Tunisia, battling rough economy, looks to expand ties with Spain

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (L) and his Tunisian counterpart Youssef Chahed in Tunis, on February 26

Spain and Tunisia pledged to strengthen economic and military ties during a visit by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to Tunis.
The official visit, the first by a Spanish prime minister to Tunisia since the “Arab spring” uprisings in 2011, saw the two countries sign eight memorandums and agreements on economic, cultural and educational matters. Spain also announced a $30.8 million line of credit for small and medium-sized businesses in Tunisia.
Rajoy, accompanied by numerous ministers and high-level officials, expressed support for Tunisia’s democratic transition and urged for economic operators to increase investment in the country.
“The Tunisian economy is at a crucial moment…” Rajoy said at the closing of a Tunisian-Spanish business forum February 26. “Structural reforms are always difficult and take time to give their first fruit.”
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, also speaking at the event, said Tunisia could look to Spain as a model for “structural reform” as it battles a sluggish economy, and that closer ties would benefit both coutries.
Tunisia has struggled to recover from years of worsening inflation, debt, unemployment and poverty. Its economy was further hit when the European Union, a close partner, blacklisted the country as being at high risk of money laundering and terror financing.
Spain has been a consistent, if modest, investor in Tunisia’s economy. There are 67 Spanish companies operating in the North African country, creating approximately $1.3 billion in investment and more than 6,000 jobs. Trade volume between the two countries totalled $1.5 billion last year. Spain is Tunisia’s fifth largest exporter, behind France, Italy, Germany and Algeria.
Samir Majoul, president of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicraft, said that, while relations between the two countries are solid, Tunisian and Spanish companies should move their cooperation from “simple operations to a strategic partnership.”
“Although Spain is a major player in the European Union, its imports from Tunisia represent only 3.8% of Tunisia’s exports to the EU and its exports are only 4.5% of Tunisia’s imports from Europe,” said Majoul.
“Similarly, Spanish investments in Tunisia remain focused on the construction materials industry and deserve to be diversified in sectors with high added value.”
Also high on the agenda during Rajoy’s visit was the fight against terror, which the two countries resolved to engage in with enhanced military and security ties.
Spanish Defence Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal, in a meeting with her Tunisian counterpart, stressed that Tunisia is a key military ally for Spain and reaffirmed Spain’s willingness to develop its military partnership with Tunisia, the Tunisian Press Agency reported.
Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi praised “excellent cooperation between the two countries” in the areas of “Special Forces, mine clearance and sharing of expertise” and called for closer collaboration within the “5+5 Defence” and “G7+6″ initiatives.
The calls for increased security cooperation come at a time when both countries are facing a jihadist threat.
Last August, Spain suffered terror attacks in Barcelona, Cambrils and Alcanar, in which 15 people were killed. Most of the suspects of the attacks were Moroccan nationals or of Moroccan origin.
Tunisia was hit by terror attacks at tourist sites, including the Bardo National Museum, in 2015 during which 60 people, mostly European tourists, died. During his trip to Tunis, Rajoy placed a wreath in honour of the museum attack’s 21 victims.
While Tunisia has not had a terror attack at home in nearly two years, security services are on alert for suspected jihadists attempting to infiltrate from neighbouring Libya and Algeria.
In 2017, security forces carried out 122,000 raids on safe houses and other locations suspected of being used by jihadists, detaining 1,456 suspects, Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem said at a parliamentary hearing.
Tunisian forces also work closely with NATO, as well as European and US forces, conducting joint training missions and knowledge-sharing exercises.
Spain and Tunisia are longstanding allies. Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez signed a bilateral Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation in 1995, leading to a ten-fold increase in bilateral trade.
While there were plans to further expand the two countries’ economic relationship, large-scale trade and investment failed to materialise after Tunisia went through years of political instability and tumult following the toppling of the Ben Ali regime in 2011.
Stephen Quillen
is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.