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Tunisian PM visits Saudi Arabia after invite from Mohammed Bin Salman

Trip comes two weeks after a visit by the controversial Saudi crown prince to the North African country
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (L) and President Beji Essebsi (AFP)

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed started a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia on Thursday, despite public anger towards a visit by the Saudi crown prince to the North African country two weeks ago.

According to a government statement, the visit “comes at the request of the Saudi crown prince...and is part of pushing bilateral relations between the two countries to wider horizons”.

A visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman to Tunisia on 27 November sparked protests by activists and journalists who dismissed it as an attempt to whitewash his image in the wake of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports that Bin Salman ordered the killing.

The visit was part of a regional tour that included Egypt, Bahrain and Algeria and was the crown prince’s first foreign trip after the Khashoggi assassination. Tunisia’s visit was the first by a member of the Saudi royal family since the 2011 revolution that toppled autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

During the protests, Tunisian journalists showed their distaste at his assassination by unveiling a giant poster down the side of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists' headquarters.

The poster showed the crown prince carrying a chainsaw, a reference to the way Khashoggi was dismembered by the Saudi hit men inside their consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

MBS met Tunisia’s president during the visit, and told Tunisian state television that Saudi Arabia has long had good relations with Tunisia.

"I cannot come to North Africa without visiting Tunisia...Tunisia's president is like my father," said MBS.

A Tunisian presidency statement issued later said the two officials reviewed ways to improve cooperation on the "economy and finance, investment promotion and security and military cooperation to counter extremism and terrorism".

Chahed’s visit raises questions about a possible power struggle between him and President Essebsi who installed his son Hafedh Essebsi to lead the Nida Tounes party, Tunisia’s second most powerful party in parliament. Chahed is a former member of Nida Tounes but he was suspended after a fallout between him and the two Essebsis last summer.

Chahed’s suspension has given way to a new bloc in parliament that has cost Nida Tounes its parliamentary majority, as nearly half its MPs defected to join the National Alliance, a new bloc formed by Chahed and expected to establish a political party early next year.

The visit also points to potential Saudi attempts to influence Tunisian politics ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for December 2019.

Following Bin Salman’s amicable meeting with Essebsi in Tunisia last month, former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki accused Essebsi of joining the Emirati-Saudi camp by “demanding corrupt political money,” despite the Gulf countries’ role in “jeopardising the democratic process” in Tunisia.

During the Saudi leader's visit, Tunisia sealed a number of deals, according to Bloomberg, including a $500m loan at favourable interest rates. 

Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has been ruled by a coalition of parties since 2014.