Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Tunisia’s economy has grown by 3.6 percent, despite a global financial downturn during the same period, Tunisia’s Agriculture Minister Mohamed Bin Salem said.
In exclusive comments to Asharq Al-Awsat against the side-lines of the Arab-African summit for agriculture development and food security in Riyadh, Salem spoke about the challenges facing Tunisia’s agricultural sector and economy, food security in the country, and investment.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: To what extent can Tunisia be described as an agricultural country?
Mohamed Bin Salem: Tunisia is known as Tunis Al-Khadra and Tunis Al-Falaha [Green Tunisia and Agrarian Tunis] by Arabs. Although we are suffering from a water shortage in Tunisia, this is not to the same extent as the Arab Mashriq or Gulf, so this should not be an obstacle in Tunisia producing many things, including olive oil. Last year we managed to produce 240,000 tons of olive oil, exporting 186,000 tons. Italy and Spain may produce more olive oil than us, but the quality of the Tunisian product is far greater. Tunisia also exports dates to over 60 countries, including many European and Asian countries.
Q: Is Tunisia agriculturally self-sufficient? How important is Tunisia’s agricultural sector to its economy?
Tunisia has achieved self-sufficiency in terms of a number of products such as olive oil, citrus, and other fruits. For example, we exported 23,000 tons of oranges to Europe last year. We have also achieved self-sufficiency with regards to a number of vegetables, such as tomato production. Tunisia tomato production surpasses that of European markets at the present time, with many European markets preferring Tunisian tomatoes. Therefore, Tunisia encourages agricultural development for export; investors have the right to market 20 percent of their products in Tunisia, while the rest must be exported abroad. As for grain, wheat, and animal feed, we are not self-sufficient. These are the only commodities that we import from abroad. We also have a plan to develop these products domestically, following a report by a senior commission which determined Tunisia’s total production and the country’s total grain import. We will succeed in securing better development to confront these challenges.
Q: What is your assessment of Tunisia’s agricultural development? How much of the agricultural sector accounts for Tunisia’s total economy?
Agricultural production accounts for approximately 11 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), employing between 16 and 17 percent of the country’s total workforce. This demonstrates that the agricultural sector is a successful and profitable industry. Tunisia is also specifically interested in agricultural development, and this year we are celebrating the centenary of the Higher Institute for Agricultural Research.
Q: How can we promote Arab food security and development?
I’ve noticed that many Middle-Eastern countries import a variety of fruits and vegetables from Europe, such as Holland, Denmark, and elsewhere. Europe can afford to produce at low costs and sell at discounted prices [to Arab and African states] due to lower transportation costs. Consequently I think it is important to encourage two-way investment in Arab and African countries. With regards to agricultural development in Arab and African countries and trade, we can devise a roadmap to secure nutrition for Arab and African states.
Q: To what extent has the Tunisian economy been able to escape the impact of the global financial crisis, especially from Europe?
Tunisia was the first country to pass through the Arab Spring and this created instability, however despite this we were able to experience 3.6 percent growth, in contrast to our neighbors who did not experience instability. Moreover, were it not for the European economic instability, our growth rates would have reached 5 percent. Our economy is dependent on Europe’s with about 80 percent of our exports—from cars to clothing—heading to Europe. The Tunisian economy’s growth is a positive sign, particularly in comparison to European growth.
Q: What about Tunisia’s national debt? Hasn’t this increased?
Concerning debt, Tunisia’s economy was affected due to its ties to the global economy and global debt. Tunisia’s public debt now stands at 47 percent of GDP, up from 44 percent; however this is still low when compared to countries like Morocco or Jordan, whose public debt stands at closer to 60 percent of GDP. While European countries, like France, have public debt of 70 percent, while Italy’s public debt is 130 percent of GDP. Therefore, Tunisia’s public debt is separate from this grim reality.
Q: What are the biggest challenges to securing investment in Tunisia’s agricultural sector?
I think the most important challenge is simply financing the agricultural industry; it currently takes up 8 percent of the budget, which is a very small figure for an agrarian country like Tunisia.
Q: What’s your view of the economic and investment relations between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia?
Tunisian-Saudi relations are at their highest level today and they continue to improve, as does Tunisia’s relations with other Gulf States. I have personally held discussions with Saudi Minister of Agriculture Dr Fahd Balghunaimn regarding the possibility of wide scale investment projects in different industries, particularly agriculture. I also asked for Tunisia to be included as one of the countries to be considered for future investment projects and added to Saudi Arabia’s agricultural investment fund. This is something that we have sought because Saudi Arabia imports large quantities of fruit and vegetables from Tunisia, comparable to that which we export to Europe. Therefore, considering Tunisia’s geographical proximity to Saudi Arabia, reduced costs, and optimism for a shared future…it would be preferable for Tunisia to export all of these products to the Arab and Gulf states. We are open to investment and there are great opportunities for investors to turn a profit in Tunisia.