13 - 19 December 2000

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Abdessalem Hetira
Tunisian Ambassador
Abdessalem Hetira

Good neighbours

Relations between Malta and Tunisia have flourished over the past few years. In today’s interview, Tunisian Ambassador, Abdessalem Hetira, tells MIRIAM DUNN how the good results witnessed so far have been achieved, and what other initiatives are still in the pipeline

How have relations between Tunisia and Malta developed during the past few years, especially in terms of trade?

Since establishing diplomatic relations in 1967, Tunisia and Malta have developed very good political ties which were encouraged by a number of convergent and very often similar views thanks to their moderate positions on regional and international issues of common interest.
However, only during the past few years have we witnessed bilateral co-operation develop significantly at various levels.
As far as cultural mutual understanding is concerned, due to an important rise in the number of Maltese visiting Tunisia and of Tunisians visiting Malta, people from our two nations are more and more exposed to each other. It is only in the few past years that Maltese people have started to know more specifically about Tunisia. In fact, from merely 700 in 1990, the number of Maltese visiting Tunisia has jumped to 12,000 in 1997 and has now stabilised at that level each year. We are happy that such direct contacts have positively influenced the perception that the Maltese used to have about my country.
On the other hand, more and more Tunisian tourists are discovering Malta each year. In fact, due to a substantial rise in Tunisia’s standard of living, an emerging middle class, representing 80% of Tunisia’s society, is more and more attracted by tourism abroad. As a result, the number of Tunisians visiting Malta, which has been around 3,000, is expected to more than double this year. We estimate the figure could even reach 9,000.
As a result of these exchanges, people have become aware of the economic potentials and of business opportunities in both countries as well.
In fact, with regards to economic relations, we are nowadays witnessing a very positive trend where economic operators from both countries are showing signs of interest in developing strong business relations with each other. This positive trend has become evident during the past two years, as the Embassy is receiving an increasing number of business information requests from both sides and is organising more and more prospective business visits to Tunisia and to Malta.
The recent opening in Tunisia of a BOV representation office serves as an illustration of this new economic trend and will itself play an important role in promoting business and partnership opportunities.
Cultural and economic relations cannot develop and flourish if they are not endorsed by a good political relationship. In our case, both governments have been very keen to develop ties of co-operation and friendship as it is reflected in the significant number of bilateral agreements signed between the two countries as well as a growing pace of high level bilateral contacts taking place both in Tunisia and in Malta and which culminated recently with the visit to Tunisia by Malta’s President, Guido De Marco, and his meeting with my President, Ben Ali. This will, I am sure, open new horizons for the development of the relations between our two countries.
I believe that this political will has paved the way for the recent development at the economic level between Tunisia and Malta and I am confident that the excellent political relations will continue to play the role of a strong motivating force for further development of the various fields of co-operation between our countries.

What further improvements could be made and what specific areas of trade could still be tapped?

Developing the relationships between two countries is a never-ending process, given the wide variety and complexity of fields of co-operation that could be sought out.
In our case, the steps taken so far have proved to be extremely significant since they demonstrated that win-win situations are attainable in various economic areas and that much more can be achieved if we combine our efforts even further to make the most of business opportunities that are available between both countries.
Convinced of these positive prospects, both governments have recently taken concrete steps to further encourage economic ties between the two countries, among which are the signing of two important agreements, a double taxation agreement and an investment promotion and protection agreement.
Furthermore, Tunisia and Malta have agreed to establish a free zone area and discussions on this project will start very soon.
The present trade exchanges between the two countries have remained far below our expectations and below the potential of both countries and I believe that a lot still has to be done in this area.
The development of trade relations between Tunisia and Malta should not be considered in a confined bilateral perspective, but rather in a much wider regional and international context. The world is in the process of undergoing significant changes. There has been an emergence of major regional trading blocs, and a growing tendency among countries to liberalise their economies. Both Tunisia and Malta each on their own, have already embarked on the process of integrating their economies into international environment, with special focus on the European market, with a view to becoming in a few years, part of the same euro-Mediterranean free trade zone.

In specific terms, what emerged from the Maltese ministerial visit to Tunisia?

The recent official visit to Tunisia by Finance Minister John Dalli was a very important bilateral event for a number of reasons.
From a political point of view, this visit was an excellent occasion for a number of important meetings with many members of the Tunisian government, including the ministers of Finance, Economic Development, International Co-operation and Foreign Investment. Such high level contacts strengthen the tradition of ongoing political dialogue between the two countries about bilateral relations and questions of common interest.
The visit was equally important from an economic perspective. In addition to the signing of an agreement on the promotion and protection of investment, which consolidates the legal framework with regards to economic relations, this visit allowed an important exchange of views on policy matters of common interest and the ways and means to develop economic relations between the two countries.
It sent, as well, a very clear and encouraging message to our business communities about the engagement and the will of both governments to further promote trade and business between our two countries. In fact, one of the important moments of Mr Dalli’s visit was the inauguration of the Bank of Valletta representation Office in Tunisia. I believe that his presence at the inauguration along with his Tunisian colleague, Minister Taoufic Baccar, was very indicative of both governments’ determination to further develop economic relations between the two countries.
Of a high significance as well, was the presence, during this event, of Foreign Affairs Minister, Joe Borg, who, on this occasion, had bilateral talks with his Tunisian colleague, M. Habib Ben Yahia.
It is to be noted that, apart from several meetings they had at multilateral events, this was the second meeting between the ministers of foreign affairs this year, the first having taken place in Malta on the occasion of the third Mixed Commission, which was on its own a very important bilateral event.
The Governor of the Central Bank of Malta, Michael Bonello, who was in the Maltese delegation that visited Tunis on this occasion, had very fruitful talks with his Tunisian Colleague, M. Béji Hamda, Governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia.

What are Tunisia’s goals, in general terms, for trade and economic growth?

The past decade has witnessed an emergence of major regional trading blocs and a growing tendency among countries to liberalise their economies and to adopt the market system as the basis of economic organisation, management and policy making.
In light of these developments, Tunisia signed an association agreement with the European Union in 1995. Setting up a free trade area with the EU by 2008 is among the major goals of this agreement since this is considered the most efficient way to reinforce relations between the signatories as it will create greater growth opportunities and attract more foreign direct investments.
However, if economic liberalisation allows growth opportunities for the national economy through increased market size and trade, capital mobility, reorganised economic activities, and easier technology transfer, it also creates serious challenges. These include competition, which imposes a re-examination of the country’s comparative advantages, and requires efforts to increase the competitiveness of the economy.
In view of these new challenges, the "global upgrading of the economy", particularly the industrial sector, became Tunisia’s main economic goal over the last five years. To achieve this goal, the government has elaborated on an ambitious upgrading programme for Tunisian industrial companies, involving the state’s specialised agencies, banks, consultancy firms, and mobilising domestic and foreign financial resources, mainly originating from the EU.
Up to now some 1,330 industrial companies have utilised this programme, mobilising a total additional investment of some 1,200 million Tunisian Dinars ($US 814 million). The fruits of these upgrading programmes have started to be felt as today, 82% of Tunisian exports are made of manufactured products.
It is worth saying that the upgrading approach now goes beyond the restructuring of the industry in Tunisia. In fact it now has a much wider range as it embraces all the economic sectors, as well as such areas as public administration, human resources, legislation and infrastructure. As a result, a report published this year by the World Economic Forum and the Harvard University Centre for International Development ranks Tunisia as the most competitive economy on the African continent with a competitiveness index of 1.0, followed by Mauritius (0.8), Botswana (0.7), Namibia, Morocco and Egypt (0.4).
In terms of economic growth, Tunisia’s goals, as projected in the 9th plan, are to consolidate the steady growth rates achieved during the last decade (5.4% in average) and to attain a GDP growth rate of 6% per year at constant prices, thereby paving the way for higher rates to be achieved during the period 2002-2010.
Tunisia’s goals for the coming period in terms of trade will be mainly centred around the implementation of the partnership agreement signed with the European Union which calls for the creation of a free trade area and the strengthening of economic relations between the two parties. At the same time, efforts will continue to harmonise the trade agreements with various partners, particularly the members of the Union of the Arab Maghreb (UMA) and other Arab and Mediterranean countries such as Malta.
For Tunisia, trade is a vocation. The country has a deep-rooted tradition of trade and exchanges with other nations. The Carthaginians reputation as skilful tradesmen was unequalled. It has been said that "the founding of monarchy is to be attributed to the Egyptians, democracy to the Athenians, as for the Carthaginians, they invented trade". As the heir of Carthage, modern Tunisia continues to hold foreign trade in the forefront of its economic agenda.

Where does Tunisia stand on Malta’s EU membership bid and how would Malta inside the EU affect or influence its relationship with Tunisia?

Tunisia is following with great interest the enlargement of the EU to the East European and Mediterranean countries, mainly because the EU is Tunisia’s primary economic partner.
In terms of trade, the EU absorbs 80% of our exports and provides 70% of our imports. In terms of foreign investment, the EU countries are also Tunisia’s first providers of investment. Out of 2,000 foreign firms, from some 53 countries currently operating in Tunisia, 67% are European. The same applies to tourism arrivals in Tunisia.
Based on these strong economic connections, Tunisia and the EU signed a partnership agreement in 1995 providing, inter alia, for the establishment of a free trade zone by 2008.
Although it is in Tunisia’s interest to diversify its economic relations, it is foreseen that the privileged economic ties with the EU will grow stronger, mainly because they are based on, so to say, structural links.
In view of these facts, the enlargement of the EU is a matter of high interest to Tunisia and my country is constantly examining its expected effects on our relations with the EU, the new opportunities it offers and the new challenges it sets out ahead of us.
One of the obvious consequences of the enlargement will be the extension of the Tunisia-EU free zone to the newly accepted members. Hence, if Malta joins the EU, both countries will be, de facto, part of the same free trade zone.
To come to Malta’s bid for membership, I do not want to express any comment on whether joining the EU is a good choice or if other options are more viable for Malta, for I consider this, from my official position, as a strictly internal issue. We will therefore welcome whatever decision the Maltese people make for themselves, and whether the Island joins the EU or not, Tunisia will always seeking to improve its relations with Malta.

What is Tunisia’s perspective on the situation in the Middle East?

Tunisia has supported the peace process ever since its inception and contributed to its progress through all the stages it has passed through. Tunisia has always endeavoured to promote a comprehensive and peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which ensures a just and lasting peace in the region guaranteeing the fulfilment of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to establish their own independent State on their national soil with Al-Quds Al-Sharif as its capital according to international legality and related resolution.
My country is following with deep concern the escalation of violence in the occupied territories since the incident of the Holy Shrine of Al-Quds Al-Sharif. In this respect, Tunisia considers that the repeated Israeli provocations and violation of sanctities, the use by occupation forces of weapons against defenceless children, and the racist persecution of Arab Palestinian citizens constitute flagrant and systematic violations of basic human rights, and a blatant aggression against human values.
In his speech at the Arab extraordinary Summit held in Cairo on the 21 and 22 of October, President Ben Ali, while reiterating Tunisia’s strong condemnation of such acts and its absolute support for the struggle of the Palestinian people, urged the co-sponsors of the peace process, the European Union, Japan, the Non-Aligned group, the United Nations and other international organisations, to shoulder their responsibility in compelling Israel to comply with the resolutions of international legality represented by General Assembly resolution 181 and Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. He warned that keeping silent about Israel's racist practices against the Palestinian people, and ignoring Israel's flouting of human values and human rights constitute a violation of universal principles adopted by the whole of mankind.
Moreover, Tunisia called for the dispatching of an international separation force to the contact areas and the crossing points between the Palestinian and Israeli sides in order to safeguard peace and security between the two parties and prevent the recurrence of clashes.
My country called, as well, for the expeditious formation of a neutral international commission to gather the facts and establish which party was responsible for the eruption of the recent acts of violence, and claimed the creation of an Arab Fund of Solidarity with the Palestinian people with the purpose of providing the National Authority with the basic resources for steadfastness, reconstruction and preparation for the future.
Considering Tunisia's unwavering position linking normalisation with the evolution of the peace process and in light of the dangerous escalation of Israeli acts of aggression against the Palestinian people and the increasing toll casualties among defenceless civilians, Tunisia decided, on 22 October, to close the Israeli liaison office in Tunis and the Tunisian liaison office in Tel Aviv.

Photos by Paul Blandford

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