Interview with Hamish Cowell, Britain’s ambassador to Tunisia

UK Ambassador to Tunisia says he is keen on expanding ties

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1. How would you characterize the UK/Tunisian bilateral relationship and how do you see it evolving in the future?

In the same way that Tunisia has been transformed since the revolution, so too have our relations. The number of UK diplomats at the embassy has nearly tripled since 2011.Bilateral cooperation is expanding too, through our Arab Partnership program, through defense and security cooperation which is now beginning after a long absence, and developing economic ties – in which the visit of the Lord Mayor of the City of London this month will play a major role. I should also highlight the growing people-to-people links and the role played by the British Council in this area. Not to mention the number of British visitors to Tunisia, which reached a new record last year of more than 400,000.

2. How would you describe the main challenges to Tunisia’s democratic transition?

Prime Minister Jomaa recently described Tunisia as a “start-up democracy.” I think that term captures very neatly both the challenges and the opportunities of transition: opportunities from being a start-up with great potential, but also the need, like any start-up, to be nurtured and to attract investment. The UK, like other friends of Tunisia is working closely with Tunisia to help it as it addresses post-revolutionary economic and security challenges, and will continue to do so as it moves through the final stage of transition toward elections at the end of the year.

3. How is the UK supporting Tunisia and the Tunisian people as the transition continues?

Following the revolution, the UK established the Arab Partnership Program, funding bilateral projects worth over £8 million ($13.5 million) in areas such as the electoral process, political participation, anti-corruption, freedom of expression, media training and entrepreneurship and employment. We have donated more than twice that bilaterally through programs with multilateral agencies such as the African Development Bank, the Deauville Transition Fund and the World Bank. And we are a major donor and strong advocate for Tunisia through our role in the EU, G8, IMF and other multilateral bodies. I would also highlight the work of the British Council in support of transition, in particular strengthening youth employability and civil society.

4. The UK is not seen as one of Tunisian’s traditional commercial partners. Is this true?

While not a traditional partner in some sectors, we have a very close relationship in others. We are the major partner in the energy sector and our companies play a crucial role in the delivery of Tunisia’s energy needs. We are keen to encourage even greater investment in the energy sector to address Tunisia’s energy deficit and help create much-needed jobs. So we see our existing partnership as high value, if not high volume. But we are also keen to expand our commercial ties in other areas. And as transition progresses, Tunisia has real potential to establish itself as a hub to neighbors and the wider region. I want to see British companies playing a role in that.

5. Outside the energy sector, what other high-value opportunities does the UK bring to Tunisia?

I see big opportunities in the financial and legal sectors in which we are a global leader, and are bringing this expertise to Tunisia. This in turn will benefit all other commercial sectors. As a potential regional hub, and as more Tunisians learn English, the education sector offers significant opportunities. Health and IT are also potential opportunities. Our strategic approach is to offer what will be of most benefit to Tunisia and deliver real improvements.

6. Lord Mayor of London will visit Tunisia in June. What are the main purposes of the visit?

The Lord Mayor of the City of London’s visit aims to introduce the UK’s expertise in the legal and financial sectors. The visit will help develop partnerships between Tunisian and British institutions for capacity building and cooperation in the professional services sector. As just one example of this, a Memorandum of Understanding between the ‘British Venture Capital Association’ (BVCA) and the ‘Association Tunisienne des Investisseurs en Capital’ (ATIC) will be signed to formalise this partnership.

7. We are aware of the growing demand for English language in Tunisia. What are you doing to meet that demand?

The British Council is working with Government Ministries and other partners to strengthen the quality of teaching and learning. This includes support for inspectors, trainers, teachers and learners at all levels of education, ensuring there is something for every educator and learner across the country. Last month we ran jointly with the Council an English language week, that included a series of events throughout Tunisia, promoting the importance of English as a tool for employability and the variety of ways that exist today, especially digital, for anyone who wants to access English-learning programmes. That week made clear just how many wish to do so.

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