Tunisia's 'ambitious' plans for trade relations with UK outlined by ambassador

Nabil ben Khedher spoke after North African country signed an Association Agreement with post-Brexit UK in 2019

Tunisian Ambassador Nabil Ben Khedher at the fourth Tunisia-UK Trade and Investment Forum in London. Photo: ABCC
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Tunisia’s Ambassador to the UK hailed the “positive and encouraging” developments in bilateral trade relations at an investment forum held in London.

Speaking at the fourth Tunisia-UK Trade and Investment Forum, Nabil ben Khedher said Tunisia was an “attractive” business partner for post-Brexit Britain.

“We are looking to boost trade in the agro-food, textiles and IT sectors” said Mr Khedher at the event hosted by the Arab British Chamber of Commerce.

“Tunisia is an attractive and efficient place to manufacture goods for the UK … because of our past relationship with the EU, we can produce at a low cost and in a short time and can be a major partner for the UK textile and clothing industry.”

Covid-19’s disruption of supply routes has drawn attention to the need to look to neighbouring countries, he said.

Tunisia is less than three hours away by plane, with shipping routes taking four to five days to reach the UK.

The small North African country signed an association agreement with the UK in 2019, one of several continuity agreements entered into by the UK as part of its post-Brexit business and trade relations.

Kicking off the forum, chairman of the Arab British Chamber of Commerce Baroness Symons said Tunisia had “so much going for it”, including a highly educated and skilled population and its geographical location as “gateway for Africa”.

This year the UK increased tariff-free quotas on the import of Tunisian olive oil tenfold to 7,723 tonnes, from 600 tonnes, a development that was celebrated by the British Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa, James Cleverly, during a visit to Tunisia in June.

During his visit, Mr Cleverly attended an olive oil tasting event at the UK embassy in Tunis and praised the high quality of the local produce, saying "I have no doubt that when British citizens taste the Tunisian olive oil, they will become addicted to it".

Despite the potential economic windfall from the increased import allowances, Mr Khedher said that the pandemic had made it hard to develop new business opportunities, with plans for trade missions being scrapped due to travel restrictions throughout the year.

“Covid made it difficult to get delegations over from Tunisia to introduce producers to the market, which would have been a game-changer, but I am optimistic that by the end of next year we will see much higher volumes of olive oil in British supermarkets,” said Mr Khedher.

He went on to call the current UK-Tunisia Association Agreement a “transition” and said the country’s mission was to “lift all quotas” and to promote other trade and business relations with Tunisia.

According to the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency in Tunisia (Fipa), the UK is currently ranked the 12th largest foreign direct investor in Tunisia, with 91 British companies operating in the country in the clothing, electronic and tourism sectors.

Speaking at the event, director of Fipa's Invest in Tunisia agency Zeid Braham said the Information Technology field was a nascent but growing avenue for investment in the country.

According to figures he provided, the IT industry in Tunisia has grown by an average annual rate of 8 per cent in the past five years and has contributed 10 per cent towards the country’s GDP.

“The Tunisian IT sector is fully engaged in emerging technologies, from artificial intelligence to augmented reality and blockchain and we have become an internationally recognised destination for telematics and e-mobility,” Mr Braham told attendees at the forum.

The automotive industry was another arena he lauded Tunisia’s progress in, with average annual production growth standing at 12 per cent and contributing 4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

“We are [among] the top three producers of automotive components in Africa and among the 10 main suppliers of wire harnesses to the EU,” said Mr Braham. “Tunisia covers the entire value chain of the industry and our volumes of export are worth 2.1bn pounds with 70 per cent to 80 per cent of that going to Europe.”

The textiles sector remains one of the country’s largest and most lucrative industries, accounting for about 160,000 jobs across more than 1500 apparel companies present in Tunisia. Mr Braham said there were also plenty of investment opportunities in the pharmaceutical, electronic components and agri-food industries.

Tunisia’s well-educated human capital, low 15 per cent corporation tax rate and proximity to both Europe and Africa were among the “greatest assets” promoted at the event.

“We have 60,000 new graduates a year and 18 per cent of them [are] from the fields of engineering and ICT, with high levels of multilingualism,” he said. “We have a pool of international level talent at competitive costs … the opportunities for growth in Tunisia are very big.”

Updated: December 13, 2021, 12:37 PM