C O N F I D E N T I A L TUNIS 001622







1. (C) SUMMARY: This is the first of a four cable series on corruptions impact on Tunisias economic and political future. The Tunisian economy is a model for the region in many respects, applauded by international financial institutions for GOT efforts to reform, modernize and liberalize the economy. But puzzling contradictions exist: perceptions are that rates of investment are erratic or are slowing; average Tunisians talk openly and angrily about the lack of jobs, concerns over rising prices, and a generally poor economy, and there is little entrepreneurial activity despite a stated public policy of supporting small business development. External factors (regional unrest, terrorism, rising oil prices) may contribute to this dichotomy, but Tunisians are increasingly focused on corruption -- and specifically, the disproportionate power and influence wielded by a few elites, chief among them Tunisias First Family. Part one of this series discusses Tunisias historic economic success and future challenges. END SUMMARY.

A Country that Works --------------------

2. (SBU) A small country of about ten million with minimal oil and gas resources, Tunisia has faced economic challenges in its 50 years of independence, but has always found a way to overcome them and develop its economy. Through sound public and social policy, it avoided many of the calamities that hit other developing states and continues to be cited as a model in that respect. The numbers support this: Tunisia has the highest per capita income (USD 2,770 in 2005) in North Africa and is second only to South Africa on the continent. Official GDP growth over the last 10-15 years has exceeded five percent per year, thanks to good infrastructure, an educated population, and a stable macroeconomic environment.

3. (SBU) In the early part of this decade, regional unrest, terrorism, and recovery after a 4-year drought hit Tunisias economy hard, though many of these concerns have abated over the last three years. Tourism returned to pre-2001 levels and had its best year ever in 2005 with more than 6 million visitors. Unemployment, however, is a growing concern and is one on which every GOT official is focused. Official unemployment figures leveled off at 14 percent in 2005, after a steady declines dating from 1999s 15.8 percent. Even at 14 percent, however, this figure is consistently challenged as too optimistic by first hand accounts of university graduates unable to find jobs and reports of increasing numbers of ever-more qualified applicants seeking Embassy jobs. President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and his ministers repeatedly announce that increasing investment and services as a component of GDP is the most essential development concern behind Tunisias job and enterprise creations efforts.

But does it? ------------

4. (SBU) According to World Bank and IMF estimates, Tunisias GDP growth will dip to mid-4 percent levels in 2006 (breaking its decade-long 5-plus percent streak), which will raise risks of higher unemployment levels. Tunisias five percent GDP growth rate has historically created approximately 70,000 new jobs annually, but experts note that over six percent growth is required to create the extra jobs that university graduates will demand by 2010 when approximately 80,000 job seekers enter the economy annually.

5. (SBU) Foreign investment and trade are considered the two best drivers of growth in the near term. Tunisias Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA) reports positive and growing U.S. investment (from USD 54 million in 2003 to nearly USD 90 million in 2005), but such investment is typically concentrated in narrow sectors, such as manufacturing and industries aimed at export-led job creation. Overall foreign investment has been erratic over the past five years, with significant gyrations difficult to assess given the heavy monetary infusions by international institutions such as the African Development Bank and the European Bank for Investment that are public-sector investment, and which help conceal declining private investment that economists view as more accurate in measuring economic health. The Tunisian governments steady privatization of its state-owned enterprises also distorts the true level of investment by injecting additional monetary infusions into the economy, without creating new economic wealth.

6. (SBU) According to local polls, business confidence is also declining, and business leaders stress that foreign and domestic investment is insufficient for continued growth. In early 2006, Tunisias Arab Institute of Business Leaders and the Young Entrepreneurs Center released separate investment climate surveys that pointedly criticize Tunisias declining levels of business confidence, suggesting the "good connections required for business success" is a chief culprit (reftel). A "cumbersome administration" and difficulty accessing capital are also notable obstacles for businesses here. Fostering entrepreneurship and bolstering creativity and innovation are recognized "areas for improvement," essential if Tunisia is to tap its only plentiful resource: its people.

7. (C) The importance of "connections" is a common phrase used to express the growing disgruntlement over influence and corruption by the countrys elite. Tunisias small population and intimate business environment produce a multiplier-effect for this dissatisfaction, and news travels fast among those with business and financial interests. The result is a growing chorus of complaints from the local business community who feel their ambition stifled in an increasingly frustrated business milieu. As a result, a new element is clearly emerging - younger and desiring more rapid progress, impatient to carve out their own livelihoods, reactive to restrictions on the spirit and energy of the most talented and educated citizens, and disdainful of the persistent government pronounced directives of a planned economy.

8. (C) Corruption, perception of lack of opportunity and weakness in the rule of law work to exacerbate other problems (such as lack of financing opportunities) that limit entrepreneurship and local investment. The small local entrepreneur has to weed through complicated tax and other regulations that s/he believes the connected few circumvent. Increasingly, Tunisian contacts report that those with family connections to President Ben Ali are exploiting the market to line their own pockets (see part two of this series). Economic regulations and legal procedures do not apply to them, which creates confusion and discourages domestic entrepreneurship and investment. Tunisians now view real estate or offshore accounts as the only safe options for investment, yet neither effectively contributes to sustained economic growth. The lack of transparency also harms Tunisias international profile and discourages the foreign investment that is essential to continued growth. (NOTE: Transparency Internationals 2005 Corruption Index ranked Tunisia 43 of 159 countries with a score of 4.9, or slightly below the 5.0 borderline score which distinguishes countries that do and do not have a serious corruption problem. END NOTE.)

9. (C) COMMENT: Tunisias economy remains a positive -- if paradoxical -- model for the region and there is no sign that the system is headed for a near-term collapse. Clearly, the GOT recognizes that Tunisia needs real growth and real job creation. Various protected sectors will gradually be opened, which will assist the GOT in attracting the investment needed to support job and enterprise creation. Improving the rule of law and rooting out corruption will remain key if Tunisia is to realize its positive potential. The extent of corruption and its manifestation in Tunisia will be reported in part two of this series. END COMMENT. HUDSON

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