India and Tunisia are celebrating 60 years of diplomatic ties. Speaking to India Review & Analysis, Tunisia’s Ambassador to India, Nejmeddine Lakhal, offered his country as a “platform” for access to the markets of Europe, Africa and the Arab world.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: India and Tunisia are celebrating 60 years of diplomatic ties this year. How do you assess bilateral relations?
A: Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Tunisia and India in 1958, bilateral relations have made significant progress. Deep-rooted in history and nourished through solid friendship and fruitful cooperation, the Tunisian- Indian bond has always been warm, friendly and cordial, because it is founded on shared values, mutual respect and similar perceptions and convergence of views on regional and international issues.
This was confirmed during constructive discussions and exchange of views that Khemaies Jhinaoui, Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs had with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit from October 28 to November, 2, 2017, and through outcomes of the 12th Tunisia-India Joint Commission Meeting he co-chaired with Sushma Swaraj, India’s Minister of External Affairs.
They adopted a visionary “Roadmap” for the bilateral partnership, inspired by a common and strong commitment at the highest level to give a new dimension to Tunisia-India relations, at political and economic levels, and to further promote and enhance people to people interaction between our friendly countries.
Q: Bilateral trade is dominated by phosphoric acid exports. Access to the pharma and fertilizer sectors remains a concern for India. How is this issue being addressed?
A: Yes, bilateral trade is dominated by phosphoric acid exports to India. Yet even they are way below the existing opportunities in many key areas. We are optimistic, not only because it’s our nature, but mostly because of the huge potential to increase and develop bilateral trade, investment and economic exchanges.
Joint Working Groups on ICT, energy, pharmaceuticals, sciences and bio-technology, textile, petrol and gas, enabling agreements and MoUs that have been signed in a range of areas of shared interest and between our private sectors are vital institutional mechanisms to promote bilateral cooperation in key sectors, and to boost exports and business between the two countries.
The two countries have agreed to set up Joint Working Groups on trade and agriculture, and asked the Tunisia India Business Council to identify adequate measures to expand the range of items in our trade basket, increase the share of high technology and value-added products. With “Tunisia 2020” and “Make in India” visions, I am confident we can make a big difference and with our joint efforts we can reach USD 1 billion in the next five years.
Q: The olive oil revolution in Tunisia has been exemplary. Does Tunisia see India as a promising market?
A: Tunisia is among the largest producers of extra virgin olive oil in the world. There are around 88 million olive trees spread over 1.8 million hectares in Tunisia. What is remarkable is that Tunisian olive oil can be classified as naturally produced. The majority of Tunisian olive oil farmers do not use fertilizers or pesticides in their olive groves. Tunisian olive oils are rich in chlorophyll, carotene, lecithin (a natural antioxidant), and are a good source of vitamins A and D.
We consider India’s huge market as a promising one to export Tunisian olive oil. In AAHAR 2018, Tunisia was represented by the national office of olive oil and Tunisian canned food industries group (GICA) to showcase Tunisian agro-food products. Tunisia was awarded a silver medal by AAHAR 2018 Jury. We will build on it to further promote our extra virgin olive oil here.
Q: Tunisia and India share similar concerns about terrorism, radicalism and organized crime. How can both collaborate to combat the threat?
A: Tunisia like India, which has suffered terrorism, has “zero tolerance” for terror and firmly condemns it in all its forms and manifestation. We are committed to develop and strengthen cooperation bilaterally and at multilateral fora to develop and deepen collaboration on counter-terrorism, radicalism, extremism, drug trafficking and organized crime. It is only through effective and continued co-operation, and in accordance with the principles of international law, that the global community will be able to tackle this threat which exceeds geographical borders. While security measures are crucial for confronting terrorism, extremism and radicalism, greater focus on policies that place emphasis on education, economic opportunity, poverty reduction, rule of law, justice and equality is fundamental.
Q: India’s engagement with Africa is dominated by 3 Ts - trade, technology and training. Has Tunisia benefited from this?
A: Let me first praise India’s commitment and engagement with African countries. Tunisia fully supports India Africa Forum summit initiative, a shared vision towards common development goals through a mutually beneficial and complementary partnership.
India’s ambitious co-development initiative offers numerous opportunities in key priority areas and sectors that we should explore to build a solid Tunisia-India partnership in Africa, and in particular in the Francophonie region. Tunisia is benefiting from programs, training and capacity-building that India is offering African countries in key areas, according to our development priorities.
Q: Is Tunisia promoting itself as a gateway to Europe?
A: Tunisia’s position is very strategic. We are in the heart of the Mediterranean, and in the crossroads of Africa, the Arab world and Europe.
We have a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, which will give an advantage to Indian companies to export to Europe. We have FTAs with Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. We also have free trade zones, and a free trade zone in Bizerte, which is 35 minutes from the capital. It has thousands of foreign companies. We want to see more Indians use Tunisia as a platform, not only as a destination for investment but as a platform for access to markets in Europe, Africa and the Arab world.
Q: What Indian companies are in Tunisia?
A: Mahindra has an assembly factory. Tata and Dabur are also there. We are looking to see more investment from India to Tunisia.
There is also a Tunisian “fishery factory” in Chennai involved in packaging fish. The Tunisian firm, Al Badr, was set up a year ago. It is very successful.
Q: Cultural ties between India and Tunisia are growing with the celebration of Indian festivals and the first ICCR chair on Indian civilization in Tunisia. Have these strengthened people to people links?
A: Our people-to-people exchanges have been widening, effectively promoting friendship and mutual understanding between our two countries. Our cultural long-standing relations and the interactions between our peoples are very rich.
The Tunisian government’s recent decision to waive visa requirements for Indian tourists, effective on October 1, 2017, demonstrates our willingness to bring our peoples even closer and build stronger connectivity between us.
We would like to see more Indians visiting Tunisia. Tunisia has a history of 5,000 years and there are many similarities with India; in history, culture and even cuisine. Indian culture, especially Bollywood movies, is quite popular in Tunisia.
Q: What challenges you face in India-Tunisia relations?
A: I strongly believe that with joint efforts, our relationship will receive further boost, giving new impetus to our partnership. Efficient bilateral coordination will help enhance relations in all key areas and issues of mutual interest in the spirit of our shared commitment to peace, security, development and prosperity.