Tunisia’s informal trade networks reflect growing trends: the country’s progressive shift away from Europe, and the rise of Turkey and China as major trade partners.
27 May 2021
Despite the heavy-handed approach to security that has been adopted at Tunisia’s land borders, informal cross-border trade continues to thrive. Land corridors have been shut down, but the continued dynamic activity in maritime corridors has compensated for this loss, allowing Turkish and Asian consumer goods adapted to the declining purchasing power of the Tunisian population to penetrate local markets. The dynamism of Tunisia’s maritime corridors owes much to the emergence of small entrepreneurs and underprivileged outsiders who operate informally through trade networks connecting Tunisian and Asian ports. Some well-established firms also have adopted informalization strategies to circumvent trade barriers and restrictions against bilateral trade between Turkey and Tunisia. The rise of these informal networks and approaches reflects a growing trend: the progressive shift of Tunisia’s trade away from Europe and the rise of Turkey and China as major trade partners.
Hamza Meddeb is a nonresident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on economic reform, political economy of conflicts, and border insecurity across the Middle East and North Africa.
Since 2013, the deterioration of the security situation in Tunisia—most notable in the assassinations of Tunisian politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013 and the terrorist attacks on foreign tourists in 2015—has led to an increased securitization of the border areas between Tunisia and its neighbors. However, even with more stringent border controls, the Tunisian authorities have been unable to reduce informal cross-border trade relations. In fact, Tunisia’s economy increasingly has been penetrated by flows of goods imported illegally or fraudulently, whether through the land corridors connecting Tunisia with its neighbors (namely Libya and Algeria) or through maritime corridors connecting Tunisian ports with Asian markets.
Over the years, the Tunisian government and observers usually have focused on the security issues involved in the rise of smuggling through land corridors. Yet this approach overshadows the importance of informal trade occurring through maritime corridors. According to a former Tunisian minister of trade, land corridors represent only 15 to 20 percent of the country’s total informal trade. The predominance of maritime corridors is not a new phenomenon; many already were operating under the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. However, after the closures and restrictions on land corridors—notably at the Tunisian-Libyan border, in response to the deteriorating security situation in Libya and the crackdowns on smuggling networks linked to terrorist groups—maritime corridors have become Tunisia’s preeminent illicit cross-border trade routes. The rise of these maritime networks likewise highlights the emergence of China and Turkey as Tunisia’s major trade partners over the past decade.
Since 2011, informal cross-border trade has been evolving and adapting to the security and regulatory changes on the ground. Tunisian authorities in the border regions, looking at the situation with a simplistic, naïve perspective that conflates informal trade with smuggling and terrorism, have responded with heavy-handed measures to suppress informal trade activity. Although this approach has reduced cross-border flows, it has had two major and counterproductive consequences: cross-border networks in the border regions have become more adept at evading state controls, and ports have become more important areas for informal trade. Beyond the resilience displayed by informal (as well as illicit) trade networks, the less visible but equally noteworthy development is that maritime routes and informal trade through ports have been key to supplying the Tunisian economy with more competitive equipment and consumer goods from China and Turkey. The dynamics of these maritime trade routes reflect a strategic and progressive shift in Tunisia’s trade relations toward Turkey and China and a progressive decoupling from Europe.
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