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Tunisian Envoy Honored as Ambassador of the Year by NUSACC

By Sarah Alaoui

In early December, more than 100 leaders across the business, government and diplomatic communities gathered at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to honor the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce’s (NUSACC)’s 2019 Ambassador of the Year, Fayçal Gouia of Tunisia.

“Few countries enjoy the across-the-board bipartisan support in the United States that Tunisia has achieved,” said David Hamod, NUSACC president and CEO. “This success is due in large part to the tireless efforts of Ambassador Gouia, who has faced Tunisia’s challenges in the United States with utmost dedication and professionalism.”

Gouia has spent a large portion of his career specifically strengthening ties between the U.S. and his North African homeland.

“Receiving an achievement award like this makes one reflect upon the past,” the ambassador told the audience. “I’ve been in diplomacy for the past 35 years, serving — in one way or another — almost my entire career in service to Tunisian-American relations.”

Gouia has held his current position since May 2015, but was also previously posted to the Tunisian Embassy in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s as a cultural and press counselor, an economic and commercial counselor, and then as the deputy chief of mission in 1999. Directly before his current posting, Gouia served as Tunisia’s secretary of state for foreign affairs during a critical period in Tunisia’s ongoing democratic transition.

NUSACC Ambassador of the Year Tunisia
Fayçal Gouia is recognized for his work promoting economic relations between the U.S. and Tunisia by the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC). Photos: NUSACC

By the time he returned to Washington in 2015, “The world witnessed many changes,” the ambassador reflected. “Tunisia, which has always been a haven of peace, tolerance and moderation, opened a new chapter in its modern history. Following our nation’s 2011 revolution, Tunisia’s democratic transition — driven by dialogue and moderation — has been acknowledged worldwide as a success story and a model to emulate.”

He added: “It is a fact that a stable and democratic Tunisia represents an asset in the region. Tunisia, as a bastion of freedoms, works hard to counter non-democratic forces and extremist ideologies that would thwart our evolution toward modern statehood.”

Tunisia has indeed been widely hailed as one of the rare, though still fragile, success stories of the Arab Spring. It was Tunisia’s so-called Jasmine Revolution in 2011, which ousted longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, that unleashed the Arab Spring uprisings throughout the region.

Unlike its neighbors such as Libya, Tunisia emerged from the political turmoil bruised but intact. After the overthrow of Ben Ali, who had ruled the North African nation for 23 years, the moderate Islamist Ennahdha party came to power. But it failed to jumpstart the moribund economy that drove protesters to the streets in the first place. And amid fears of growing extremism, the party’s Islamic leanings faced a backlash in the historically progressive nation.

NUSACC Ambassador of the Year Tunisia
Joey Hood, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said that, “Ambassador Gouia has played an instrumental role in Tunisia making inroads through his tireless work on behalf of his country and relationship-building across Washington.”

After a series of protests, Ennahdha leaders made the unprecedented move to resign in favor of a technocratic government. They also adopted a liberal constitution guaranteeing key rights; launched a widely lauded national dialogue; and ushered in the peaceful transfer of power to the more secular Nidaa Tounes party, earning worldwide praise.

Since then, Tunisia has pushed forward on its democratic journey. In October, a few months after Beji Caid Essebsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, died at the age of 92, Tunisia held an election in which Kais Saied, a conservative, Islamist-backed law professor and political outsider, overwhelmingly won the presidency. He has pledged to empower local governments and combat extremism while tackling the country’s endemic economic problems, including widespread youth unemployment. Saied said he hopes to bring jobs to Tunisia in part by working with U.S. companies such as Google and Microsoft.

Gouia acknowledged that his nation of 11 million still has a long way to go in addressing the economic grievances that fueled the Jasmine Revolution. The biggest challenge today is “transforming emotional support for Tunisia into tangible political, commercial and economic opportunities,” he said at the NUSACC luncheon, echoing his new president’s message that U.S. investment will be key to creating those much-needed opportunities.

Historically, the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Tunisia dates back more than 200 years, with Tunisia recognizing the U.S. in mid-1795 and the U.S. becoming the first major power to recognize Tunisian sovereignty following independence from France in 1956.

NUSACC Ambassador of the Year Tunisia
NUSACC President and CEO David Hamod, left, and George Pickart of GE, right, present Tunisia’s Fayçal Gouia with the Ambassador of the Year Award.

Since 2011, the U.S. has pledged more than $1.4 billion to support Tunisia in its post-revolution transition. A five-year agreement was recently signed by USAID to provide Tunisia with $335 million in financial aid to support private sector employment and improving governance. And a $100 million Tunisian-American Enterprise Fund was created to invest in sustainable growth and to spur greater opportunities for Tunisian small- and medium-sized enterprises, with a special focus on women, youth and interior regions of the country.

According to Hamod, NUSACC has hosted more delegations to Tunisia than any other country in the Arab world, and hosted more Tunisian officials in the U.S. than others in the region.

On the security front, Tunisia became the 16th country to become a major non-NATO ally of the U.S., giving it with privileges such as access to training, equipment, loans and foreign military financing. In 2017, the two countries also signed a five-year bilateral country action plan outlining security assistance in areas including counterterrorism and border security.

As a result of these close relations, bilateral trade between Tunisia and the U.S. grew to $1.2 billion in 2018, with Tunisia gaining increased entry into U.S. markets for its products such as handicrafts, dates and olive oil.

Tunisia’s top export, however, isn’t food but mechanical and electrical goods, which constitute more than 40 percent of all production in the country, according to NUSACC. The group noted that Tunisia has developed a cutting-edge manufacturing sector by producing electronic components in aviation and aeronautics for companies such as GE, a lead sponsor of the Ambassador of the Year event.

“In Tunisia, we go across all of our business lines: aviation, healthcare and power generation,” George Pickart, GE’s senior director of global government affairs and policy, said at the luncheon. “More important, we see Tunisia as a platform, a gateway, for a lot of our operations in Africa. That’s not only a function of geography; it’s really a function of the welcome atmosphere that GE finds in Tunisia.”

NUSACC Ambassador of the Year Tunisia
David Short, deputy assistant secretary of transportation for aviation and international affairs, said, “The U.S. Department of Transportation especially appreciates the ambassador’s efforts to revitalize our Open Skies negotiations, and we hope that during his time in Washington, D.C., we can conclude those negotiations as the basis for establishing nonstop flights between our two countries.”

Gouia has worked hard to roll out that welcome mat, visiting over 35 states to forge closer economic ties between the U.S. and Tunisia.

That includes Wyoming, whose National Guard has participated in a partnership program with Tunisia since 2004, facilitating military-to-military exchanges and engagement between government and civilian agencies. Because of this relationship, the U.S. and Tunisia signed their annual strategic bilateral agreement in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 2019 instead of in Tunis or Washington, D.C. Gouia is also the first ambassador in history to address a joint session of the state’s Senate and House of Representatives.

Congratulating Gouia for his award, Gov. Mark Gordon of Wyoming said, “You are clearly deserving of such recognition based upon your hard work for the Tunisian people. The United States is blessed to share one of Tunisia’s great treasures.”

NUSACC’s annual Ambassador of the Year Award was established in 2004 to honor members of the Arab diplomatic corps for their contributions to U.S.-Arab commercial ties. In 2018, the award was presented to Dina Kawar, the ambassador of Jordan to the U.S.

“I would like to recognize the effectiveness and superior performance of NUSACC in promoting economic exchange and cooperation between the Arab world and the United States,” said Gouia. “NUSACC has earned our full respect, support and commitment for its dedication to Arab-American business interests, including its longstanding partnership with the Republic of Tunisia.”

Attendees included more than 18 former and current ambassadors — the largest number in the award’s history — including American envoys to Tunisia. The event included a surprise visit from one of the ambassador’s daughters who made the trip from Paris.


Sarah Alaoui (@SarahAlaoui_) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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