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Executive Summary

Tunisia continues to make progress on its democratic transition and will hold its second round of parliamentary and presidential elections since the 2011 revolution in October and November 2019, respectively.  Tunisia’s economy experienced a modest recovery in 2018, with GDP growth of 2.6 percent, but the country still faces high unemployment, high inflation, and rising levels of public debt.  

In recent years, successive governments have advanced much-needed structural reforms to improve Tunisia’s business climate, including an improved bankruptcy law, an investment code and initial “negative list,” and a law enabling public-private partnerships.  The Government of Tunisia (GOT) has also encouraged entrepreneurship through the passage of the Start-Up Act. The GOT also passed the “organic budget law” to ensure greater budgetary transparency and make the public aware of government investment projects over a three-year period.  These reforms will 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, renewable energy, telecommunication technologies, and services are increasingly promising. The decline in the value of the dinar has strengthened investment and export activity in the electronic component manufacturing and textile sectors.

Nevertheless, substantial bureaucratic barriers to investment remain.  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.

The United States has provided more than USD 500 million in economic growth-related assistance since 2011, in addition to loan guarantees in 2012, 2014, and 2016 that enabled the GOT to borrow nearly USD 1.5 billion.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings

Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 73 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2019 80 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2018 66 of 126 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2017 $279 http://www.bea.gov/international/factsheet/ 
World Bank GNI per capita ($ USD) 2017 $3,490 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Toward 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 3,350 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, and agro-food and other light manufacturing.  In 2018, the sectors that attracted the most FDI were energy (33 percent), services (22.8 percent), the electrical and electronic industry (18 percent), the mechanical industry (6.6 percent), and agro-food products (4.7 percent). Inadequate infrastructure in the interior regions results in the concentration of foreign investment in the capital city of Tunis and its suburbs (58 percent), the northern coastal region (25.7 percent), and the eastern coastal region (9.7 percent).  Internal western and southern regions attracted only 6.6 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 Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA).
  • The Tunisian Investment Fund, which will fund 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 Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (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.
  • “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 on 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.  Per the decree, if the relevant government decision-making body does not respond to an investment request within a specified period, typically 60 days, the authorization is automatically granted to the applicant.  The decree went into effect on July 1, 2018.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

Business Facilitation

The World Bank Investing Across Borders initiative affirms that Tunisia has the fewest limits on foreign equity ownership in the Middle East and the North Africa (MENA) region.  The GOT has opened up the majority of the sectors of the economy to foreign capital participation, with the exception of electricity transmission and distribution (http://iab.worldbank.org/data/exploreeconomies/tunisia  ).

The World Bank Doing Business 2019 report ranks Tunisia 63rd in terms of ease of starting a business.  In North Africa, Tunisia ranked ahead of Egypt (109), Algeria (157), and Libya (186) and behind Mauritania (46) and Morocco (34):  http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/data/exploreeconomies/tunisia#DB_sb  .

The Agency for Promotion of Industry and Innovation (APII) is the focal point for business registration generally for new businesses.  Online project declaration for industry or service sector projects for both domestic and foreign investment is available at: www.tunisieindustrie.nat.tn/en/doc.asp?mcat=16&mrub=122  

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 (API), Ministry of Employment, National Social Security Authority (CNSS), post office, Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Trade.  Registration may face delays as some agencies may have longer internal processes. Prior to registration business must first initiate an online declaration of intent, to which APII provides a notification of receipt within 24 hours.

The World Bank’s Doing Business 2019 report indicates that business registration takes an average of 8 days and costs about USD 115 (350 Tunisian dinars):   http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/data/exploreeconomies/tunisia#DB_sb  .

For agriculture and fisheries, business registration information can be found at:  www.apia.com.tn  .

In the tourism industry, companies must register with the National Office for Tourism at:  http://www.tourisme.gov.tn/pour-investir/prestations-administratives.html.

The central point of contact for established foreign investors and companies is the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA):  http://www.investintunisia.tn  .

Outward Investment

The GOT does not incentivize outward investment, and capital transfer abroad is tightly controlled by the Central Bank.

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

Tunisia has signed 55 bilateral investment treaties of which 39 are in force: http://investmentpolicyhub.unctad.org/IIA/CountryBits/213#iiaInnerMenu  .

The 2002 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) between Tunisia and the United States remains active.  A meeting of the Bilateral Trade and Investment Council in April 2017 helped promote engagement and cooperative reform efforts.  A Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) between Tunisia and the United States entered into force in 1993.

Tunisia has multilateral and bilateral trade agreements with approximately 127 countries, including its neighbors Libya and Algeria.  Tunisia acceded to the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in July 2018. In January 2008, Tunisia’s Association Agreement with the EU went into effect, eliminating tariffs on industrial goods.  Tunisia and the EU are negotiating a full-fledged free-trade agreement, but it has not yet been concluded. In addition, Tunisia is a signatory to the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), which offers private sector political risk insurance.  Tunisia is a member of the World Trade Organization and maintains bilateral agreements with Turkey and the member states of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), as well as a multilateral agreements with other Arab League states.

A 1985 bilateral treaty and a 1989 protocol guarantee U.S. firms freedom from double taxation.

In 2013, the Tunisian Parliament adopted the OECD Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

As stipulated in the 2014 constitution, Tunisia has adopted a semi-parliamentary political system whereby power is shared among the Parliament, the Presidency of the Republic, and the Government, which is composed of a ministerial cabinet led by a Prime Minister (Head of Government).  The Presidency and the Government fulfill executive roles. The Government creates the majority of laws and regulations; however, the Presidency of the Republic and Parliament also develop and propose laws.

The Parliament debates and votes on the adoption of legislation.  Draft legislation is accessible to the public via the Parliament’s website.

Ministerial decrees and other regulations are debated at the level of the Government and adopted by a Ministerial Council headed by the Prime Minister.

After adoption, all laws, decrees, and regulations are published on the website of the Official Gazette and enforced by the Government at the national level.

The Government takes few proactive steps to raise public awareness of the public consultation period for new draft laws and decrees.  Civil society, NGOs, and political parties are all pushing for increased transparency and inclusiveness in rule-making. Many draft bills, such as the budget law, were reviewed before submission for a final vote under pressure from civil society.  Business associations, chambers of commerce, unions, and political parties reviewed the 2016 Investment Law prior to final adoption.

In January 2019, the Tunisian Parliament passed the Organic Budget Law, which is a foundational law defining the parameters for the government’s annual budgeting process.  The law aimed to bring the budget process in line with principles expressed in the 2014 constitution by enlarging Parliament’s role in the budgetary process and strengthening the financial autonomy of the legislative and judiciary branches.  The law required the government to organize its budget by policy objective, detail budget projections over a three-year timeframe, and revise its accounting system to ensure greater transparency.

Not all accounting, legal, and regulatory procedures are in line with international standards.  Publicly listed companies adhere to national accounting norms.

The Parliament has oversight authority over the GOT but cannot ensure that all administrative processes are followed.

The World Bank Global Indicators of Regulatory Governance for Tunisia are available here: http://rulemaking.worldbank.org/en/data/explorecountries/tunisia  .

Tunisia is a member of the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance: http://www.opengovpartnership.org/country/tunisia  .

Most of Tunisia’s public finances and debt obligations are debated and voted on by the Parliament.

International Regulatory Considerations

As part of its negotiations toward a free-trade agreement with the EU, the GOT is considering incorporating a number of EU standards in its domestic regulations.

Tunisia became a member of the WTO in 1995 and is required to notify the WTO regarding draft technical regulations on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT).  However, in October 2018 the Ministry of Commerce released a circular that temporarily restricted the import of certain goods without going through the WTO notification process, which negatively impacted some business operations without forewarning.

Tunisia has yet to ratify the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) that would improve processes at the port of entry.  However, Tunisia submitted a “Category A” notification in September 2014, which should have required the GOT to implement TFA measures by February 2017.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

The Tunisian legal system is secular and based on the French Napoleonic code and meets EU standards.  While the 2014 Tunisian constitution guarantees the independence of the judiciary, constitutionally mandated reforms of courts and broader judiciary reforms are still ongoing.

Tunisia has a written commercial law but does not have specialized commercial courts.

Regulations or enforcement actions can be appealed at the Court of Appeals.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

The 2016 Investment Law directs tax incentives towards regional development promotion, technology and high value-added products, research and development (R&D), innovation, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and the education, transport, health, culture, and environmental protection sectors.

The primary one-stop-shop webpage for investors looking for relevant laws and regulations is hosted at the Investment and Innovation Promotion Agency (APII) website, http://www.tunisieindustrie.nat.tn/en/doc.asp?mcat=12&mrub=209  .  The 2016 Investment Law (article 15) calls for the creation of an Investor’s Unique Point of Contact within the Ministry of Development, Investment, and International Cooperation to assist new and existing investors to launch and expand their projects.

In addition, the Parliament has adopted a number of economic reforms since 2015, including laws concerning renewable energy, competition, public-private partnerships, bankruptcy, and the independence of the Central Bank of Tunisia, as well as a Start-Up Act to promote the creation of new businesses and entrepreneurship.

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

The 2015 Competition Law established a government appointed Competition Council to reduce government intervention in the economy and promote competition based on supply and demand.

This law voided previous agreements that fixed prices, limited free competition, or restricted the entry of new companies as well as those that controlled production, distribution, investment, technical progress, or supply centers.  While the law ensures free pricing of most products and services, there are a few protected items, such as bread and electricity, for which the GoT can still intervene in pricing. Moreover, in exceptional cases of large increases or collapses in prices, the Ministry of Commerce reserves the right to regulate prices for a period of up to six months.  The Ministry of Commerce also reserves the right to intervene in sectors to ensure free and fair competition. However, the Competition Council can make exceptions to its anti-trust policies if it deems it necessary for overall technical or economic progress.

The Competition Council also has the power to investigate competition-inhibiting cases and make recommendations to the Ministry of Commerce upon the Ministry’s request.

Expropriation and Compensation

There are no outstanding expropriation cases involving U.S. interests.  The 2016 Investment Law (article 8) stipulates that investors’ property may not be expropriated except in cases of public interest.  Expropriation, if carried out, must comply with legal procedures, be executed without discrimination on the basis of nationality, and provide fair and equitable compensation.

U.S. investments in Tunisia are protected by international law as stipulated in the U.S.-Tunisia Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT).  According to Article III of the BIT, the GOT reserves the right to expropriate or nationalize investments for the public good, in a non-discriminatory manner, and upon advance compensation of the full value of the expropriated investment.  The treaty grants the right to prompt review by the relevant Tunisian authorities of conformity with the principles of international law. When compensation is granted to Tunisian or foreign companies whose investments suffer losses owing to events such as war, armed conflict, revolution, state of national emergency, civil disturbance, etc., U.S. companies are accorded “the most favorable treatment in regards to any measures adopted in relation to such losses.”

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Tunisia is a member of the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) and is a signatory to the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

U.S. investments in Tunisia are protected by international law as stipulated in the U.S.-Tunisia Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT).  The BIT stipulates that procedures shall allow an investor to take a dispute with a party directly to binding third-party arbitration.

Disputes involving U.S. persons are relatively rare.  Over the past 10 years, there were three dispute cases involving U.S. investors; two were settled and one is still ongoing.  U.S. firms have generally been successful in seeking redress through the Tunisian judicial system.

The Tunisian Code of Civil and Commercial Procedures allows for the enforcement of foreign court decisions under certain circumstances, such as arbitration.

There is no pattern of significant investment disputes or discrimination involving U.S. or other foreign investors.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

The Tunisian Arbitration Code brought into effect by Law 93-42 of April 26, 1993, governs arbitration in Tunisia.  Certain provisions within the code are based on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) model law.  Tunisia has several domestic dispute resolution venues. The best known is the Tunis Center for Conciliation and Arbitration. When an arbitral tribunal does not adhere to the rules governing the process, either party can apply to the national courts for relief.  Unless the parties have agreed otherwise, an arbitral tribunal may, on the request of one of the parties, order any interim measure that it deems appropriate.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Parliament adopted in April 2016 a new bankruptcy law that replaced Chapter IV of the Commerce Law and the Recovery of Companies in Economic Difficulties Law.  These two laws had duplicative and cumbersome processes for business rescue and exit and gave creditors a marginal role. The new law increases incentives for failed companies to undergo liquidation by limiting state collection privileges.  The improved bankruptcy procedures are intended to decrease the number of non-performing loans and facilitate access of new firms to bank lending.

According to the World Bank Doing Business 2019 report, Tunisia’s recovery rate (how much creditors recover from an insolvent firm at the end of insolvency proceedings) is about 52 cents on the dollar, compared to 26.3 cents for MENA and 70.5 cents for OECD high-income countries.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

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 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 #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 offices of Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA) and the Agency for the Promotion of Industry and Innovation (APII) to receive incentives.

According to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2019 report, Tunisia’s overall ranking improved to 80 out of 190 countries from 88 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 and Digital Economy 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.

Performance Requirements

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).

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Secured interests in property are enforced in Tunisia.  Mortgages and liens are in common use, and the recording system is reliable.

Foreign and/or non-resident investors are allowed to lease any type of land, but can only acquire non-agricultural land.

A large portion of privately held land, especially agriculture land, has no clear title, and the government is investing a great deal of effort to encourage people to clear and register their properties.

Properties legally purchased must be duly registered to ensure they remain the property of their actual owners, even if they have been unoccupied for a long time.

According to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2019 report, registering a property in Tunisia is done in four steps, takes 39 days, and costs around 6.1 percent of the total property cost.

Intellectual Property Rights

Tunisia is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and signatory to the United Nations Agreement on the Protection of Patents and Trademarks.  The agency responsible for patents and trademarks is the National Institute for Standardization and Industrial Property (INNORPI — Institut National de la Normalisation et de la Propriété Industrielle).  Tunisia also is party to the Madrid Protocol for the International Registration of Marks. Foreign patents and trademarks should be registered with INNORPI.

Tunisia’s patent and trademark laws are designed to protect owners duly registered in Tunisia.  In the area of patents, foreign businesses are guaranteed treatment equal to that afforded to Tunisian nationals.  Tunisia updated its legislation to meet the requirements of the WTO agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS).

Copyright protection is the responsibility of the Tunisian Copyright Protection Organization (OTDAV — Office Tunisien des Droits d´Auteurs et des Droits Voisins), which also represents foreign copyright organizations.

If customs officials suspect a copyright violation, they are permitted to inspect and seize suspected goods.  For products utilizing foreign trademarks registered at INNORPI, the Customs Code empowers customs agents to enforce intellectual property rights (IPR) throughout the country.  Tunisian copyright law applies to literary works, art, scientific works, new technologies, and digital works. Its application and enforcement, however, have not always been consistent with foreign commercial expectations.  Print, audio, and video media are particularly susceptible to copyright infringement in Tunisia. Smuggling of illegal items takes place through Tunisia’s porous borders.

The 2009 Intellectual Property law greatly expanded the current scope of protections.  The minimum fine for counterfeiting is 10,000 Tunisian dinars (approximately USD 3,800), and copyright protection is valid for the holder’s lifetime.  Customs agents have the authority to seize suspected counterfeit goods immediately.  Tunisia’s 2014 constitution enshrined intellectual property protection in article 41.

In 2015, the GOT issued a decree defining registration and arbitration procedures for trade and service marks, and establishing a national trademark registry.  The new decree contained provisions governing the registration of trademarks under the Madrid Protocol and included improvements such as the extension of the deadline for opposition to the registration of trademarks, as well as the electronic filing of applications for trademarks registration.

The GOT is currently preparing a new decree to create an IPR Council in charge of drafting a national IPR strategy.

The registration of drugs in Tunisia requires that the product is both registered and marketed in the country of origin.  In 2005, Tunisia removed its restriction on pharmaceutical imports where there are similar generic products manufactured locally.

Resources for Rights Holders

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local intellectual property offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/  .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

Tunisia’s financial system is dominated by its banking sector, with banks accounting for roughly 85 percent of financing in Tunisia.  Overreliance on bank financing impedes economic growth and stronger job creation. Equity capitalization is relatively small; Tunisia’s stock market provided 13.2 percent of corporate financing in 2017 according to the Financial Market Council annual report.  Other mechanisms, such as bonds and microfinance, contribute marginally to the overall economy.

Created in 1969, the Bourse de Tunis (Tunis stock exchange) listed 82 companies as of December 2018.  The total market capitalization of these companies was USD 8.25 billion. During the last five years, the exchange’s regulatory and accounting systems have been brought more in line with international standards, including compliance and investor protections.  The exchange is supervised and regulated by the state-run Capital Market Board. Most major global accounting firms are represented in Tunisia. Firms listed on the stock exchange must publish semiannual corporate reports audited by a certified public accountant.  Accompanying accounting requirements exceed what many Tunisian firms can, or are willing to, undertake. GOT tax incentives attempt to encourage companies to list on the stock exchange. Newly listed companies that offer a 30 percent capital share to the public receive a five-year tax reduction on profits.  In addition, individual investors receive tax deductions for equity investment in the market. Capital gains are tax-free when held by the investor for two years.

Foreign investors are permitted to purchase shares in resident (onshore) firms only through authorized Tunisian brokers or through established mutual funds.  To trade, non-resident (offshore) brokers require a Tunisian intermediary and may only service non-Tunisian customers. Tunisian brokerage firms may have foreign participation, as long as that participation is less than 50 percent.  Foreign investment of up to 50 percent of a listed firm’s capital does not require authorization.

Money and Banking System

According to the Central Bank of Tunisia (CBT) annual report on banking supervision published in December 2018, Tunisia hosts 30 banks, of which 23 are onshore and seven are offshore.  Onshore banks include three Islamic banks, two microcredit and SME financing banks, and 18 commercial universal banks. After the fall of the former regime, companies, banks, and real estate that belonged to ousted President Ben Ali’s family were brought under GOT receivership and gradually privatized.

Domestic credit to the private sector provided by banks stood at 68.3 percent of GDP in 2017, per the CBT banking supervision report.  According to the World Bank, this level is higher than the MENA region average 56.7 percent. In the World Bank’s Doing Business 2019 survey, Tunisia’s ranking improved in terms of ease of access to credit from 105 in 2018 to 99 in 2019.  Tunisia’s banking system penetration has grown by 4 percent annually for the past five years. 87percent of banks are located in the coastal regions, with about 41 percent in the greater Tunis area alone.  Tunisia’s banking system activity is mainly within the 23 onshore banks, which accounted for 92 percent of assets, 93 percent of loans, and 97 percent of deposits in 2017. They offer identical services targeting Tunisia’s larger corporations.  Meanwhile, SMEs and individuals often have difficulty accessing bank capital due to high collateral requirements.

Foreign banks are permitted to open branches and establish operations in Tunisia under the offshore regime and are subject to the supervision of the Central Bank.

Government regulations control lending rates.  This prevents banks from pricing their loan portfolios appropriately and incentivizes bankers to restrict the provision of credit.  Competition among Tunisia’s many banks has the effect of lowering observed interest rates; however, banks often place conditions on loans that impose far higher costs on borrowers than interest rates alone.  These non-interest costs may include collateral requirements that come in the form of liens on real estate. Often, collateral must equal or exceed the value of the loan principal. Collateral requirements are high because banks face regulatory difficulties in collecting collateral, thereby adding to costs.  According to the CBT banking supervision report, nonperforming loans (NPLs) were at 13.9 percent of all bank loans in 2017, mostly in the industrial (27 percent) and tourism (18.9 percent) sectors.

Beyond the banks and stock exchange, few effective financing mechanisms are available in the Tunisian economy.  A true bond market does not exist, and government debt sold to financial institutions is not re-traded on a formal, transparent secondary market.  Private equity remains a niche element in the Tunisian financial system. Firms experience difficulty raising sufficient capital, sourcing their transactions, and selling their stakes in successful investments once they mature.  The microfinance market remains underexploited, with non-governmental organization Enda Inter-Arabe the dominant lender in the field.

The GOT recognizes two categories of financial service activity: banking (e.g., deposits, loans, payments and exchange operations, and acquisition of operating capital) and investment services (reception, transmission, order execution, and portfolio management).  Non-resident financial service providers must present initial minimum capital (fully paid up at subscription) of 25 million Tunisian dinars (USD 9.4 million) for a bank, 10 million dinars (USD 3.7 million) for a non-bank financial institution, 7.5 million dinars (USD 2.8 million) for an investment company, and 250,000 dinars (USD 94,450) for a portfolio management company.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

The Tunisian Dinar can only be traded within Tunisia, and it is illegal to move dinars out of the country.  The dinar is convertible for current account transactions (export-import operations, remittances of investment capital, earnings, loan or lease payments, royalties, etc.).  Central Bank authorization is required for some foreign exchange operations.  For imports, Tunisian law prohibits the release of hard currency from Tunisia as payment prior to the presentation of documents establishing that the merchandise has been shipped to Tunisia.

In 2018, the dinar depreciated 8.6 percent against the dollar and 12.9 percent against the Euro.

Non-residents are exempt from most exchange regulations.  Under foreign currency regulations, non-resident companies are defined as having:

  • Non-resident individuals who own at least 66 percent of the company’s capital, and
  • Capital fully financed by imported foreign currency.

Foreign investors may transfer funds at any time and without prior authorization.  This applies to principal as well as dividends or interest capital.  The procedures for repatriation are complex, however, and within the discretion of the Central Bank.  The difficulty in the repatriation of capital and dividends is one of the most frequent complaints of foreign investors in Tunisia.

There are no limits to the amount of foreign currency that visitors can bring to Tunisia to exchange into local currency.  However, amounts exceeding the equivalent of 25,000 dinars (USD 9,445) must be declared to customs at the port of entry.  Non-residents must also report foreign currency imports if they wish to re-export or deposit more than 5,000 dinars (USD 1,890).  Tunisian customs authorities may require currency exchange receipts on exit from the country.

Remittance Policies

Tunisia’s 2016 Investment Law enshrines the right of foreign investors to transfer abroad funds in foreign currency with minimal interference from the Central Bank.  Ministerial decree #417 of May 2018 stipulates that the Central Bank of Tunisia must decide on foreign currency remittance requests within 90 days.   In case of no response, the investor may contact the Higher Investment Authority, which will give final approval within 30 days.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

By decree #85-2011, the GOT established a sovereign wealth fund, “Caisse des Depots et des Consignations” (CDC), to boost private sector investment and promote small and medium enterprise (SME) development.  It is a state-owned investment entity responsible for independently managing a portion of the state’s financial assets. The CDC was set up with support from the French CDC and the Moroccan CDG (Caisse de Depots et de Gestion) and became operational in early 2012.  The original impetus for the creation of the CDC was to manage assets confiscated from the former ruling family as independently as possible in order to serve the public interest. More information is available about the CDC at www.cdc.tn  .

At the end of 2017, CDC had 6.4 billion dinars (USD 2.6 billion) in assets and 250 million dinars (USD 128 million) in capital.

All CDC investments are made locally, with the objective of boosting investments in the interior regions and promoting SME development.

The CDC is governed by a supervisory committee composed of representatives from different ministries and chaired by the Minister of Finance.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

State-owned enterprises (SOEs) are still prominent throughout the economy.  Many 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 staples and strategic items such as cereals, rice, sugar, and edible oil also remains under SOE control.

The GOT appoints senior management officials of SOEs, who report to the ministries responsible for the SOEs’ sectors of operation.  SOE boards of directors include representatives from various ministries and public stakeholders. 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.

Privatization Program

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.  Since 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 (car distribution), Carthage Cement (cement), City Cars (car distribution), 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.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

Tunisia adopted law #35 in June 2018 to encourage Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  The law requires companies to allocate a portion of their budgets to finance CSR projects such as those in sustainable development, green economy, and youth employment.  According to the law, an organization in charge of monitoring CSR projects will be created to ensure that the projects comply with the principles of good governance and sustainable development.  Tunisia is an adherent to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Since 1989, the public sector has been subject to a government procurement law that requires labor, environmental, and other impact studies for large procurement projects.  All public institutions are subject to audits by the Court of Auditors (Cour des Comptes).

The Tunisian Central Bank issued a circular in 2011 setting guidelines for sound and prudent business management and guaranteeing and safeguarding the interests of shareholders, creditors, depositors and staff.  The circular also established policies on recruitment, appointment, and remuneration, as well as dissemination of information to shareholders, depositors, market counterparts, regulators, and the general public.

The national point of contact for OECD for Multinational Enterprises guidelines is:

Abdelmajid Mbarek, Director
Ministry of Development, Investment, and International Cooperation
Avenue Mohamed V
1002 Tunis
Telephone: +216 7184 9596
Fax: +216 7179 9069
Email: a.mbarek@mdci.gov.tn

Tunisia has not yet joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).  However, Tunisia participated in the 7th world conference of the EITI in Lima, Peru, in 2016.

Per Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, projects related to commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals are subject to Parliamentary approval.

9. Corruption

U.S. investors report that routine procedures for doing business (customs, transportation, and some bureaucratic paperwork) are often tainted by corrupt practices.  Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 gave Tunisia a score of 43 out of 100 and a rank of 73 among 180 countries.  Regionally, Tunisia is ranked 7th for transparency among MENA countries and first in North Africa, ahead of Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, and Libya.  Most U.S. firms involved in the Tunisian market do not identify corruption as a primary obstacle to foreign direct investment.

In February 2017, Parliament passed law #2017-10 on corruption reporting and whistleblower protection.  The legislation was a significant step in the fight against corruption, as it establishes the mechanisms, conditions, and procedures for denouncing corruption.  Article 17 of the law provides protection for whistleblowers, and any act of reprisal against them is considered a punishable crime. For public servants, the law also guarantees the protection of whistleblowers against possible retaliation from their superiors.

Following the passage of the access to information and whistleblower protection laws, the government initiated an anti-corruption campaign led by the prime minister.  A series of arrests and investigations targeted well-known businesspersons, politicians, journalists, police officers, and customs officials.  Preliminary charges included embezzlement, fraud, and taking bribes.

In September 2017, the GOT established the Independent Access to Information Commission.  This authority was prescribed in the 2016 Access to Information Law to proactively encourage government agencies to comply with the new law and to adjudicate complaints against the government for failing to comply with the law.

Tunisia’s penal code devotes 11 articles to defining and classifying corruption and assigns corresponding penalties (including fines and imprisonment).  Several other regulations also address broader concepts of corruption. Detailed information on the application of these laws and their effectiveness in combating corruption is not publicly available, and there are no GOT statistics specific to corruption. The Independent Commission to Investigate Corruption, created in 2011, handled corruption complaints from 1987 to 2011.  The commission referred 5 percent of cases to the Ministry of Justice. In 2012, the commission was replaced by the National Authority to Combat Corruption, which has the authority to forward corruption cases to the Ministry of Justice, give opinions on legislative and regulatory anti-corruption efforts, propose policies and collect data on corruption, and facilitate contact between anti-corruption efforts in the government and civil society.

Post-2011 government efforts to combat corruption include:  the seizure and privatization of assets belonging to Ben Ali’s family members; assurances that price controls on food products, gasoline, etc., are respected; enhancement of commercial competition in the domestic market; establishment of a division within the Prime Minister’s Office dedicated to combatting corruption; arrests of corrupt businessmen and officials; and harmonization of Tunisian corruption laws with those of the European Union.

Since 1989, a comprehensive law designed to regulate each phase of public procurement has governed the public sector.  The GOT also established the Higher Commission on Public Procurement (HAICOP) to supervise the tender and award process for major government contracts.  The government publicly supports a policy of transparency. Public tenders require bidders to provide a sworn statement that they have not and will not, either by themselves or through a third party, make any promises or give gifts with a view to influencing the outcome of the tender and realization of the project.  Starting September 2018, the government imposed by decree that all public procurement operations be conducted electronically via a bidding platform called Tunisia Online E-Procurement System (TUNEPS). Despite the law, competition on government tenders appears susceptible to corrupt behavior. Pursuant to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), the U.S. Government requires that American companies requesting U.S. Government advocacy certify that they do not participate in corrupt practices.

Resources to Report Corruption

Contacts at agencies responsible for combating corruption:

Chawki Tabib
President
The National Anti-Corruption Authority (Instance Nationale de Lutte Contre la Corruption – INLUCC)
71 Avenue Taieb Mhiri, 1002 Tunis Belvédère – Tunisia
Telephone: +216 71 840 401 / Toll Free: 80 10 22 22
Email: contact@inlucc.tn
http://www.inlucc.tn 

“Watchdog” organization:

Achraf Aouadi
President
I WATCH Tunisia
14 Rue d’Irak 1002 Lafayette, Tunisia
Telephone: +216 71 844 226
Email: contact@iwatch.tn

10. Political and Security Environment

The end of 2019 will bring the country’s second set of parliamentary and presidential elections since its post-revolution constitution was ratified in 2014.  In the eight years since the revolution, Tunisia has made significant progress in the areas of civil society and rights-based reforms, but economic indicators continue to lag and have been a major force driving periodic protests.  While ideological differences with respect to religion dominate much of the political discord, differing economic ideologies — whether Tunisia will follow a statist economic model or a liberal one — have more tangible effects on policy.  The country’s first municipal elections, held in May 2018, were a critical first step in the decentralization process, which should help alleviate some of the economic disparity between the relatively wealthy coastal areas and the relatively poor interior of the country.

Two major terrorist attacks targeting the tourism sector occurred in 2015, killing dozens of foreign tourists at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and a beach hotel in Sousse.  Security conditions have markedly improved since then.  Travelers are urged to visit www.travel.state.gov  for the latest travel alerts and warnings regarding Tunisia.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Tunisia has a highly literate labor force of approximately 4.2 million.  The official 2018 unemployment rate was 15.4 percent; however, unemployment is estimated at 29.2 percent among university graduates and is even higher among degree-holding women.  Official statistics do not count underemployment or provide disaggregated data by geography.

In order to keep the unemployment rate at current levels, 60,000 new private sector jobs must be created each year.  Over the past two decades, the structure of the workforce remained relatively stable, and as of the last quarter of 2018 stood at 14 percent agriculture and fishing, 29.3 percent industrial, and 52 percent commerce and services. Tunisia has successfully developed its industrial sector and created low-skilled employment, although several manufacturers struggle to find qualified technical workers.  During 2018, Tunisia reduced the number of unemployed graduates by 8,500.

The right of labor to organize is protected by law.  Currently, four national labor confederations operate in Tunisia.  The oldest and largest is the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT — Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens). The others include the General Confederation of Tunisian Workers (CGTT — Confederation Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens), the Tunisian Labor Union (UTT — Union Tunisienne du Travail), created in May 2011, and the Tunisian Labor Organization (OTT — Organisation Tunisienne du Travail), created in August 2013.  UGTT claims about one third of the salaried labor force as members, although more are covered under UGTT-negotiated contracts.  Wages and working conditions are established through triennial collective bargaining agreements between the UGTT, the national employers’ association (UTICA — Union Tunisienne de l’Industrie, du Commerce, et de l’Artisanat), and the GOT.  These tripartite agreements set industry standards and generally apply to about 80 percent of the private sector labor force, regardless of whether individual companies are unionized.

Public Wage Increase:  On October 20, 2018, the GOT and UGTT reached an agreement to increase salaries for SOE employees.  Depending on grades and positions, increases ranged from 205 dinars to 270 dinars per month. Another wage increase agreement for the civil service was reached between the GOT and UGTT on February 7, 2019.  Depending on the job category, increases were from 135 to 180 dinars per month and implemented in several increments.

Private Wage Increase:  Negotiations between the UGTT and the employers union UTICA started March 2018 and concluded in September 2018 with an agreement to increase wages by 6.5 percent over three years.

Minimum Wage Increase:  On July 14, 2018, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed decided to raise the minimum wage (SMIG) by 6 percent retroactively, starting from May 2018 for the 48- and 40-hour work week regimes.  For the 48-hour regime, the minimum wage is 378.56 dinars per month. For the 40-hour regime, it is 323.43 dinars per month.

The minimum wage exceeds the poverty income level of 180 dinars per month.

12. OPIC and Other Investment Insurance Programs

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) has been active in the Tunisian market since 1963.  OPIC provides political risk insurance and financing to U.S. companies. OPIC has designed a number of investment funds that include Tunisia.  These funds cover, among other sectors, franchising and SME development. OPIC supports private U.S. investment in Tunisia and has sponsored several reciprocal investment missions.  In 2015, OPIC signed a credit guarantee facility agreement totaling USD 50 million with three Tunisian banks to increase access to capital for SMEs.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Tunisia

Host Country Statistical Source* USG or International Statistical Source USG or International Source of Data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2017 $40,000 2017 $39,951 www.worldbank.org/en/country   
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical Source* USG or International Statistical Source USG or International Source of Data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2017 $253 2017 $279 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data  
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) NA NA 2017 $19 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data  
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2017 52.4% 2017 71.3% UNCTAD data available at

https://unctad.org/en/Pages/DIAE/World%20Investment%20Report/Country-Fact-Sheets.aspx  

*Source: Tunisia’s Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA) yearend December 2017.


Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI

Direct Investment Flows From/in Tunisia in 2018 (excluding energy)
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward $692.15 100% Total Outward N/A N/A
1- France $236.82 34.2%
2- Qatar $181.24 26.2%
3- Italy $58.35 8.4%
4- Germany $51.55 7.4%
5- UAE $33.27 4.8%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

*Source: Tunisia’s Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA) yearend December 2018.

*Tunisia was not covered by the IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey (CDIS).


Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment

Portfolio Investment Assets in Tunisia in 2018
Top Five Partners (Millions, US Dollars)
Total Equity Securities Total Debt Securities
All Countries $46.88 100% All Countries N/A All Countries N/A

*Source: Tunisia’s Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA) yearend December 2018.

*Tunisia was not covered by the IMF’s Coordinated Portfolio Investment Survey (CPIS).

14. Contact for More Information

Embassy Tunis Commercial Section
Commercial Officer
U.S. Embassy Tunis, Les Berges du Lac, 1053, Tunisia
Telephone: +216 71 107 000
Email: TunisCommercial@state.gov

2019 Investment Climate Statements: Tunisia
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