Fancy A Spring Break In Tunisia?

Post-revolutionary tourism in Tunisia? Deserted beaches and empty restaurants amid the debris of the uprising, as resorts try to convince tourists the country is safe.

Tunisian beach (Henning Leweke)

HAMMAMET - "It's wonderful, absolutely wonderful," says 61-year-old Bruno Perrin. He still cannot believe his luck. He originally signed up for a special "economic crisis' budget deal to relax by the water. Instead he's enjoying "post-revolutionary tourism" on the beaches of Hammamet. Sitting at the Sultan Hotel's empty bar, this hardcore fan of Tunisia doesn't regret ignoring French embassy advisories to "postpone all non-urgent travel."

After checking out the cartoons lampooning deposed president Ben Ali in La Presse, the ex-regime's mouthpiece-turned-independent newspaper, Perrin sets off on an unusual sightseeing tour: a poke around the villa of the former dictator's brother-in-law Belhassen Trabelsi, or what's left of it. He snaps away with his digital camera, capturing graffiti-covered walls, bare electric wires ripped out of crystal chandeliers, broken windows. Seeing the pictures, an employee back at the Sultan Hotel rejoices. "These people got what they deserved! Belhassen was a thief. He took big chunks of the shore. I think we should turn his house into a museum."

Getting tourists' trust back

The hotel's immaculately dressed vice-president, Mehdi Allani, shares his employee's reaction. "The Trabelsi mafia was so strong you couldn't get around them. If you were a successful businessman, they would take part of your earnings. If you refused, your taxes were adjusted. In order to import certain types of alcohol or even Parmesan, you had to go through one of the clan's members. It was exhausting. It killed business initiative," says the successful 30-year-old, who takes pride in never having hung Ben Ali's portrait in the hotel lobby. Now that the president's gone, Allani is brimming with tourism business ambitions. "Before, tourists came to lie on the beach and rarely made it out of the resorts. In the future, I hope we'll be able to highlight our archeological sites, create new cultural activities, open new restaurants," he says, adding the now-famous slogan of the new Tunisian Central Bank governor Mustafa Kamel Nabl: "Democracy is a good investment."

But for now, Allani faces a greater challenge: that of regaining the tourists' trust and filling his hotel rooms. Right now, he only has 25 guests. "The day after Ben Ali's departure, on January 14, 80 percent of reservations made for April, May and June were cancelled," he says. It will be hard to convince tourists back until two major conditions are met: security and efficient transportation. Even though the renewed tensions haven't reached as far as Hammamet, a sort of safe haven just an hour away from Tunis, security on the roads is not guaranteed.

Lifting the state of emergency

Even the Interior Minister Farhat Rajhi admits that thousands of prisoners, who fled their cells during the uprising, are still running free. Airlines are still working on day-to-day schedules. Last Monday, an Air France pilot made a U-turn, just as he was about to land in Tunis, citing "protests' on the ground as the reason.

The new Tourism Minister, Mehdi Houas tries to be reassuring. In the face of a 40 percent drop in last month's numbers compared to January 2010, he insists on the need to "reassure tour operators on security in the country and engage in a strong marketing campaign." To this end, the interim government this week plans to lift the state of emergency and ease the midnight curfew. A delegation of French airline and tour-operator companies is also due in Tunis.

The CEO of France's second biggest tour operator Fram, Antoine Cachin, has already paid a visit and says he is "completely ready to support the revival of Tunisian tourism." A revival that is crucial for the country's economy: tourism covers 60 percent of the trade balance deficit and represents 6.5 percent of GDP. In a population of 10 million people, it also accounts for 350,000 jobs. "Things are very, very slow right now," says Hassib Abbes, the manager of popular Hammamet restaurant La Terrasse. "My 32 employees are worried. If we miss the spring season, it will hurt us a lot."

Read the original article in French

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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