Interview with H.E. Mrs. Hayet Talbi Bilel, Ambassador of Tunisia to India

“Tunisia – India share values of peace, prosperity and development”

 The diplomatic relationship between India and Tunisia has a long-standing history. Please tell us how the two nations have developed in recent years?

Tunisia and India maintain a very close, friendly, and long-standing relationship since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1958. A few decades later, in 1981, Tunisia opened its embassy in India. In 1982, the former First Lady of Tunisia, Wassila Bourguiba visited India. And two years later, the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi visited Tunisia. In recent years, it is satisfying to know that substantial progress has been made through the exchange of high-level visits, especially on the level of ministers of foreign affairs. We have had a lot of visits in the year 2014, the Indian Minister of External Affairs visited Tunisia. In 2017, the first-ever visit at a higher level took place when the Tunisian Minister offered their first visit to India.

Recently in January 2020, the Indian Minister of External Affairs had a successful and eventful visit to Tunisia. There have been a lot of mechanisms, like the Indian-Tunisian Joint Commission which was upgraded to the level of minister of foreign affairs meeting. In 2017, the 12 sessions were held in India. We also have a joint political consultation between the two countries at the level of Secretary of State. We are working so hard these days in order to hold the fourth session. We have several joint working groups in diverse areas: pharmaceutical drugs and textile. I think we have a lot of magnesia, but we also have to mention the investments of Indian companies in Tunisia. We have a joint venture in phosphate (TIFERT). We have Tata Motors and Mahindra Pickup Assembly Plant which is producing pick-up trucks with Tunisian companies. On an international level, both of the countries share values of peace, prosperity, and development. This year, both of the countries are the non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Hence, we are working closely in order to promote the aforementioned values.

 Tunisia celebrated its 65th independence on March 20, 2021. How did the Embassy of Tunisia celebrate in India on this occasion?

A big event like the Tunisian Independence day usually requires a gathering of several people. Since we had to abide by the protocols and health measures in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not a big celebration. We are promoting Tunisia through magazines. But at the national level, Tunisia launched the ‘Challenge 1’ satellite on March 20, 2021. It was such a delight. It was launched by a Russian spacecraft from an airbase in Kazakhstan. This is an important project because the research will create new technologies, information, and applications. Therefore, this was the best way to celebrate Tunisian Independence day this year.

How is Tunisia prepared to combat the COVID-19 pandemic? Please tell us about its impact on the Tunisian economy?

From the very beginning in March 2020, the Tunisian government started taking preventive measures. The government announced an emergency plan of 2.6 billion Tunisian dinars to help businesses and households with very low incomes to face this pandemic. The Tunisian government also launched a fund, which is a voluntary contribution. Many other measures urge banks to defer payments on the existing loans or to suspend penalties of taxes and arrears. There have been many measures to cope with this new situation and surely no country was spared from the negative impact of this unprecedented pandemic.

Tunisia, like all of the other countries in the world, was affected. The tourism sector, a very important sector of our economy that contributes 10% of the GDP of Tunisia and employs more than half a million Tunisians, was also brutally affected. Besides the protocols and health measures, in order to keep the people safe, the Tunisian government offered financial aid to the health sector, which has always been at the forefront to combat this pandemic. Hence, we are doing the best we can, just like other countries do.

 How much time do you think Tunisia will require to coming back to pre-covid times? What is the action plan?

Firstly, no country can be sure of the recovery rate of the economy from the negative impact of the pandemic. Since March 13, 2021, Tunisia has launched very large vaccination campaigns. This is a crucial step in order to open up and restart the economy. It is important for businessmen and employees to start working again after getting vaccinated. Secondly, the measures taken in the last year have been extended and strengthened for the tourists. Tourism is very important because it is a major sector in Tunisia and it was affected a lot. Last week, the Minister of Tourism has announced that there will be an emergency plan for the tourists in order to give them loans and to open up. Maybe we will not entirely go back to what really did in the tourism sector. In 2019, we received 9 million tourists from abroad. It won’t be at that substantial level for a while, but we are trying to recover.

How can India and Tunisia help each other in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic?

India is the pharmacy of the world and is manufacturing almost 60% of the total vaccines. This position of India has been strengthened recently. During the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, India successfully manufactured two vaccines: the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Covaxin. Both of these vaccines are significant. India contributes a lot to the international community in order to provide many cultures with the vaccine, medicines, and other preventing means. In light of the friendly relationship and close ties between our two countries, Tunisia relies on the support provided by India to help in its campaign of vaccination through the aforementioned means.

Tunisia has been a reliable trading partner of phosphate and Di-Ammonium phosphate exports to India. What are the major sectors that require the attention of both of the countries?

Tunisia and India have very close cooperation in the field of phosphate since the late 2000s. In 2006, the Indian-Tunisian Joint Venture was created, which is called TIFERT, for manufacturing phosphoric acid. It essentially became operational in the year of 2013. Ninety percent of the main export from Tunisia to India is composed of phosphate. We have enormous, considerable opportunities in various areas with which we can develop our cooperation and partnership to widen our basket of trade. For example, Tunisia is very well known for its olive oil, dates, etc. These have their own international stature. However, the presence of olive oil in the Indian market is very modest. We have to work on it even more. With electronic components, we can also develop the investment of Indian companies in Tunisia. We have some experiences, most of them are positive. We can do a lot since Tunisia can accomplish a lot in this field. Tunisia is an African country, so close to the European Union. Therefore, it can be the gateway for India to enter Africa, especially in West Africa. Since we have signed several agreements with Europe and considering how close we are to working with them, we can successfully work on the three-partied cooperation.

As the Ambassador of Tunisia to India, what is your primary focus to move ahead?

I try to follow up on what has been done by my colleagues in the past. I keep up with the decisions of the past. There are various, considerable opportunities in which our sectors have comparative advantages. After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to think out of the box to maintain bilateral relations. We have to look for artificial intelligence for technology. India is a pioneer in this field and Tunisia has qualified students. I think it will be a very good initiative. Also, in the field of pharmaceuticals and drugs, India is a pioneer and Tunisia has the Pasteur Institute of Tunis. It is widely known for producing vaccines. Certainly, we can work together in these fields.

India and Tunisia signed two MoUs on the promotion of handicraft, IT, and digital economy. How far has the initiative progressed?

In 2016, India and Tunisia signed an agreement for the sector of handicrafts and the traditional industry. We are doing very well. This agreement has opened the door to many Tunisian craftsmen specializing in olive wood and ceramics. This traditional and custom craftsmanship has taken part in many exhibitions organized in India. But as for IT and the digital economy, we didn’t really reach the level that we could. Unfortunately, it is below our expectations. India is a pioneer in this field and Tunisia has many certified universities. We have to accomplish a lot. This might be a positive thing. Last year when the Indian Minister of External Affairs visited Tunisia, he signed an agreement that time in order to create the Tunisian-Indian Center for Innovation in ICT. The operation in this field will certainly prove to be a milestone.

A lot of Tunisian students visit India for training in our institutions in different streams. What more can be done to attract more people to attend such scholarship programmes in India?

Honestly, the number of Tunisian students will increase. If we compare them with foreign students, the number is severe. This is due to the proximity of Europe and the proximity in languages. But now, many Tunisians are asking about the procedure in order to get a scholarship in Indian universities. I have started working in this field and now I have tied with the Indian universities in order to plan visits to Tunisia and organize a forum in order to talk about the scholarship, universities, and the opportunities offered to Tunisian students to come and start. In 2018, fifty young diplomats were under training in India. Thanks to the Indian Minister of External Affairs for offering this opportunity to them. They were getting trained in the Foreign Service Institute. It was definitely a good idea. There are some Tunisian experts from the national administration institute who came to India as well. We have to work more to further enhance cooperation in this area.

Lastly, would you like to give a message to the Envoy Excellency Magazine readers?

I would like to tell them that Tunisia is a beautiful country. Please come to Tunisia. It is a small country, but it has a large and rich history. It’s a very open country. The Tunisian people are very warm and friendly. The country is in close proximity to Europe. Tunisia is an intersection of many ancient civilizations. It will be a magnificent experience for Indians to visit Tunisia.

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