Fundamental shifts in the Gulf monarchies’ foreign and domestic policymaking bear direct implications for their engagement in Tunisia. As a consequence, Tunis no longer plays a relevant role in the Gulf’s political-economic-security nexus. Despite Saudi Arabia’s and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s public support for President Kais Saïed and his authoritarian bent, the Gulf’s focus has shifted from North Africa toward other hotspots in order to preserve power projection in times of rising global multipolarism.
Reduced geostrategic significance
In the aftermath of the 2010-2011 Arab Uprising, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) rapidly emerged as veto players, spoilers, and transactional actors in Tunisia. In particular, Qatar positioned itself as an alternative to the status quo powers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the region, which became explicitly virulent in Qatar’s support for Islamists, such as the Ennahda party in Tunisia and other movements affiliated with — or inspired by — the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan). As part of this struggle for ideological supremacy, Tunisia emerged as a hotbed for inner-Gulf competition. It became a relevant theatre for the rising “cold war” between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other during the “intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis” that started in June 2017. However, after the January 2021 al-Ula Declaration — which ended the feud between Qatar and the blockading quartet formed by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain — such inner-GCC rivalry has quieted down. In turn, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are recalibrating their foreign policymaking by promoting pragmatic reconciliation not only with Qatar but also with other regional rivals, such as Turkey. Doha is also showing no interest in reigniting recent ideological tensions. Rather, Qatar is positioning itself as a regional platform and hub for dialogue. For instance, talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban and conversations between the US and Iranian representatives to resume the Iranian nuclear deal were both hosted by Doha. On the domestic front, Gulf monarchies are starting to increasingly focus on socio-economic transformation to boost their economic diversification away from fossil fuels. As such, driven by geostrategic realignments and domestic recalibrations, Gulf monarchies now consider Tunisia as too far away and less important for their respective foreign policymaking. They are more concerned about other regions of geostrategic relevance, such as the Horn of Africa, Yemen, or Iran. Despite Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s public support for President Kais Saïed and his authoritarian slant, the Gulf’s focus has turned away from North Africa toward other hotspots, shifting from power projection to power protection – as in the UAE’s case.
Preserving regional authoritarianism, though not at all costs
It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not completely disengaged from Tunisia. Both are interested in diversifying partnerships and backing rulers in the region who follow a similar pro-authoritarian, anti-democratic leadership style. Similar to General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi or the military clique in Sudan, Saïed is also considered a trustworthy and reliable security partner in consolidating authoritarianism in Tunisia. Ten years after the Arab Uprising sent shockwaves to the counter-revolution’s champions and spurred Emirati and Saudi “Ikhwanoia”, observers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE celebrated the end of the Tunisian revolution. Nonetheless, their support has turned out to be mainly rhetoric rather than financial or political. Despite Saïed’s statements of gratitude for Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s support, both leaderships only promote him halfheartedly. Even the intensity of anti-Islamist media defamation was less provocative than in the past years, when competition with Qatar strongly played out in Tunisia. As part of this anti-Islamist demonization, Saudi and UAE experts in social and traditional media welcomed the freezing of the Tunisian parliament or the detention of Ennahda members by President Kais Saïed in 2021, calling those actions the “fall of the Muslim Brotherhood”. In UAE and Saudi Arabia, the detention of prominent Ennahda members was further considered as a successful strike against Islamism. On social media, the prominent hashtag #Tunisia_rises_up_against_the_Brotherhood in Arabic was driven mostly by Saudi and UAE bots and influencers, whereas Qatari media portrayed Saïed as the “leader of a coup”.
Limited financial assistance
In light of the pandemic, health diplomacy has become a relevant pillar of Gulf monarchies’ humanitarianism, though it has been promoted mainly on an ad hoc and transactional level. Gulf aid organizations have distributed financial and humanitarian assistance such as medical equipment and vaccines to Tunisia. To be specific, in 2020, the UAE sent 11 tons of medical supplies and materials, including 50 ventilators, as well as logistical support worth USD 7.5 million. That same year, Qatar provided Tunisia with USD 1.9 million in COVID-19-related assistance, while Saudi Arabia spent USD 7.1 million to deliver oxygen concentrators and medical supplies to the North African country in 2021 alone. However, although Saïed explicitly requested more assistance from the Gulf monarchies, substantial aid has not materialized in recent years. In times of rising inflation driven by the war in Ukraine, the Gulf governments’ efforts have shifted towards stabilising their markets by providing citizens with comprehensive incentives, such as social welfare packages, as recently announced by both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Such measures will further limit their financial resources to engage as relevant providers of development assistance to Tunisia. They will indeed increase a rather inward-looking perspective to consolidate political power and preserve social cohesion – the two top priorities of all Gulf ruling families in times of crisis.
In 2020, Qatar promised to provide USD 1.25 billion to Tunisia, but actual disbursements never met the original pledges. In 2018, Saudi Arabia pledged USD 850 million to Tunisia after Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) visited the country weeks prior. His trip was followed by a spate of public protests, as he was considered persona non grata after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However, Saudi Arabia delivered no official development assistance (ODA) to Tunisia between 2016 and 2020 while, during the same period, it sent Yemen USD 3.76 billion in ODA. In 2020, only the construction of two hospitals, which amounted to USD 50.6 million, was financed by the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD).
Too small, too European for Gulf trade and investment
Qatar is Tunisia’s secondlargest investor (after France) in real estate, infrastructure, tourism, financing, media, and the petrochemical sector, spotlighting significant Qatari interest in the Tunisian market. Furthermore, Doha and Tunis have enhanced their security cooperation in recent years. However, the total volume of Gulf investments remains significantly low compared to Europe’s. In terms of trade, Tunisia plays a nearly non-existent role for Gulf companies. In 2019, the share of exported goods from Saudi Arabia to Tunisia was only 1.3%; 0.7% from the UAE; and just 0.1% from Qatar. The country does not offer promising investment opportunities as its market size is too small, with a population of just 11.8 million, and still dominated by European partners with narrow strategic significance. For instance, UAE investments only materialized marginally despite recent agreements and the relaunch of the “Tunis Sports City” mega project, which had been on hold for over 15 years. In addition, Gulf investors often complain about the over-bloated administrative procedures connected to the country.
Tunisia as a gateway to Africa and the Mediterranean
Despite such a decline in relevance, Tunisia, by connecting the Mediterranean and Africa, might serve as an important gateway of utmost geostrategic interest for several Gulf monarchies such as the UAE. In fact, DP World — the Emirati’s flagship logistics multinational company— has established itself as a “global leader in port management and infrastructure development”. Not by chance, it has heavily invested in ports in the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria. In light of its comprehensive strategy to expand maritime presence and increase economic leverage, the UAE also considers Tunisia an appealing hub to better connect to relevant regions like the Mediterranean or the Atlantic. Against this backdrop, the Gulf country has shown interest in investing in Tunisia’s deep-sea port of Enfidha. Tunis, therefore, represents one pillar of the UAE’s global network, albeit not the most relevant one.