Flight ban fuels consumer circus: Tunisians cash in on Libyan subsidies to create a cross-border boom

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The Independent Online
AT RAS AJDIR, a crossing point on the Libyan-Tunisian border, El-Mahdi Ben Lezrak was tying boxes and baskets on to the roof-rack of his battered, white estate car. Inside the car more boxes, as well as stacks of different goods, ensured that Mr Lezrak would have an uncomfortable journey from the border to his home town of Gabes, 120 miles away on the eastern coast of Tunisia, but he is used to it by now.

This was Mr Lezrak's return journey. Two days earlier he had bought goods - from pasta to spare parts for cars - in Tunisia and then driven to Tripoli to sell his cargo. Now he was going home with merchandise bought in Libya - but almost all the goods he was carrying are freely available, if not actually produced, in Tunisia.

This flourishing import-export black market exploits the difference in government subsidies and provides lucrative - and legal - work for many people in the region. Although the UN ban on flights to Libya a year ago did not create this flourishing trade, it did bring a massive increase in the number of people crossing at Ras Ajdir and created a mini-boom in Tunisia.

The cross-border trade in food and consumer goods owes its success to the mismanagement of the Libyan economy. Measures such as putting supermarkets under the control of People's Committees and issuing incomprehensible decrees on imports led to a shortage of basic items that the Libyans have grown accustomed to. Libyan consumers have plenty of cash in their pockets but still find it very hard to find goods, including spare parts for French and German cars, air-conditioning units, tinned food and clothing.

In neighbouring Tunisia, which is much smaller than Libya and has no oil but more than twice the population, shoppers are spoilt for choice in supermarkets no different from those in western Europe.

So every day, vans, minibuses and cars laden with goods pass through Ras Ajdir and head for Libyan-style car-boot sales in Tripoli. Each item sold fetches between twice and four times its cost in Tunisia. But no one would dream of taking back Libyan dinars, which are worthless in Tunisia. Instead, the traders return to Tunisia laden with goods bought in Libya.

Most of the traders return with merchandise that Colonel Gaddafi still allows his people to import. Among the items which Mr Lezrak bought in Libya last week were tins of tuna fish, olive oil and sugar, all from Tunisia.

These foodstuffs were exported from Tunisia to Europe and then imported by Libya; now they are imported back into Tunisia. No matter how absurd the situation might seem, it has its own logic: all the items bought in Tripoli are subsidised by the Libyan government and consequently cost less than 40 per cent of their retail price in Tunisia.

Even before the ban on flights to Libya, many Lebanese businessmen based in Europe began to organise the cross-border trade - which economists in Tunisia estimate to be worth tens of millions of dollars each year. The ban on flights has merely added a bonus: people to carry in and out of Libya, to and from Tunisia's Djerba airport.

Tunisian officials, who are trying to play down this roaring travel trade, refuse to reveal how big it is, but the number of flights from Djerba - designed for some internal flights and tourist charter flights in high season - has increased threefold in a year.