U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker Discusses Tunisia’s Economic and Commercial Future at Business Roundtable Event

Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker

Today, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker joined Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisian government officials, and American business leaders for an open dialogue on how to strengthen Tunisia’s economy and on how the country can translate its remarkable political transition into sustainable economic progress.

Secretary Pritzker highlighted the importance of the Tunisian government’s efforts to adopt critical reforms that will increase commercial opportunities, enhance the investment climate, and improve the business environment. After her remarks, Tunisian officials discussed the status of reforms and offered their long-term vision for Tunisia’s economic growth and success, and American business leaders had the opportunity to outline what is needed to attract their companies’ capital and to draw new business investments to Tunisia’s markets.

The business roundtable followed Secretary Pritzker’s visit to Tunisia in March, when she met with Tunisian government officials, business leaders, and entrepreneurs to better understand the challenges and opportunities facing the country’s economy. Tunisia has undergone a historic democratic transformation since 2011 and continues to strive to be the model for political and economic development in the region. Commercial reforms are essential to supporting Tunisia’s continued economic progress and attracting global public and private sector partners.

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Welcome. It is a privilege and an honor to be here today with President Caid Essebsi, so soon after our first meeting in Tunis this past March. I want to thank everyone here for coming together for this critical discussion about Tunisia’s economic and commercial future.

Today’s event is meant to be an open dialogue between Tunisia’s leaders and the American business community. To that end, it is no accident that Ambassador Walles and I are the only U.S. government officials at the table. Our Administration will have plenty of time to speak with and hear from President Caid Essebsi during his visit. This is the time for you, leaders from our business community, to engage with the Tunisian government. And it is hard to imagine a more important moment for this conversation to take place.

Located at the crossroads between Europe, Africa, and the Arab world, Tunisia’s political progress in recent years has been unique in a turbulent region. Since 2011, Tunisia has undergone a historic transition from dictatorship to democracy. From ratifying a progressive constitution, to holding free and fair elections, to forming a government based on consensus and inclusion – Tunisia’s political transformation has been rapid, remarkable, and inspiring. 

Sustaining that progress is of tremendous strategic importance. And that will only happen if the Tunisian people see a future of prosperity and stability. Such a future demands more than political progress; it requires economic success to match. This is precisely why we are all here today.

President Caid Essebsi: during my visit to Tunis in March, you eloquently drew an analogy between Tunisia and a horse that needs to cross a raging river. You noted that the horse has now traveled halfway across the river – the political half – but faces currents that are pushing it back. As you said, the horse – Tunisia – must keep fighting to reach the far bank and continue the journey forward, amidst strong currents of regional instability. The metaphor was poignant and powerful, and it has stuck with me. I know that you and your people are determined to cross the other half of the river – to take the tough steps necessary to build an economic foundation that makes your political progress sustainable.

This event is intended to give you, Mr. President, and your economic cabinet an opportunity to lay out your vision for Tunisia and your plan for how to realize that vision, as well as to hear from American business leaders. When we were together, you spoke of immediate reforms needed to improve Tunisia’s investment climate and to draw in businesses like the ones at this table. During my visit, we discussed four steps:

  1. Reforming the investment code to spur greater foreign and domestic business investment in the country;
  2. Restructuring and re-capitalizing the banking system;
  3. Imposing greater efficiency and predictability in the tax and customs systems; and
  4. Adopting a strong public-private partnerships law, which will generate the infrastructure investment that is so badly needed to ensure all of Tunisia can prosper.

These reforms are a necessary first step; but alone, they are not sufficient to guide Tunisia the rest of the way across the river. Tunisia needs a long-term economic vision that convinces investors that your market will be a smart investment for years to come. As we have previously discussed, Mr. President, the U.S. government does not control the capital allocation decisions of American companies. 

Tunisia is of great geopolitical significance to our government, but the private sector makes decisions based on their assessment of where they will get the best return on investment. These investors need to understand Tunisia’s business plan, including your long-term approach to security and your sense of which industries or sectors will become backbones of Tunisia’s prosperity for the long run.

Mr. President, you know, as I do, that businesses seek certainty. And this is an opportunity to tell American businesses what makes Tunisia worth the risk and investment; why invest in Tunisia today; what can these companies expect now and in the future?

One of our participants, Chris Nassetta, CEO of Hilton, has already decided that now is the time to invest in the new Tunisia. Hilton Worldwide is announcing that it will re-enter the Tunisian market, bringing a DoubleTree hotel to central Tunis. A $5 million renovation in the property is now underway, and the hotel will open next year.

Now, the question is, what will it take for other American companies – for the companies in this room – to follow suit? Some of you have experience in Tunisia; all of you have experience in challenging markets around the world. President Caid Essebsi and his team want to hear from you. They want to know what it typically takes to attract your business to a challenging market and what, specifically, it will take to draw you to Tunisia. And, if you are already engaged in Tunisia, they want to understand what obstacles you face on the ground and what challenges inhibit further investments.

At his swearing-in, President Caid Essebsi pledged action to “realize the promises of the revolution: dignity, employment, health, and regional equality.” At Tunisia’s recent Investment and Entrepreneurship conference, which I attended, he reiterated his commitment that “Tunisia will be a model [for the region], not just politically but also in terms of economic development.”

Today’s discussion will help our American businesses understand the opportunities presented by a new Tunisia and enable our private sector to serve as productive partners as Tunisia strives to reach the other side of the river and continue its remarkable political and economic journey.

Thank you