Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi is expected at the International Monetary Fund's headquarters in Washington at the end of the month to try to persuade the institution to reopen the credit lines for Tunisia that it shut down in late 2019. If the IMF says no, he will not be able to count on Qatar's generosity to compensate.
With the state's finances close to collapse (Africa Intelligence, 23/03/21), the Banque Centrale de Tunisie (BCT) had to disburse 695m dinars ($253m) this month to repay part of a 2017 Qatari loan. Finance minister Ali Kooli's attempt to cover the repayment with a new loan from Doha flopped.
Rafik Abdessalem, the finance minister's unofficial sherpa
The official purpose of Kooli's trip to Doha last month was to amend the statutes of the Tunisian-Qatari joint business council. But in reality it was mainly aimed at negotiating a new loan from the Qatar National Bank (QNB) after two similar operations in 2012 and 2017.
Rafik Abdessalem, a Tunisian former foreign minister, was not officially part of Kooli's delegation but made the trip to the Gulf state separately. Abdessalem is treated with great respect in Doha. He is the son-in-law of parliamentary speaker Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda Islamist party.
Ghannouchi had also written a letter of engagement for him to add weight to Kooli's quest. This was a way for him to show support for the Mechichi government, of which he is the main political sponsor. It was however a lost cause. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, did not receive Abdessalem, and the Tunisian delegation left Doha empty-handed.
Interest rates shoot up
Back in Tunis, President Kais Saied's opponents quickly blamed him for the failure, accusing him of sending Kooli on a fool's errand in order to damage his great rival Ghannouchi.
The negotiations between Doha and Kooli's delegation quickly stumbled on the interest rate demanded for the new loan. Qatar wanted to set it at around 5.5%, about two percentage points higher than a previous loan of $1bn QNB granted to Tunisia in 2017 over a period of five years. That loan already covered the full repayment of a previous $500m loan, made in 2012 at 2.5% over five years.
Kooli initially proposed a mechanism to reschedule the 2017 debt maturities, postponing the possible revision of their interest rate. But this was categorically refused.
Emir scoops up Ben Ali clan bounty
The QNB's rigidity does not however mean that the Qatari ruling family has lost interest in Tunisia's fate. It is on the contrary investing heavily in the country. In a press release on 1 April announcing a $10m donation to the national Covid-19 relief fund, the Majda Tunisia holding company admitted for the very first time that it belonged to the Emir's father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
Africa Intelligence revealed in 2016 that the company had for some time been managed by one of the emir's top representatives, Victor Nazim Reda Agha, who has conducted major acquisitions on Qatar's behalf around the world, such as the Printemps department stores in France.
Majda Tunisia, founded in 2009, went on a buying spree after Tunisia's 2011 revolution, focusing on assets once owned by the clan of deposed president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The company first took over some assets of the former tourism mogul Aziz Miled, a Ben Ali associate, with whom it had invested before 2011, notably the Marina Gammarth and several large hotels.
Majda Tunisia in 2018 acquired a majority stake in Zitouna, the Islamic bank founded by Sakher El-Materi, son-in-law of the former president, and has since 2019 held 100% of its capital. Majda also controls the bank's sister company dedicated to insurance, Zitouna Takaful. Majda Tunisia, whose capital now exceeds one billion dinars ($400m), is also among the candidates vying to take over Carthage Cement, a company founded by Belhassen Trabelsi, brother of former first lady Leïla Ben Ali, which was confiscated by the state in 2011.
For its part, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) sovereign fund has built, via its Qatari Diar branch, a five-star luxury hotel in the oasis town of Tozeur, operated under the Anantara brand. The desert resort, nestled on the shore of Chott el-Jerid salt lake, is aimed primarily at a Gulf clientele who like to engage in gazelle and bustard hunting in the region.
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