In a recent article, Newsweek describes Tunisia thus: "Alone among Arab states, Tunisia has made real progress building an economy based on resources other than oil". The article goes on to quote the US Ambassador to Tunis, Rust Deming who says: "I believe Tunisia is well placed to be the first truly modern Arab republic."
Few will challenge Tunisia if it were to also claim to be the most modern African country. Foreigners sometimes overlook the fact that Tunisia is very much an African nation--in fact, the continent is named after Afriqiya as Tunisia was called by the Romans. While the majority of the population and the national language is Arabic, cultural roots go deep into African antiquity. In more recent times, Tunisia's diplomatic and business influence in the rest of Africa has grown well out of proportion to its size. Tunisia is situated only 80km from Europe, forming part of the southern rim of the cultural-rich Mediterranean basin. For three thousand years, Tunisia served as the hub for the flow of trade, commerce and ideas from three worlds: the Western, the Arab and the African.
In this respect, little has changed. Walk along the wide boulevards of the capital, Tunis, and you encounter a bewildering array of languages--French, English, German, Spanish, Swedish mix and mingle with Wolof, Hausa, Yoruba, Swahili, Zulu, Ndebele and Afrikaans; listen carefully and you can pick up Gujerati, Urdu, Tamil, Malay, Chinese and the unmistakable drawl of American.
The meticulous attention to business ethics means that the bane of African economies--corruption--is virtually absent from day to day dealing. Speaking to Newsweek, an American entrepreneur, Tom Wendt who makes jet-engine parts for General Electric said: "I didn't have to pay anybody to do business here". How many developing countries would kill for such a testimonial?
Tunisia's historical position as the hub of three civilisations predisposed its citizens to be receptive to new ideas and to be able to quickly adapt them to their own circumstances. The golden age of Carthage, for example, was replete with innovation--witness the ingenious fortification of the Punic harbour in Carthage on which the might of the Roman navy floundered repeatedly. Or visit the museum in Kairouan and view the golden dinars which preceded the euro, by some centuries, as the common currency of the southern Mediterranean coast.
This spirit of innovation is as much alive today as when one of Africa's...