x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Tunisian pride revives business group

The Tunisian Business Council in Dubai has seen an increase in the number of active members since the revolution in their home country earlier this year.

Anis Ghamgui, third from right, meets with fellow members of the Tunisian Business Council on Thursday in Dubai.
Anis Ghamgui, third from right, meets with fellow members of the Tunisian Business Council on Thursday in Dubai.

DUBAI // Before the revolution back home in January, the Tunisian banker Anis Ghamgui had nothing to do with his nation's business council in the Emirates.

Many Tunisians associated the organisation - which, like other national business councils, is linked to the embassy - with the distrusted government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

But after the long-time president's overthrow, Mr Ghamgui became the business council's treasurer. In between travelling abroad for work and welcoming his first baby, he has met with fellow board members regularly, even using a few days' paternity leave to do the group's work.

The Tunisian Business Council in Dubai has been revitalised thanks to revolution-inspired professionals like Mr Ghamgui. Believing the group is now free from political interference, they are eager to channel their business skills and resources through it to help rebuild their country.

"It's amazing what's happening there," said Mr Ghamgui, 37, the executive director of a major international bank.

"I don't think there's as glorious a feeling as when you contribute to your country and your community. This is what is driving a lot of people. We want to participate as much as possible."

In April, the council held what leaders called their first democratic elections for a nine-member executive committee. Membership more than doubled to over 70. The group held its first major event in June, raising Dh750,000 for the Tunisian Red Crescent.

An investment conference for Tunisia is planned for this year, as are panel discussions on how to rebuild the country - where growth has nearly halted and unemployment, which sparked the revolution, has risen from 14 per cent last year to 19 per cent this year.

Before January, members tried to cultivate investment but felt restrained by the fear of government interference, said the council's president, Abderraouf El May, and the Tunisian consul-general Kamel Ben Hassine, both of whom were involved with the group previously.

"Before the revolution in Tunisia, people ... didn't agree a lot with what the government did," Mr Ben Hassine said. "They didn't want to be involved with anything regarding the government and the family of the ex-president. After the revolution, people are free and they have the hope that they can participate in the change in Tunisia."

Previously, the council's leaders were not elected by members as they are now, the men said.

Mr El May said that some businesspeople, such as himself, were appointed by the embassy. Or, he said, members might receive a list of candidates with the same number of names as the number of positions available.

In the recent election, however, 14 candidates ran for the executive committee. Six of seven new members and three of seven previous members won positions, Mr El May said.

Some businesspeople wonder, though, whether pre-revolution members have simply rebranded themselves.

"Everybody can jump and say, 'I am here, the hero of this revolution'," said a Tunisian expatriate familiar with the previous council who declined to be named. "Before January 14, he can say this?"

Others felt that, despite doubts about the "old regime," they were still willing to participate - while keeping a close eye on developments.

"We were expecting all of us, before moving ahead, that there is dramatic and important change in the behaviour in the membership, in the drivers, in the objectives," said Amor ben Dhia, a new member of the council and the chief executive of a telecommunications company. "I think that happened, even though a few of the old members remain."

Mr ben Dhia said he would watch closely for results - measured not in the number of events but in investment brought to Tunisia, ideally US$150 million (Dh551m) a year.

He said he felt promise in the leaders he had met, and in the new sense of freedom at the council.

"Its new environment - this kind of freedom of doing, of thinking, of discussing, of planning, of proposing - was absolutely a big driver for me to get involved," he said. "Without that freedom, I would not have joined."