Tunisia to diversify cooperation, partnership with India

THE BLUE MOON had an opportunity to speak to Ambassador Nejmeddine Lakhal of Tunisia who spoke about sweeping changes that have taken place in Tunisia after the popular revolution of dignity that took place in 2011 . He also talked about perspectives of prosperous Tunisia and Indian partnership. Some excerpts of the interview granted to Editor Amit Mittal.

Ever since the Arab Spring of 2011 what has changed in the economy of the country?

There have been lots of irreversible changes. Since the popular and peaceful revolution of January 2011, Tunisia was able to achieve many advances on the path of democracy transition. Indeed, on January 27, 2014, the Tunisian national assembly adopted a new constitution, which is among the most progressive in the region and the world. It paved the way for radical changes in the legal, political and institutional frameworks. Transparency and the rule of law are now sacred principles. It almost guarantees equal rights for men and women, protect freedom of expression and conscience, demand that the state protect the environment and tackle corruption, and insist on the necessity of protecting and preserving future generation’s rights. Later that year, in October 2014, Tunisia held its first free and transparent legislative elections. And, in November 2014, Tunisian people democratically elected their first  President. To build a solid democratic society Tunisians have chosen the path of dialogue and consensus that has earned ”the national dialogue quartet” the 2015 Nobel peace prize.

Still the achievements accomplished by Tunisia in the democratic process are not enough as our country is facing some economic difficulties. We count primarily on our own human resources and efforts to boost our economic growth, but we also count on our partners and friends around the world, such as India, for the development of a sustainable win-win partnership to benefit our countries and people.

Tunisia’s main export partner seems to be Europe Union with 80% of exports made to that region, is this dependence not too heavy on one region?

We are not dependent on that, we only depend on ourselves. As you know Tunisia has strong and longstanding relations with Europe, it is our main economic partner in the world. But we are also working to develop and diversify our relations of cooperation and partnership with friendly countries, like India, in many key sectors such as agriculture, electronics, ITC, energy, renewable energy, textile, tourism, industry, manufacturing, space and aeronautics.

The annual bilateral trade with India in 2015 is said to be around USD 340 million whereas India accounts for around 50% of Tunisia’s global phosphoric acid exports; what share does it make when compared to export partners like France (28.5%), Italy (17.2%), Germany (10.9%), Libya (6.1%) and Spain (4.2 %) in the same time period.

Unfortunately, it is a very small portion that we exchange with India compared to the opportunities that are available in many sectors and areas. We know that the potential is much higher between Tunisia and India, and both countries are working closely to further promote and develop bilateral trade exchange.

Even in import partners China gets a mention of 6%, whereas India stands nowhere in the chart? Why is the trade with India miniscule?

The distance could be one reason. But as I said both sides are committed to work together in order to boost and diversify their economic exchanges.

Could there be political reasons behind this?

No way, not at all! There are no political overtones behind this. Since 1958 Tunisia and India have enjoyed and maintained very cordial bonds of solid relationship and fruitful cooperation, both on bilateral and multilateral levels. As the Minister of State for External Affairs of India, M J Akbar rightly said,”Relations with Tunisia are excellent, and we want them to be better.”  Now both the sides are determined to explore more areas and sectors with a strong involvement of the private sector which has a big role to play in this direction.

In the current situation, Tunisia is said to have become a hub for trafficking of women and children due to the crisis in the region; What is the government doing to check this menace?

This is totally wrong. It is fake news. There is no link whatsoever with trafficking. This  is real non- sense.

Tunisia’s tourism industry has taken a beating due to terrorist activity which has scarred the country off and on so much that the UK has issued advisories ”against all but essential travel to the rest of Tunisia”? It says that ” the threat from terrorism in Tunisia is high. There is a heightened risk of terrorism against aviation.”

I agree that the 2015 attack did affect tourism which went down. As far as the tourism sector is concerned, I will say that such violent acts have taken place not only in Tunisia, but in many other countries around the World. Tunisia has taken necessary measures to prevent and fight this disease through the adoption of National Strategy to fight Terrorism. Measures have been taken to tighten security around the country and its borders, including at airports and at hotels. Fighting terrorism is not an easy task it requires a strong and close international cooperation and commitment. And terrorist activity has nothing to do with religion. There are over a billion Muslims in the world who are peaceful people. Only people with a criminal mind are terrorists. Terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, a religion of peace.

As a peaceful country with very welcoming people, Tunisia which is blessed with some very attractive sites, has a lot to offer in tourism given the richness of its civilization, history, culture.  Belgium has recently withdrawn its advisory against travel to Tunisia. Similarly, the French are coming back in addition to a lot of Russians. The number of tourists in 2013 visiting Tunisia was 6.27 million, in 2014 6.07 million, in 2015 5.3 million and 2016 5.7 million. The target for 2017 is 7 million. 

Agriculture is said to employ a large part of the workforce and tourism being a key sector, how do you perceive the threat being detrimental to  tourism.

As far as agriculture is concerned, Tunisia is known for its famous olive oil. The olive oil from Tunisia is one of the best if not the best in the world, and just recently Tunisia’s Triomphe de Thuccabor won the gold medal at London International Olive Oil Competitions 2017 (Quality awards of Extra Virgin Olive Oil). There are  huge opportunities for India to develop its imports of Tunisian olive oil for its high quality and also good price.

Tunisian leadership was at one time willing to share the voting methods and the work of the Election Commission of India; what has finally come out of it?

There exists links of cooperation between The Independent High Authority for Elections of Tunisia and Indian Election Commission. As you know India is one of the oldest and largest democracy and Tunisia is one of the youngest democracy in the World. I am sure there are a lot of ways that both commissions can learn from each other to benefit others around the World when it comes to lessons learnt.

Tunisia-India Fertilizer SA (TIFERT), a joint venture company, worth USD 450 million producing phosphoric acid, how far is it a success?(made operational in 2013).

This is a real success story. Both the sides are satisfied with the joint project. Lately the project got back into production reaching 50% of its production capacity. Our goal is 100% production capacity.

Has there been some kind of workers strike at the project?

No one can stop strikes from happening when you live in a democracy. And as you know Tunisian is an emerging one. There is a big plan to expand the plant. And as I said our goal is 100%. And I think we can get to that level.

Has there been any political problem behind the project?

There has never been any problem between Tunisian and India politically or economically, it is that simple. Because our relations are deeply rooted and founded on shared values and mutual respect.

Which other companies have heavily invested in Tunisia and where do Indian investments stand vis a vis China?

TATA and Mahindra are two companies that are highly successful in Tunisia in the automobiles sector. We look forward to see those two Indian successful companies to expand their current activities and diversify to engage in other key sectors, such as ITC, agriculture and tourism for example, given the importance of opportunities that Tunisia is offering. It’s true that China is investing more in Africa, but after the Indian government organised the Africa summit things are moving forward between India and Africa.

Where do tourist numbers from India stand? Which country sends largest number of tourists to Tunisia as of today, after the Arab Spring revolution?

German, French, Belgian, Italian and British tourists have always been on the top 10. Last year we had Russians, over 400,000 of them came to Tunisia. As far as Indian tourists are concerned, many years ago there were none, but now many Indians are discovering Tunisia.

Tunisian are also coming to India. We know India mostly through Gandhi and Bollywood movies since our childhood.

Mother India” film that I will never forget. although we do not understand Hindi, we do love Indian songs. Moreover, India has one of the oldest and rich and diversified civilization and culture. Every fifty kilometers there is a change.