Tunisian President Kais Saied visited Doha during the period 14-16 November 2020 at the official invitation of the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad. This visit gained its importance from being the first for President Saied to Qatar since he assumed the presidency of Tunisia in October 2019, and his second visit to an Arab country after Algeria.
The goals of the Tunisian presidency from visiting Qatar
The most important goals of President Saied's visit to Doha are the following:
1. Attracting more Qatari investments: the Tunisian government seeks to revive the country's stagnant economy, especially in light of the economic and social repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tunisia needs additional funds estimated at 8.1 billion dinars to cover the budget deficit. The most recent Qatari investment in Tunisia was the Desert Resort project in the city of Tozeur, which was carried out by the Qatari Diar company at a value of 80 million dollars, and was inaugurated at the beginning of December 2019. A tourism project is currently being carried out in the city of Gammarth in the capital Tunis, with investments amounting to nearly 215 million dollars. The Tunisian government is looking forward to obtaining financing for the Central Production Markets Platform project (SOMAPROC) (Sidi Bouzid), and a partial financing for the Aghlabid Medical City in Kairouan, with the aim of improving the quality of health services, in addition to providing job opportunities for the youth.
The Qatar Fund for Development (QFFD) and the Silatech Foundation contribute to financing many development projects inside Tunisia, especially those that employ youth, such as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The Fund has expressed its aspiration to provide between 50 thousand and 100 thousand job opportunities by the end of 2021, which is in parallel with President Kais Saied’s endeavours to implement economic projects with foreign capital partnerships and to promote Tunisia as an ideal tourist destination.
2. Establishing a maritime line to increase the volume of intra-trade: President Kais Saied and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad agreed during the visit to continue cooperation between Qatar and Tunisia in the economic field, especially by establishing a maritime line between them, specifically between the port of Zarzis in southern Tunisia and Hamad Port, and activating meetings of the Qatar-Tunisia Joint Higher Committee.
3. Increasing the employment of Tunisian workers in Qatar: The Tunisian government is aware that Qatar is keen to diversify the identity of Arab and foreign workers within its territory. Therefore, this issue was the subject of sufficient focus and discussion during President Saied’s visit to Doha, especially that the Tunisian community in Qatar works in multiple fields and sectors, including health, education, sports, engineering, telecommunications, oil, media, hotel services, and sales. In the context of Qatar's preparations to organise the World Cup in 2022, it seems to want to increase the employment of Tunisian workers during the next stage, and to integrate Tunisian competencies in the physical education and youth sectors in the country.
In this context, the Tunisian Minister of Youth, Sports and Professional Integration Kamal Daqish held two meetings with the Minister of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs of Qatar, Yousef bin Mohamed Al-Othman Fakhro, and the Minister of Culture and Sports Salah bin Ghanem Al-Ali, on the sidelines of President Saied’s visit to Doha, leading to the signing of a number of bilateral agreements that allow increasing Tunisian labour in Qatar, providing a database on Tunisian specialisations in various fields, and reactivating the Qatari-Tunisian Joint Technical Committee in the field of employment starting from December 2020.
While the Tunisian side primarily focused on obtaining economic and investment gains from Doha during President Saied's recent visit to Qatar, the latter apparently sought to obtain broader political and diplomatic returns, perhaps the most prominent of which are the following:
1. Strengthening Doha’s role and presence in Tunisia, by increasing the Qatari investments directed towards the Tunisian interior. According to data of the Tunisian Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA Tunisia), Qatar ranked first in the list of Arab direct investment flows to the country in 2019, and second in the volume of foreign direct investments (FDI), accounting for nearly 16 percent of the volume of investments in Tunisia and estimated at 3 billion dollars. These are mainly distributed among the telecommunications, banking and tourism sectors. During the visit of Sheikh Tamim to Tunisia in February 2020, the QFFD announced that it has initiated the procedures for opening a branch of the QFFD in Tunisia, which is its first office abroad, and that it will contribute to financial cooperation efforts between the two countries by signing partnership agreements with Tunisian banking and financial institutions to finance projects targeting youth. In November 2019, a Qatar visa centre was established in Tunisia, the first of its kind in the Arab and African countries. While those moves appear to be of a purely economic nature, their political implications are clear, especially with regard to supporting Doha's influence in Tunisia and the Arab Maghreb region as a whole.
2. Winning over Tunisia to support Qatar's position on the Libyan crisis: President Saied's visit coincided with the Dialogue Forum being hosted by his country between representatives of the Libyan actors in order to resolve controversial political issues, especially those related to the formation of the executive authority (the Presidential Council and the government). While the Qatari official rhetoric coincides with the Tunisian official position that underlines the importance of settling the Libyan crisis politically and rejecting foreign intervention in Libya, Doha's external behaviour does not reflect this rhetoric on the ground. It supports a particular political faction in the Libyan interior, and supports the Turkish military intervention in support of the Tripoli government in the face of the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The Qatari position coincides with the Turkish position in terms of the settlement of the Libyan crisis based on the Skhirat Agreement that was signed in Morocco in December 2015, despite the field changes that have occurred over the past five years.
In this context, it is noteworthy that the Defence Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Salah al-Din al-Nimroush signed a joint agreement with the Qatari government for training and building military capabilities in Doha on 13 November 2020, after the GNA also signed on 28 October 2020 a memorandum of understanding with Qatar that allows Doha to continue to influence the Libyan internal affairs under the name of "exchanging experiences in the field of counter-terrorism". This indicates that Qatar and the GNA, and their backer Turkey, violate international resolutions that stipulate the removal of foreign forces from Libya. This contradicts the Tunisian position demanding an end to foreign intervention and manifestations thereof in Libya.
3. Supporting the stay of the Ennahda Movement in power: one of the main drivers of Qatar’s attempts to enhance its relationship with the Tunisian Presidency is to resolve the current differences between the Ennahda Movement and President Kais Saied, especially in light of the growing divisions within the Movement itself against the background of the controversy over the succession of its president Rashid Ghannouchi and the postponement of the Movement’s General Conference that was scheduled to take place in December 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, without specifying an alternative date.
4. Changing the prevailing perception regarding Qatar’s relationship with extremist organisations: Qatar has sought to employ the Tunisian President’s visit to Doha as part of its efforts to change the established image as a great supporter of extremist organisations. It was agreed between the Qatari and Tunisian sides to hold an Islamic-Western conference or dialogue aimed at reaching a common understanding to confront religious extremism and avoid Western confusion between Muslims and extremists. This goal is far from innocent given Qatar's long and well-known history of supporting extremist and violent groups in the region.
Repercussions of the visit inside Tunisia
While Saied's recent visit to Doha constituted a remarkable development in the relationship between the two sides, Qatar's development of its relations with Tunisia on solid foundations of partnership and in a way that enables the achievement of Qatar’s interests in Tunisia faces many obstacles, the most important of which is the resistance by many Tunisian political actors to the efforts of Qatari penetration into their country. In this context, the visit of President Kais Saied sparked widespread controversy within the Tunisian society, especially after the announcement of the establishment of the International Association of Constitutional Law Jurists, and the assignment of its presidency to President Kais Saied, which was met with widespread disapproval, given that diplomatic norms prevent a head of state from assuming the presidency of an association. Furthermore, the Association has been likened to the (Doha-backed) International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), and questions were raised about its objectives and sources of funding.
In a related context, the leader of the Tunisian Workers’ Party Hamma Hammami suggested in media statements that the allocation by Qatar of a deposit worth 500 million dollars to Tunisia was not in good faith, stressing that Doha stipulated for offering those funds that the atmosphere be cleared between President Kais Saied and the leader of the Ennahda Movement and Speaker of the Tunisian Assembly of the Representatives of the People (Parliament) Rached Ghannouchi. Perhaps this explains the unease inside Tunisia about the Qatari political employment of that deposit.
The recent visit by Tunisian President Kais Saied to Doha constituted a remarkable development in the course of Tunisia’s relations with Qatar. While the Tunisian side focused primarily on obtaining economic and investment gains from Doha, the most important of which being to attract more Qatari investments, establish a maritime line to increase the volume of intra-trade, and increase the employment of Tunisian workers in Qatar, in return, Doha sought to obtain much broader political and diplomatic returns, the most prominent of which being to strengthen its role and presence in Tunisia, support the Ennahda Movement’s stay in power, and try to win over Tunisia's position towards supporting Qatari positions on regional crises, mainly the Libyan crisis.
Nevertheless, the Qatari endeavours are likely to clash with a great political and popular resistance in Tunisia that refuses the continuation of the approach of strengthening the Tunisian state’s ties with Doha and the strengthening of the latter’s presence inside Tunisia, in addition to the regional changes that may be an additional reason in impeding the development of Qatari-Tunisian relations, especially the complexities of the Libyan crisis, particularly after the Turkish military intervention, in addition to the manifestations of the growing regional aversion to Qatar’s adventures and the link it establishes between its efforts to expand its influence in Tunisia and the rest of the Arab Maghreb countries with and the support for political Islam organisations and movements exclusively, which constitutes a real threat to civil peace in the Maghreb region.
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