Mohammed Frikha, founder and owner of Syphax Airlines.
TUNIS: The growth of a small Tunisian airline over the past two years is a rare success story in an economy ravaged by the country’s 2011 revolution - and it points to the potential for more successes if political stability can be restored.
Corporate investment and tourist arrivals have shrunk while unemployment and inflation have risen since the overthrow of Tunisia’s autocratic leader Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 launched a protracted period of political tensions.
Two murders of left-wing politicians triggered months of unrest this year; the ruling Islamist party and the opposition began talks last week on forming a non-partisan cabinet that will hopefully govern until elections next year.
It has been a poor environment in which to run a business, but Syphax Airlines has grown since Tunisian businessman Mohammed Frikha established it in 2011, just months after the revolution. Syphax, which links Tunisian cities to destinations such as Paris, Istanbul, Jeddah and Tripoli in Libya, has expanded from operating two planes to four, and in July ordered six Airbus jets worth a total of $576m, according to their list prices.
“It is important to launch investments in times of crisis,” Frikha, 50, said. “It’s true there are difficulties, but success may be double because of the availability of government incentives and guarantees... This gives us an advantage over competitors which might invest after the crisis.”
As a young man in the Tunisian commercial city of Sfax, Frikha initially planned to go into his father’s textiles business. But he studied communications technology in France and founded his first company, telecommunications engineering venture Telnet, in Tunisia in 1994.
Economists hoped the 2011 revolutions around the Arab world would unleash a wave of fresh investment, by loosening the grip of entrenched business elites who used their connections with autocratic governments to stifle competition. For the most part, this has not happened so far; societies have been in too much turmoil. But it does appear to have happened in the case of Syphax.
Frikha noted that he had obtained a licence to launch his airline just months after the overthrow of Ben Ali — a process which could have taken years under the old regime. Syphax, which describes itself as a “hybrid” airline with characteristics of both budget carriers and full-service airlines, competes with state-owned Tunisair, the much larger flag carrier. Tunisair and Syphax have had a complex and sometimes rocky relationship, quarrelling publicly over the younger carrier’s right to expand its route network and arrangements for Tunisair staff to provide services to Syphax.
The flag carrier is struggling to trim its bloated workforce, a task which has become more politically sensitive in Tunisia’s post-revolution climate of union activism. As a young airline, Syphax does not face this challenge.
Political and economic turmoil over the past two years has affected Syphax, Frikha said - particularly waves of strikes in industries supplying the airline. But he said the instability had also helped Syphax, by allowing it to obtain financial incentives and assistance from the government more easily than it could have during normal economic times.