In 2020, Tunisia’s economy was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Containment measures affected most business sectors and resulted in an unprecedented GDP contraction of 8.8 percent in 2020. The country still faces high unemployment, high inflation, and rising levels of public debt.
Parliament approved an initial government led by Prime Minister Fakhfakh in February 2020; however, Fakhfakh resigned in July 2020. Parliament subsequently approved a government led by current Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in September 2020.
Before the pandemic, successive governments had advanced some much-needed structural reforms to improve Tunisia’s business climate, including an improved bankruptcy law, investment code, an initial “negative list,” a law enabling public-private partnerships, and a supplemental law designed to improve the investment climate. The Government of Tunisia (GOT) encouraged entrepreneurship through the passage of the Start-Up Act. The GOT passed a new budget law that ensures greater budgetary transparency and makes the public aware of government investment projects over a three-year period. These reforms are intended to help Tunisia attract both foreign and domestic investment.
Tunisia’s strengths include its proximity to Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East; free-trade agreements with the EU and much of Africa; an educated workforce; and a strong interest in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI). Sectors such as agribusiness, aerospace, infrastructure, renewable energy, telecommunication technologies, and services are increasingly promising. The decline in the value of the dinar over recent years has strengthened investment and export activity in the electronic component manufacturing and textile sectors.
Nevertheless, substantial bureaucratic barriers to investment remain and additional economic reforms have yet to be achieved. State-owned enterprises play a large role in Tunisia’s economy, and some sectors are not open to foreign investment. The informal sector, estimated at 40 to 60 percent of the overall economy, remains problematic, as legitimate businesses are forced to compete with smuggled goods.
Since 2011, the United States has provided more than USD 500 million in economic growth-related assistance, in addition to loan guarantees in 2012, 2014, and 2016 that enabled the GOT to borrow nearly USD 1.5 billion at low interest.
|TI Corruption Perceptions Index||2020||69 of 180||http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview|
|World Bank’s Doing Business Report||2020||78 of 190||http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings|
|Global Innovation Index||2020||65 of 131||https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator|
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions)||2019||320||https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/|
|World Bank GNI per capita||2019||USD 3,370||http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD|
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
The GOT is working to improve the business climate and attract FDI. The GOT prioritizes attracting and retaining investment, particularly in the underdeveloped interior regions, and reducing unemployment. More than 3,650 foreign companies currently operate in Tunisia, and the government has historically encouraged export-oriented FDI in key sectors such as call centers, electronics, aerospace and aeronautics, automotive parts, textile and apparel, leather and shoes, agro-food, and other light manufacturing. In 2020, the sectors that attracted the most FDI were energy (33.8 percent), the electrical and electronic industry (22.4 percent), agro-food products (10.6 percent), services (9.2 percent), and the mechanical industry (9 percent). Inadequate infrastructure in the interior regions results in the concentration of foreign investment in the capital city of Tunis and its suburbs (46 percent), the northern coastal region (23 percent), the northwest region (14.4 percent), and the eastern coastal region (12 percent). Internal western and southern regions attracted only 4.6 percent of foreign investment despite special tax incentives for those regions.
The Tunisian Parliament passed an Investment Law (#2016-71) in September 2016 that went into effect April 1, 2017 to encourage the responsible regulation of investments. The law provided for the creation of three major institutions:
- The High Investment Council, whose mission is to implement legislative reforms set out in the investment law and decide on incentives for projects of national importance (defined as investment projects of more than 50 million dinars and 500 jobs).
- The Tunisian Investment Authority, whose mission is to manage investment projects of more than 15 million dinars and up to 50 million dinars. Investment projects of less than 15 million dinars are managed by the Agency for Promotion of Industry and Innovation (APII).
- The Tunisian Investment Fund, which funds foreign investment incentive packages.
These institutions were all launched in 2017. However, the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA) continues to be Tunisia’s principal agency to promote foreign investment. FIPA is a one-stop shop for foreign investors. It provides information on investment opportunities, advice on the appropriate conditions for success, assistance and support during the creation and implementation of the project, and contact facilitation and advocacy with other government authorities.
Under the 2016 Investment Law (article 7), foreign investors have the same rights and obligations as Tunisian investors. Tunisia encourages dialogue with investors through FIPA offices throughout the country.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
Foreign investment is classified into two categories: “Offshore” investment is defined as commercial entities in which foreign capital accounts for at least 66 percent of equity, and at least 70 percent of the production is destined for the export market. However, investments in some sectors can be classified as “offshore” with lower foreign equity shares. Foreign equity in the agricultural sector, for example, cannot exceed 66 percent and foreign investors cannot directly own agricultural land, but agricultural investments can still be classified as “offshore” if they meet the export threshold.
- “Offshore” investment is defined as commercial entities in which foreign capital accounts for at least 66 percent of equity, and at least 70 percent of the production is destined for the export market. However, investments in some sectors can be classified as “offshore” with lower foreign equity shares. Foreign equity in the agricultural sector, for example, cannot exceed 66 percent and foreign investors cannot directly own agricultural land, but agricultural investments can still be classified as “offshore” if they meet the export threshold.
- “Onshore” investment caps foreign equity participation at a maximum of 49 percent in most non-industrial projects. “Onshore” industrial investment may have 100 percent foreign equity, subject to government approval.
Pursuant to the 2016 Investment Law (article 4), a list of sectors outlining which investment categories are subject to government authorization (the “negative list”) was set by decree no. 417 of May 11, 2018. The sectors include natural resources; construction materials; land, sea and air transport; banking, finance, and insurance; hazardous and polluting industries; health; education; and telecommunications. The decree specified the deadline to respond to authorization requests for most government agencies and fixed a deadline of 60 days for all other government decision-making bodies not specifically mentioned in the decree.
The decree went into effect on July 1, 2018.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
In May 2019, the Tunisian Parliament adopted law 2019-47, a cross-cutting law that impacts legislation across all sectors. The law is designed to improve the country’s business climate and further improve its ranking in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report. The law simplified the process of creating a business, permitted new methods of finance, improved regulations for corporate governance, and provided the private sector the right to operate a project under the framework of a public-private partnership (PPP).
The World Bank Doing Business 2020 report ranks Tunisia 19 in terms of ease of starting a business. In the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia ranked second after the UAE, and first in North Africa ahead of Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, and Libya: .
The Agency for Promotion of Industry and Innovation (APII) and the Tunisia Investment Authority (TIA) are the focal point for business registration. Online project declaration for industry or service sector projects for both domestic and foreign investment is available at: .
The new online TIA platform allows potential investors to electronically declare the creation, extension, and renewal of all types of investment projects. The platform also allows investors to incorporate new businesses, request special permits, and apply for investment and tax incentives. .
APII has attempted to simplify the business registration process by creating a one-stop shop that offers registration of legal papers with the tax office, court clerk, official Tunisian gazette, and customs. This one-stop shop also houses consultants from the Investment Promotion Agency, Ministry of Employment, National Social Security Authority (CNSS), postal service, Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Trade and Export Development. Registration may face delays as some agencies may have longer internal processes. Prior to registration, a business must first initiate an online declaration of intent, to which APII provides a notification of receipt within 24 hours.
The GOT does not incentivize outward investment, and capital transfer abroad is tightly controlled by the Central Bank.
4. Industrial Policies
Preferential status is usually linked to the percentage of foreign corporate ownership, percentage of production for the export market, and investment location. The 2016 Investment Law provides investors with a broad range of incentives linked to increased added value, performance and competitiveness, use of new technologies, regional development, environmental protection, and high employability.
To incentivize the employment of new university graduates, the GOT assumes the employer’s portion of social security costs (16 percent of salary) for the first seven years of the investment, with an extension of up to 10 years in the interior regions. Investments with high job-creation potential may benefit from the purchase of state-owned land at the price of one Tunisian dinar per square meter. Investors who purchase companies in financial distress may also benefit from tax breaks and social security assistance. These advantages are determined on a case-by-case basis.
Further benefits are available for offshore investments, such as tax exemptions on profits and reinvested revenues, duty-free import of capital goods with no local equivalents, and full tax and duty exemption on raw materials, semi-finished goods, and services necessary for operation.
On March 9, 2017, the GOT adopted decree no. 2017-389 on financial incentives to investment in priority sectors, economic performance areas, and regional development. Investors have to declare their projects through the regional APII offices to receive incentives. Investors can also request incentives online through the Tunisian Investment Authority (TIA) website: .
According to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report, Tunisia’s overall ranking improved to 78 out of 190 countries, from 80 the previous year.
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation
Tunisia has free-trade zones, officially known as “Parcs d’Activités Economiques,” in Bizerte and Zarzis. While the land is state-owned, a private company manages the free-trade zones. They enjoy adequate public utilities and fiber-optic connectivity. Companies established in the free-trade zones are exempt from taxes and customs duties and benefit from unrestricted foreign exchange transactions, as well as limited duty-free entry into Tunisia of inputs for transformation and re-export. Factories operate as bonded warehouses and have their own assigned customs personnel.
For example, companies in Bizerte’s free-trade zone may rent space for three Euros per square meter annually – a level unchanged since 1996 – plus a low service fee. Long-term renewable leases, up to 25 years, are subject to a negotiable 3 percent escalation clause. Expatriate personnel are allowed duty-free entry of personal vehicles. During the first year of operations, companies within the zone must export 100 percent of their production. Each following year, the company may sell domestically up to 30 percent of the previous year’s total volume of production, subject to local customs duties and taxes. Lease termination has not been a problem, and all companies that desired to depart the zone reportedly did so successfully.
Performance and Data Localization Requirements
Foreign resident companies face restrictions related to the employment and compensation of expatriate employees. The 2016 Investment Law limits the percentage of expatriate employees per company to 30 percent of the total work force (excluding oil and gas companies) for the first three years and to 10 percent starting in the fourth year. There are somewhat lengthy renewal procedures for annual work and residence permits, and the GOT has announced its intention to ease them in the future. Although rarely enforced, legislation limits the validity of expatriate work permits to two years.
Central Bank regulations impose administrative burdens on companies seeking to pay for temporary expatriate technical assistance from local revenue. For example, before it receives authorization to transfer payment from its operations in Tunisia, a foreign resident company that utilizes a foreign accountant must document that the service is necessary, fairly valued, and unavailable in Tunisia. This regulation hinders a foreign resident company’s ability to pay for services performed abroad.
The host government does not follow “forced localization,” but encourages the use of domestic content.
There are no requirements for foreign information technology (IT) providers to turn over source code that is protected by the intellectual property law; however, they are required to inform the Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy about encrypted equipment.
Public companies and institutions are prohibited by the Ministry of Communication Technologies from freely transmitting and storing personal data outside of the country.
Private and public institutions must comply with the recommendations of the National Authority for Personal Data Protection (INPDP) when handling personal data, even if it is business-related. The National Institute of Office Automation and Micro-computing (INBMI) enforces the rules on local data storage.
Until recently, performance requirements were generally limited to investment in the petroleum sector. Now, such requirements are in force in sectors such as telecommunications and for private sector infrastructure projects on a case-by-case basis. These requirements tend to be specific to the concession or operating agreement (e.g., drilling a certain number of wells, or producing a certain amount of electricity).
7. State-Owned Enterprises
There are 110 state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and public institutions in Tunisia per the Ministry of Finance’s most recent (May 2020) report on public enterprises. SOEs are still prominent throughout the economy but are heavily indebted. Per the February 2021 IMF Article IV report, the debt of Tunisia’s 30 major SOEs was about 40 percent of GDP in 2019, and debt equivalent to about 15 percent of GDP was covered by government guarantees as of mid-2020. Annual budgetary transfers amounted to 7-8 percent of GDP in mid-2020, with 40 percent of transfers directed to three SOEs in the form of subsidies for cereals, fuel, and electricity.
Many SOEs compete with the private sector, in industries such as telecommunications, banking, and insurance, while others hold monopolies in sectors considered sensitive by the government, such as railroad, transportation, water and electricity distribution, and port logistics. Importation of basic food staples and strategic items such as cereals, rice, sugar, and edible oil also remains under SOE control.
The GOT appoints senior management officials to SOEs, who report directly to the ministries responsible for the companies’ sector of operation. SOE boards of directors include representatives from various ministries and personnel from the company itself. Similar to private companies, the law requires SOEs to publish independently audited annual reports, regardless of whether corporate capital is publicly traded on the stock market.
The GOT encourages SOEs to adhere to OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance, but adherence is not enforced. Investment banks and credit agencies tend to associate SOEs with the government and consider them as having the same risk profile for lending purposes.
The GOT allows foreign participation in its privatization program. A significant share of Tunisia’s FDI in recent years has come from the privatization of state-owned or state-controlled enterprises. Privatization has occurred in many sectors, such as telecommunications, banking, insurance, manufacturing, and fuel distribution, among others.
In 2011, the GOT confiscated the assets of the former regime. The list of assets involved every major economic sector. According to the Commission to Investigate Corruption and Malfeasance, a court order is required to determine the ultimate handling of frozen assets.
Because court actions frequently take years –and with the government facing immediate budgetary needs – the GOT allowed privatization bids for shares in Ooredoo (a foreign telecommunications company of which 30 percent of shares were confiscated from the previous regime), Ennakl, Alpha Ford), and City Cars (car distribution), Goulette Shipping Cruise (cruise terminal management), Airport VIP Service (business lounge management), and Banque de Tunisie and Zitouna Bank (banking). The government is expected to sell some of its stakes in state-owned banks; however, no clear plan has been adopted or communicated so far due to fierce opposition by labor unions.