkaddem said there is collusion from the Ministry of Transport to conclude an agreement that satisfies Turkey, especially that the airport's revenues have fallen about 65% compared to previous years.

He said TAV’s losses with Enfidha-Hammamet Airport are caused by competition from nearby Monastir International Airport so the Turkish company is trying to pressure the Tunisian government to get a larger share of the air traffic in Tunisia.

Mkaddem explained that Tunisia proposed to share its business at both airports to cut down on TAV’s losses but TAV was adamant on acquiring full possession of the activities of the two airports.

It wasn’t just the presence of Turkish companies in Tunisia that was partially behind the country's problems in terms of investment but also Tunisia’s deficit in trade exchanges with Ankara is an additional reason behind Tunisians' unwillingness to deal with Turkey.

Official data indicate trade between Tunisia and Turkey stands at about $1.25 billion. Ankara is seeking to increase it to $2 billion. The invasion of Tunisian markets by Turkish goods began with the partnership and free trade agreement concluded between the two countries in 2004.

Tunisians have become weary of the efficacy of their economic relations with Turkey, especially when it became obvious that Ankara's contributions to support Tunisia in the investment conference in November 2016 were below expectations. Turkey provided $100 million in deposits.

Among the 3,555 foreign companies operating in Tunisia, 26 are Turkish, realising a turnover of $138 million, a rather modest amount. The only advantage of the companies to Tunisia lies in the creation of 2,500 job opportunities.