Close up of two children holding hands on the beach sand, summertime friendship concept. Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

America’s fastest-growing city is becoming the key driver in reviving the fortunes of the Arab world’s first representative democracy – Tunisia – through the nascent Sister City partnership between Baltimore, Maryland, and the ancient and strategic port city of Bizerte.

Tunisia’s strategic importance was formalized by then US president Barack Obama when he declared that the North African nation was America’s most strategic non-NATO US ally, and the nation’s strategic importance for the US continues with President Donald Trump under the leadership of US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Dr Kamel Ben Amara, the newly elected mayor of Bizerte, said that his first order of business will be to formalize the Baltimore Bizerte Sister City and make it an engine for business to business and people to people dialogue.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh greenlighted the historic Sister City partnership to be celebrated on November 26, 2018, following a meeting with the then highest elected official of Bizerte, Tunisian MP Ali Belakhoua, at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, DC on September 20, 2017.

The Sister City relationship between Baltimore and Bizerte is already connecting the most influential leaders of the global economy, such as Baltimore natives David Rubenstein,  The Carlyle Group’s co-founder and co-chairman, and Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman along with Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank and the business leaders of the future economic powerhouse of Africa.

Bizerte and Baltimore have much in common. They are both important port cities located only a 45-minute drive from their respective national capitals and are noted for excellence in culture/education and diversified industries.

Tunisia – like Baltimore – celebrates its diversity. Muslims, Christians and Jews truly pray, work and play together, and it is also the country in Africa and the Arab world with the longest and strongest tradition of female empowerment and the protection of fundamental civil rights.

Because the country serves as a model for the Arab world and Africa, Tunisia has been a target of ISIS terrorism and underhanded sabotage from certain developed and developing countries that either want the Tunisian democratic experiment to fail or fear Tunisia as an economic competitor.

Taking over from Belakhoua to develop the Port of Bizerte is Bizerte’s mayor and Ennadha party member, Dr Kamel Ben Amara.

Ben Amara is the first democratically elected mayor of Bizerte in the post-Ben Ali Tunisia following municipal elections on May 6, 2018.

Ben Amara and Belkahoua have been been fighting for years to re-establish Bizerte as a leading port in the southern Mediterranean. Belakhoua is a Tunisian-American engineer who started his career working for Towson, Maryland-based Black & Decker while Ben Amara worked for 23 years as a senior manager for Qatar Petroleum in Doha.

Ben Amara and Belakhoua initiated the Sister Cities partnership talks between Bizerte and Baltimore with the city’s then newly elected mayor, Catherine E Pugh.

The main focus of the partnership, says Belakhoua, will be a knowledge transfer related to the Port of Baltimore and business-to-business alliances between Baltimore-based small to medium-sized businesses with their counterparts in Tunisia.

As a first step, Belakhoua had met with the staff of US Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) to request that the US Army Corps of Engineers carry out a detailed environmental impact and economic feasibility study for the Port of Bizerte. Van Hollen – who insiders say is eyeing a run for president in 2020 – told Capitol Intelligence that he supports a US-led P3 investment for Bizerte and that such a project can create significant jobs and opportunities for companies such as Peter Bowe’s Baltimore-based Ellicott Dredges LLC.

Economic development of Tunisia is a top priority for the new Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) under Trump. In fact, OPIC is now chaired directly by US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and OPIC President Ray Washburne has been elevated to the National Security Council by Trump.

The US administration is becoming increasingly concerned that if it does not move on Bizerte, it will be beaten out by Chinese companies linked to Beijing.

Belakhoua told Capitol Intelligence that he stumbled on a group of Chinese managers representing Chinese government companies who told him that they are looking at investing in the Port of Bizete.

In fact, one of the issues raised during the last Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group was pursuing a strategic partnership and alliance with the Port of Rotterdam to operate and manage the new deep-sea port of Bizerte.

Answering a question from Capitol Intelligence during the SelectUSA Investment Summit held at National Harbor, Maryland, US Commerce Secretary Ross said he will be leading a major US trade mission to Tunisia and Egypt this autumn.

The missions to Tunisia and Egypt, which will follow a trade mission to Ghana, are all part of Trump’s business first approach to foreign policy.

There are current co-financing talks between Italy’s largest bank, Intesa Sanpaolo, and Washburne’s OPIC that will likely include OPIC investments in Beirut–based mobile phone carrier Africell and Bob Diamond’s acquisition of a controlling stake in Union Bank of Nigeria via Ashish Thakkar’s Atlas Mara.

OPIC’s Washburne is also seeking help from Intesa Sanpaolo Chairman Gian Maria Gros-Pietro regarding Secretary Ross’s upcoming mission to Tunisia and Egypt – as Intesa Sanpaolo, through its Bank of Alexandia subsidiary, one of the largest foreign banks operating in the MENA region.

The US administration is becoming increasingly concerned that if it does not move on Bizerte, it will be beaten out by Chinese companies linked to the Chinese government

The US administration is becoming increasingly concerned that if it does not move on Bizerte, it will be beaten out by Chinese companies linked to the Chinese government.

Ali Belakhoua told Capitol Intelligence that he stumbled on a group of Chinese managers representing Chinese government companies who told him they were looking at investing in the Port of Bizerte.

A major investment in Bizerte would follow other Chinese moves to acquire strategic assets in US-friendly areas, such as Chinese shipping giant Cosco’s takeover of Greece’s Port of Pireaus and the defacto takeover of the Horn of Africa nation, Djibouti.

During a major national security policy speech in December, Trump said China and Russia “seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth. We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest.”

The White House-released National Security Strategy said, “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

While speaking at a conference on Chinese infrastructure investment hosted by Washington’s most influential think tank, the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), in Washington, Bechtel Corporation Chairman and CEO Brendan Bechtel noted that America’s largest construction group has been pushed out of the global top 10 list by Chinese state-controlled rivals.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III told Capitol Intelligence that they both support the Baltimore-Bizerte Sister City partnership with its key “knowledge transfer” exchange between the Port of Baltimore and the Port of Bizerte.

The Baltimore/Bizerte Sister City arrangement has also attracted the attention of Baltimore’s powerful and influential congressman, Elijah Cummings (D-MD). Cummings, who serves as the ranking member of the US House Committe on Oversight and Government Reform, will be elevated as OGR Committee chairman if the Democrats win the mid-term elections in November.

The Port of Baltimore is seen as a model for private-public partnership as its partnership with Oaktree Capital Management unit Highstar Capital allowed the State of Maryland to reap US$1.8bn in economic benefits and create 5,700 jobs without spending taxpayer money. Baltimore, with its deep-sea (Panamex) port has become the most efficient port on the East Coast.

Baltimore is also one of the most important financial centers in the United States as it is the headquarters of US asset management giant Legg Mason and the United States headquarters of TransAmerica Corporation subsidiary of Dutch multinational financial services conglomerate Aegon NV.

Tunisia is currently the world’s best market for direct foreign investment as major multilateral private-sector funding organizations such as the United States government’s OPIC, the IFC, the European Investment Bank (EIB), the EBRD, and the African Development Bank (AfDB) have billions of dollars earmarked to support private-sector investment in the country and major private-public infrastructure projects such as the expansion of the Port of Bizerte.

While Bizerte is destined to become a major port in the SEMED (southern and eastern Mediterranean region), most probably the destination of choice for fast-moving consumer goods, specialty manufacturing (oil services) and agriculture, Enfidha Hammamet Airport, located 45 minutes south of Tunis, is destined to become the air cargo hub for the African continent

Memphis, Tennessee-based FedEx Corporation has already started looking at Enfidha airport as its regional logistic hub for North Africa and Africa. In previous comments to Capitol Intelligence, Fedex CEO Fred Smith said he has asked his management team to study the option.

Enfidha airport, which now serves only a handful of flights a day, is a US$200m-plus green-field airport financed by the AfDB and operated by Turkey’s TAV Group.

Fred Smith is not the only major operator looking at Enfidha. According to UPS sources, Atlanta, Georgia-based UPS CEO David Abney is looking at transferring the company’s current cargo operations from Tunis-Carthage International to Enfidha.

“Dubai makes sense for cargo moving from Asia to Africa and Europe, and Tunisia is perfect for Europe to Africa and US to Africa and North Africa,” one air freight executive said.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has been working closely with a Tunisian industrialist, Groupe Loukil CEO Bassem Loukil, to market Tunisia as the African gateway for US, European and Asian companies.

During an interview at the FIPA Tunisian Investment Forum on November 9, 2017, in Tunis, Loukil said he is building out his business     in a way that involves healthcare, construction and energy storage businesses in countries such as Burkina Faso, Benin and now the newly re-opened market of Sudan.

Loukil said he is ready and more than willing to work with US and European companies in partnership or on a turn-key basis in African high-growth markets. Loukil said he is also willing to entertain selling minority stakes in some of Loukil’s subsidiaries to qualified US, European or Asian private-equity investors on a pre-IPO basis.

Loukil said foreign partners can exploit Tunisia’s access to funding and loan guarantees from the EBRD, IFC, MIGA, US OPIC and African Development Bank combined with the safety and political stability of an almost EU-like nation.

Tunisia, like Baltimore, punches well over their perceived weight class and the real gems are the country’s small to medium-sized enterprises such as Bizerte-based Almia Refrigeration Group. It builds, designs and supplies leading luxury hospitality groups such as Toronto, Canada-based Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest businessman, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal; the Ritz Carlton brand of the  Bethesda, Maryland-based Marriott International; and China’s HNA Group-controlled McClean, Virginia-based Hilton Hotels & Resorts.

In a recent interview in Bizerte, Alimia part owner and marketing and sales manager Selim Almia said the company would now like to expand into the United States and is talking to several US-based refrigeration groups for the roll out.

Tunisia is experiencing a veritable renaissance in its agriculture sector thanks to the economic sanctions against Russia and the EU for Russian President Vladmir Putin’s decision to annex Crimea and the Kremlin’s tacit support for eastern Ukraine separatists.

In ancient times, Carthage served as the bread basket of Rome, and now Tunisia serves as a breadbasket for the Russian Federation.

One of the beneficiaries of the US/EU agriculture export ban is the Misurata, Libya-based diary group Al-Naseem Food Industries founder and CEO Mohamed Raied.

Not only was Raied able to successfully run his business during the revolution to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Qadaffi, he has also been able to keep producing and distributing high-quality ice cream, milk and yogurt in the chaos of Libya today.

Mohamed Raied recently acquired the Tunisian operations of Vevey, Switzerland-based food giant Nestle SA and is the controlling shareholder of Tunisia’s Generale Industrielle Alimentaire Slama (Slama-Gias), which is known for its Goldina margarine brands.

Tunisia being the gateway market for US tech companies should not be a surprise considering that the United States signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tunisia in 1797, the first bilateral treaty signed by the United States with a foreign power.

In fact, the Baltimore-Bizerte initiative has already triggered talks to open the first foreign branch of the National Urban League in Bizerte.

The Urban League is the oldest community-based civil rights organization in the United States and operates 34 chapters across the United States and in all major urban metro areas such as Baltimore, New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

National Urban League President Marc Morial told Capitol Intelligence that the bi-partisan Urban League is open to a “knowledge transfer” of its work regarding education, access to capital, and training with Tunisia’s young and vibrant democracy.

Tunisia, on the other hand, can teach the United States how race and religion can co-exist in harmony.

On December 7, 1864, Tunisia made an impassioned plea to president Abraham Lincoln to follow the North African nation in abolishing slavery.

“O, inhabitants of America. Humanity invites you to eradicate from your Constitution all that can give countenance to the principle of slavery. Pity the slave. God loves the merciful among his worshippers. Be then ye merciful to those upon earth, that He who is in heaven may be merciful to you.”

North Africa, especially Tunisia and Libya, were at the center of talks between Trump and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during their meeting at the Oval Office on July 30.

While the news media focused on Conte’s comments regarding immigration, Trump announced that the US and Italy reached an accord to provide mutual support regarding the stablization of Libya and Tunisia.

In a brief interview in Rome, Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said he is personally spearheading efforts to use private sector investment as a tool to stop uncontrolled migrant flows from stateless Libya and shore up the Tunisian economy.

Revived economic prosperity will be seen when Bizerte’s Kamel Ben Amaraand Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh sign a historic Sister City agreement in front of the USS Constellation moored in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

The USS Constellation was the American merchantman from which a contingent of eight US Marines trekked nearly a thousand kilometers across the Libyan desert during the Battle of Derna in 1805.

Copyright of Capitol Intelligence Group – Turning Swords into Equity®.

PK Semler

Peter K Semler is the chief executive editor and founder of Capitol Intelligence. Previously, he was the Washington, DC, bureau chief for Mergermarket (Dealreporter/Debtwire) of the Financial Times and headed political and economic coverage of the US House of Representatives and Senate.