Tunisia investment conference aims to kickstart economy

AFP , Sunday 27 Nov 2016

Sebsi (Reuters)
Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi (Reuters)

Tunisia will host 2,000 business and finance executives from 40 countries this week in hopes of drumming up investment to boost its struggling economy.

Six years since the revolution that swept away dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country's fragile democratic progress has been threatened by economic stagnation that has stirred social unrest.

As it tackles high unemployment, low growth and a tourism sector hammered by militant attacks, the government hopes to persuade attendees of the "Tunisia 2020" conference on Tuesday and Wednesday that the country is open for business.

"Tunisia today needs foreign direct investment, and the conference will be a chance to re-start the machine and create jobs," Prime Minister Youssef Chahed told AFP.

Chahed's government took office in August in place of an administration heavily criticised for its economic management.

That followed a catastrophic 2015 in which attacks claimed by the Islamic State group killed 59 foreign visitors and 13 Tunisians, a devastating blow to a key industry.

Strikes and social unrest have also hit strategic sectors including phosphate mining.

Some 15 percent of the workforce was unemployed in the spring of 2016 according to the World Bank -- many of them young graduates, who have seen the hope of the Arab Spring dissipate.

The government will use this week's conference to call for bids on 140 projects -- including large-scale infrastructure projects -- worth some $32 billion (30 billion euros).

Officials say the conference is part of a charm offensive aimed at the private sector.

"The idea is to leave the conference with Tunisia as a destination back on the investment map of the Mediterranean," said Fadhel Abdelkefi, Tunisia's investment and international cooperation minister.

Abdelkefi will present the country's new investment code that aims to streamline procedures and create a "new business climate" in the country.

He said Tunisia is "extremely competitive".

"It has already attracted more than 3,500 (foreign) companies that produce in Tunisia, export, use logistics," he said, also highlighting the country's "deep and qualified employment pool".

Chahed said he is determined to tackle Tunisia's smuggling and corruption networks.

"They are complex networks to take apart, but we will succeed," he said.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls will attend the conference along with representatives of top international lenders -- the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank.

The European Union has already announced a doubling of its financial support in 2017 to $318 million (300 million euros).

Chahed said Tunisia deserves support as it struggles to defend "universal values".

"The international community should invest in Tunisian democracy," he said.

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