In an Interview with Envoy Excellency H.E. Mrs. Hayet Talbi Bilel, Ambassador of Tunisia to India

“India and Tunisia have enjoyed each other’s culture and have established amicable relations, marked by mutual respect and interest”

Diplomatic relations between India and Tunisia were established in 1958. The relationship has strengthened over a time period of more than six decades. How do you see the contemporary relationship between the two nations? How far have the two countries come?

Over a period of six decades, Tunisia and India have enjoyed amicable relations, marked by mutual respect and interest and diversified cooperation framed by multitude of political-economic agreements. We have a consensus on various regional and international issues. Recently, there have been several high-level visits between the two countries. On January 2020, the Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar paid a very successful  visit to Tunisia during which, the two countries signed an MoU in order to establish the center of ICT in Tunisia.

By the initiative of the Tunisian Embassy, we held the fourth consultation on foreign offices and various joint working groups. There is diversified cooperation in all fields.  In the year 2020, the working group in the field of trade was created and it held its first meeting in December that year. In 2021, we held the first working group in the field of exploration of outer space. In 2022, the first working group in the field of Judicial cooperation was held in January. Tunisia has also joined the ISA and it will be an opportunity for us to share experiences not only between India and Tunisia but also other countries.

The Tunisia Diplomatic Academy organises workshops with highly educated and experienced trainers. How do they prepare diplomats for their jobs? And what does that mean for diplomatic training?

The Diplomatic Institute for Training and Studies was founded in 1997. It specializes in training newly recruited diplomats and offers courses to other officials called upon to serve abroad and organize conferences & workshops. We have a new diplomatic academy in the making, which will replace this Institute in the future. Thus, we are moving from a limited training center to a full diplomatic academy. Such training is important because the newly recruited diplomats should enhance their capacities in order to serve and defend the interest of their countries. There are many steps in order to address the new challenges of diplomacy and international relations. The initial training is provided by professors, international experts and former ambassadors. We not only have special training for diplomats abroad but also their spouses. We have language training programs for them as well. We also have a department to do research in the field of international relations and diplomacy. These mainly focus on the Tunisian foreign policies.

In January, the representatives of the Ministries of Justice of the two countries participated in the first meeting of the Joint Working Group on Judicial Cooperation between Tunisia and India. Which joint judicial cooperation opportunities were discussed during that meeting?

The meeting took place on January 13th, 2022. There are a lot of areas in the field of judicial cooperation like extradition, etc. We discussed ways to exchange expertise and experience between both countries in order to enhance the work of the courts. We have received great ideas from the Indian partners, for example, accomplishing the goals of the Zero Paper policy in the courtrooms. This will ease the procedures in government offices as well. The two countries will sign many agreements in the future, focusing on joint working groups to strengthen relations for future collaborations.

Tunisia was one of the first countries to confirm its participation and contribute to the 40th India International Trade Fair, New Delhi. What kind of authentic Tunisian products were offered? How far has the culture indulged with Indian culture?

Tunisia is constantly participating in the most awaited business events in the South Asia region, especially the India International Trade Fair. In the latest edition, Tunisia was represented by two craftsmen specializing in olive wood, pottery and leather. The Tunisian handicrafts are renowned and influenced by many other cultures and civilizations. The pottery skill of women of Sejnane has received international recognition and was recently placed on a list of the intangible cultural heritage of UNESCO. This relates to the practice of using technical procedures in order to make artefacts like terracotta ceramics, dolls and animal figurines, as well as cooking utensils. These artefacts are inspired by the environment and are suitable to showcase in India. We have already signed an agreement in the field of handicraft and we are exchanging skills and knowledge for a collaboration with Indian handicrafts.

Recently, India welcomed Tunisia to the International Solar Alliance family. Tunisia is the 99th signatory to the International Solar Alliance Framework Agreement. What are your views on the same?

In October, Tunisia became the 99th signatory of the framework agreement of the International Solar Alliance. Tunisia is going to participate in international initiatives to reduce the exploitation of non-renewable sources of energy. Tunisia is also working towards sustainable development goals, laid down by the United Nations. In 2009, the country adopted the solar plan to reduce energy dependency and fight climate change. Tunisia also ratified the Paris Agreement (2016), promising to reduce the carbon intensity to 41% in all sectors and 46% in the energy sector. Tunisia is committed to switching to solar energy as much as possible, in order to reduce non-renewable energy dependency to 30% by 2030. By joining ISA, Tunisia is not only seeking to contribute to the international reforms but also to gain more knowledge and skills to benefit from the projects financed by ISA in the field of solar energy.

The 4th round of the India-Tunisia Foreign Office Consultation was held last year. There are several opportunities for investment, particularly in the fields of renewable energy, infrastructure, and energy. How will the two countries urge the business community to engage for mutual benefit?

The 4th round of the India-Tunisia Foreign Office Consultation took place on April 30 last year, with the initiative taken by the Embassy of Tunisia, Delhi. The Tunisian delegation was led in a virtual format by the Tunisian Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs and the Indian Secretary of Overseas Affairs. The meeting covered an overview of the current status of trade investments, and economic and political relations. There were discussions held in order to see how to boost and strengthen the relationship between the two countries. We have considerable opportunities and huge potentialities, of which both of the governments are aware.

If we want to boost the exchange between the two countries, we should give access to goods from both countries into the two markets by signing preferential trade agreements. We have to speed up the conclusion of the agreement in the field of protection and promotion of investments and conclude an agreement on double taxation avoidance because such a legal framework will encourage both of the countries to make two-way trade and investments.

Among Tunisia’s tourist attractions is its cosmopolitan capital city of Tunis, the ancient ruins of Carthage, and coastal resorts outside Monastir. What is Tunisia best known for on a global level? What will the Indian tourist enjoy the most in Tunisia?

The northernmost geographical location of Tunisia in Africa, along with the Mediterranean Sea makes it an attractive tourist destination. Tunisia is renowned internationally for its seaside. The universal heritage sites and civilization of Tunisia are the most interesting to travelers. The ruins of Carthage and the birthplace of Islam in Medina at the canter of Tunisia are good examples of ancient cultures. These places revive the golden age even today. There is a reflection of the Carthage civilization, the Roman empire, and the Islamic period in Tunisia.

For an Indian traveler, the Sahara desert in the south is enjoyable because of the sunset and oasis. The fortunate travelers can also visit the sets of the film Star Wars and the magical Djerba Island, also called Island of Dreams. Tunisia is also a great location for Indian movie makers because the landscapes are a source of inspiration for them. There is also ecotourism and health tourism. Tunisia is developing with a lot of infrastructure in the field of ecotourism. Lovers of wildlife and fresh air can come to Tunisia to experience this and take benefits from Thalassotherapy, especially people who follow Ayurveda.

Tunisia is very well known for its olive oil production with its very own international stature. Do you believe India should recover from its modest olive oil market with the help of Tunisia?

The olive cultivation in Tunisia is deeply rooted in the culture because it dates back to the 8th century BC when the Romans came to Tunisia. Since then, it has become an integral part of our culture and cuisine. There is also a 2,500 years old olive tree in Tunisia which is still bearing olives. Tunisia is the largest country in terms of olive growing in the south of the Mediterranean region. It’s also the first largest producer of olive oil, apart from the European Union. Tunisia comes in fourth place after Spain, Italy, and Greece, and 30% of farms lands in Tunisia are olive cultivated.

Fifty per cent of agricultural products and fifty per cent of exports are olive based. Olive is the fifth-largest source of foreign currency in Tunisia. It plays a vital role in economic and social fields. Around 1 million people are earning a livelihood from olive cultivation. India is now picking up and has started cultivating olives in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. India is pragmatic about using the appropriate skills and knowledge to be successful in any industry. Despite the International status of Tunisian Olive Oil, its presence is still modest in the Indian Market. The Indians can help the Tunisian farmers and businessmen by introducing olive oil in every household. Tunisia is the first country in the world to produce and export organic olive oil, which has won prizes and received international recognition in Japan, Australia, and UAE.

Since July 2021, Tunisia has experienced rapid political developments, after President Kais Saied announced the suspension of parliament. Can you give us a glimpse of what has been happening in Tunisia since last summer?

Before the 25th of July, Tunisia was experiencing an alarming level of dysfunction. A stalemate caused by endemic corruption and a fragmental government unable to deliver the reforms and unwilling to manage the myriad crisis the country was facing.

In response to the will of the Tunisians, The president has activated the article 80 of the Constitution to overcome the political blockage and to correct the democratic path. He suspended the Parliament and dismissed the Head of Government. He appointed Najla Bouden as the new head of the government to be the first female head of government in the Arab world.  She then appointed the new members of her cabinet, thirty percent of them are women in key sectors. The president also announced the roadmap for the country’s welfare. The first step has already started by launching a nationwide digital consultation with the aim to collect citizens suggestions regarding   all kinds of reforms. It started on the 15th of January and will end on 20th March. After collecting these valuable opinions, the president will nominate a committee of experts in constitutional and electoral law to draft the guidelines. This draft will be submitted to a referendum by the 25th of July. Lastly, there will be the organisation of legislative elections by the 17th of December, a symbolic date from the era of the Tunisian revolution.

Would you like to give any message to Envoy Excellency readers?

It is indeed a pleasure to start my carrier as Ambassador from  India, a magnificent and diversified country. Both Tunisia and India  can learn a lot from each other’s on all levels, be it political or cultural. The mission of the Embassy of Tunisia is to collaborate with Indians to enhance cooperation between the two great countries and bring people together. I thank Envoy Excellency magazine for helping us to smoothly interact and communicate our message to our Indian partners.

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