1. (S) In the latest in a long string of questionable business deals, the Ben Ali clan has recently entered the banking business, assuming leadership of Tunisia’s most profitable private bank — Banque de Tunisie (BT). In April, Alya Abdallah, wife of Foreign Minister Abdalwahab Abdallah, became President of BT, replacing Faouzi Bel Kahia, the highly respected banker who held the post for 16 years.
According to an Embassy banking contact, Bel Kahia was forcibly removed to create an opening for Abdallah. Since taking office, Abdallah has replaced three members of the board — two of them former ministers — with insiders such as Belhassen Trabelsi, the President’s brother-in-law and oft-cited as the ringleader behind Ben Ali clan corruption (Refs C, D, E, F). Abdallah also canceled a decision taken by shareholders to increase the number of shares. BT shares have fallen nearly 25 percent since the changes. End Summary.
Mrs. Abdallah’s Power Play
2. (S) Alya Abdallah, wife of Foreign Minister Abdelwahab Abdallah, was appointed President of Banque de Tunisie (BT) in April, replacing Faouzi Bel Kahia, the highly respected banker who held the post for 16 years. Abdallah was officially nominated by the board of directors and her position will be ratified by BT shareholders at the next general assembly. BT is Tunisia,s most profitable and best managed private bank. While most Tunisian banks remain saddled with non-performing loans, BT’s assets are strong and 2007 net profits are expected to be in the neighborhood of 160 million dinars. Although Abdallah comes to BT from her position as chairman of the board at Union Internationale de Banque (UIB — majority-owned by Societe Generale), Embassy contacts are quick to point out she is not qualified for either position.
3. (S) Prior to UIB, Abdallah’s only banking experience was as the head of human resources at state-owned Societe Tunisienne de Banque (STB). As one contact, a former bank chairman himself, complained, « she has never been a banker and has no financial experience. » Abdallah’s tenure at UIB is reported to have been rocky, with stories of shouting matches between Abdallah and the French General Manager.
According to the former bank chairman, Abdallah asked Central Bank Governor Taoufik Baccar to get rid of the GM. The GM was asked to leave the country, which he did. Abdallah then asked Baccar for a new position, with her sights on Banque de Tunisie’s presidency.
Out With the Old…
4. (S) Although BT and former president Bel Kahia enjoy excellent reputations in the Tunisian banking community, several factors made BT ripe for takeover. BT is fully private, but held by numerous small shareholders, with the largest stakeholder — French Industrial and Commercial Credit (CIC) — holding only 20 percent of the bank. Faouzi Bel Kahia is reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis.
Although Bel Kahia’s illness provided this opening, rumors indicate and an Embassy contact in the industry confirmed that Bel Kahia was pushed out. Bel Kahia had wanted to stay through the bank’s General Assembly, during which BT’s stellar 2007 profits will be reported. According to this contact, Bel Kahia was visited twice by Baccar: during the first visit Bel Kahia pleaded to stay, but during the second visit Baccar told him he was out, to which Bel Kahia is reported to have responded with tears. The contact noted that the level of the governor’s intervention in this situation was unprecedented. Bel Kahia was rumored to have chosen a successor, who had already been approved by the board. While not currently involved in politics, Bel Kahia is a friend of the regime, serving previously as Minister of Transport and Director General of state-owned Tunisair.
Since assuming her new position, Abdallah has removed three members of the board — Abderrazak Rasaa, former Deputy Minister of Finance, Ilyes Jouini, Professor at Dauphine University in Paris, and Tijani Chelli, a former Minister of Public Works, Minister of Telecommunications and Minister of Economy,
In With the New
5. (S) Although the departure of three notable board members is a surprise, it was one replacement in particular that drew the attention, and ire, of the Tunisian business community.
Abdallah named Belhassen Trabelsi, the President’s brother-in-law and widely believed to be the key player in Ben Ali clan corruption, to the bank’s board of directors and also to the credit committee. Trabelsi has reportedly been involved in a wide range of corruption schemes — with stories ranging from him setting up shop in a gas station across from the airport to facilitate customs shipments in return for large bribes and to expropriating property at will from hapless homeowners. In February, Trabelsi began buying huge numbers of BT shares (20,000 a day), drawing attention to his interest in the bank. His current stake in BT is unknown. In addition to Trabelsi, Lotfi Hamrouni, chairman of the Hamrouni Group, and Ali Bakir, SFBT (Tunis Refigeration and Brewing Company) — Tunisia’s Coca-Cola bottler, were named to the board.
6. (S) In addition to changing the composition of the board, Abdallah cancelled a communique issued by the shareholders prior to her arrival. The shareholders signed a Pacte d’Actionnaires to double their shares and increase bank capital. The former banker characterized the pacte as an effort by shareholders to protect their influence within the bank. BT shares have fallen 25 percent since Abdallah cancelled the communique. The former bank chairman noted that control of BT is a significant boon to the family, giving them a financial tool at their disposal with which they can acquire and finance new ventures. As such, bank performance is a secondary concern.
7. (S) Tunisia’s financial sector is already plagued by high-levels of non-performing loans, many of which are a result of corrupt banking practices. Belhassen Trabelsi’s position on any bank board, or credit committee, would be significant cause for concern. In the case of BT, his participation jeopardizes the integrity of Tunisia’s premiere banking institution. Moreover, the Central Bank Governor’s involvement in this scenario casts doubt on his ability or willingness to serve as an independent actor. Serious efforts at banking sector reform were just dealt a heavy blow.
8. (S) Tunisians are unable to complain publicly, but do so loudly in private about crony capitalism and ill-gotten gains. Rumors of familial corruption have become widespread in Tunisia, with Banque de Tunisie just one of many examples.
Despite their frustration, many Tunisians are quick to absolve Ben Ali of any direct responsibility and lay the blame squarely on the Trabelsis. Yet, claims that he is unaware of the situation strain credibility. GOT insiders and the President’s extended family are reaping the benefits from Ben Ali’s continued reign, but in doing so have undermined the effectiveness and credibility of the government. Even if the money is not flowing into Ben Ali’s bank account, he bears responsibility for what happens on his watch. The economic impact is clear, with Tunisian investors fearing the long-arm of the family — forgoing new investments, keeping domestic investment rates low and unemployment high (Refs A, B). Faced with high unemployment and high prices, Tunisians are simultaneously confronted with obvious corruption and conspicuous displays of wealth. The frustration is palpable, but it appears there is no end in sight. End Comment.
Please visit Embassy Tunis’ Classified Website at: http://www.state.sgov.gov/p/nea/tunis/index.c fm