Tunisia Feels Heat from the GCC

by Giorgio Cafiero and Khalid al-Jaber

On December 22, tension between Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) heated up. Citing “credible security information” about militant female members of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) planning on entering the UAE with Tunisian passports, the Dubai-based airline Emirates banned Tunisian women on all Dubai-bound flights. Due to preexisting friction in bilateral relations, Emirati authorities avoided informing their Tunisian counterparts in advance. Two days later, Tunisia’s government suspended all Tunis-bound Emirates flights. Then, in this tit-for-tat spat, the Emiratis responded by indefinitely cancelling all flights between the UAE and Tunisia.

Although officials in Tunisia, which is home to 3,000-6,000 foreign recruits who joined IS ranks in Iraq and Syria, acknowledged legitimate security concerns, the ban has created outrage in Tunisia. Tunisian unions and women’s rights groups have pressured the country’s politicians into taking a unified stance against the UAE’s decision, as have scores of civil society groups and social media users who strongly condemned the blanket ban.

The spat is heightening tension in Tunis-Abu Dhabi relations, which has built up since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. Although not an economic, cultural, or political center of the Arab world, Tunisia is widely recognized as the catalyst of the Arab Spring revolts that the UAE has seen as highly destabilizing. Moreover, the North African country’s transition since 2011 has alarmed the UAE due to Tunisia’s impact on the greater Arab world’s future. Specifically, the UAE opposes the “Tunisian model” based on inclusion of all non-violent elements of the political spectrum, including Islamists who respect pluralism and democratic practices. Officials in Abu Dhabi are deeply unsettled by the possibility of Libya, where the UAE has high stakes, and other Arab countries embracing the “Tunisian model.”

The UAE, like other Arab states, has a history of Islamists pursuing political and social aims that unsettle the rulers and have led to widespread crackdowns and jailing of Muslim Brotherhood figures. Thus, the UAE is worried that Islamists could cement power in Tunisia and in other countries in the Maghreb, from where the Ennahda Movement can either directly or indirectly add momentum to Islamist movements in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

Tunisians currently angry with the UAE understand Abu Dhabi’s action as merely the latest pressure imposed on their country by the UAE since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 2011 ouster. In 2015, for example, UAE authorities denied visa applications of businessmen from Tunisia at a time when Tunisians already had difficulties renewing permits to work in the GCC country. Interestingly, like last month’s female passenger ban, the stated purpose was Tunisian militants who joined IS, yet none of the Tunisian nationals denied visas had any affiliations with violent extremism.

Tunisia was a close ally of the UAE under Ben Ali’s reign. After the Jasmine Revolution, however, Tunis shifted away from Abu Dhabi and toward Doha. Al Jazeera’s critical coverage of Ben Ali over the years won Qatar favor with Tunisia’s new government, and the Qatari state-owned network certainly influenced realities on the ground during the anti-regime protests of 2010 and 2011. By 2012, Doha and Tunis signed 10 agreements in investment and construction, and Tunisian armed forces took part in military drills in Qatar. The UAE was unsettled by Qatar’s growing influence in Tunisia and other Maghrebi states where Doha backed certain Islamists, a factor that helped drive the UAE and other Arab states to blockade Qatar seven months ago.

The GCC’s Qatar rift, coupled with mounting tension between the UAE and Turkey, added new friction to Tunis-Abu Dhabi relations last year. Tunisia has maintained an officially neutral position in the Qatar crisis. Yet by staying out of the Saudi/UAE-led bloc—known as the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—and expressing support for Turkey’s futile efforts to mediate between the ATQ and Doha, Tunis has clearly not been on the same page with the UAE. Ultimately, Tunisia and Qatar maintain close ties, rooted in Qatar’s investments in the North African country that started in the 1990s. Qatar’s support for Tunisia following the 2011 revolution is another major reason why Tunis has responded to the GCC’s row neutrally without succumbing to any Emirati/Saudi pressure to sever ties with Doha. Simultaneously, Tunisian firms have played an important role in cooperating with Qatar in agriculture and aquaculture, helping Doha meet new food security requirements since the ATQ’s blockade went into effect almost seven months ago.

Not only is Tunisia’s amicable relationship with Qatar fueling more tension in Tunis’ ties with Abu Dhabi, but Tunisia’s relations with Turkey and Iran are doing so too. In light of harsh rhetoric exchanged between Turkey and the UAE throughout 2017—most recently underscored by the fallout from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s Jerusalem summit in Istanbul—and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Tunis last month, the UAE perceives Tunisia as too close to Qatar and Turkey and other states in the region that sponsor groups that Abu Dhabi designates as terrorist organizations. Indeed, Tunis’s diplomatic engagement with Tehran shortly after the Qatar crisis erupted illustrated how Tunisia does not share Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s vision of uniting the Sunni Arab world against Tehran on their terms.

Ultimately, the UAE may find it difficult to pressure Tunisia into pivoting away from Abu Dhabi’s regional adversaries. Tunisia’s top import and export partners are China, European Union members, and fellow North African countries—not the UAE or other GCC states. How much economic leverage Abu Dhabi can actually wield over Tunis is unclear. Tunisians generally favor Doha in the ongoing GCC crisis albeit although a minority is sympathetic to the ATQ and staunchly anti-Qatari. Nonetheless, unless Tunis and Abu Dhabi can settle this recent spat, odds are good that more Tunisians will see their country as a victim of Emirati geopolitical maneuvers that may push Tunis closer to Doha.

Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of Gulf International Forum (@GulfIntlForum), an independent institute based in Washington, DC that is aimed at educating the public on the Gulf region.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.