The familiar and the exotic: Algerian ambassador Ahmed Boutache, in an interview with The Sofia Echo, outlines the opportunities in reviving relations between his country and Bulgaria.
Ahmed Boutache, Algeria's ambassador in Sofia, is working to revive relations between his country and Bulgaria. The process already has begun, in a modest way. A dynamic that cannot be neglected is that, at the same time, there is a revival in relations between Bulgaria and the Arab world--the latter, of course, a term to be re-explored later.
"Political relations between Algeria and Bulgaria started during Algeria's independence war that was conducted between 1954 and 1962, and since that time, relations were excellent, politically as well as economically," Boutache tells The Sofia Echo in an interview.
But while at no point has there been any tension between Algiers and Sofia, the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall saw the advent of a re-orientation in Bulgaria's priorities, as it marshalled its foreign policy almost exclusively towards pursuing membership of the European Union and of Nato.
At about the same time, the 1990s saw Algeria wracked by violent political turmoil.
Now again, times have changed, Boutache says.
Bulgaria is a full member of the EU and of Nato, while Algeria has completely stabilised its political situation and has embarked on a large-scale campaign of economic development, he says.
"Now we can re-ignite the engine of relations."
While bilateral relations are reviving after this period of stagnating, Boutache says that he has the impression from discussions with Bulgarians that some still have an out-of-date perception: "Some continue to think that there are security problems, while it is well-known that in Algeria, security is no longer an issue".
He reflects on the fact that, even as the interview is taking place, several countries are warning of security risks that they feel--even the United States, the world's most powerful economy.
There are a number of complexities in considering the Arab world which, as Boutache says, is by no means monolithic, either politically or economically.
Relations between the Arab world and other countries have evolved and changed over the years, given varying interests, economically and in security terms. In the post-Cold War world, Arab countries have relations with most other countries, in contrast to the dynamics of the past.
Bulgaria has been seeing an overall revival, Boutache says, pointing to the April 2009 visit by the Emir of Qatar, the decision by Sofia to open an embassy in Saudi Arabia, the visits by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov to Qatar and Kuwait, the visit by Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov to Syria, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri's trip to Bulgaria, and the November 2010 visit by Syrian president Bashar al Assad.
"This shows very clearly that on both sides, there is increasing interest in renewed dialogue and in economic co-operation," Boutache says.
Arab countries, he says, have the financial means to invest in foreign countries while at the same time offering interesting markets for countries such as Bulgaria.
Those who were paying attention in school will have a sense of the sheer scale of Algeria, a country of more than 35 million people with a land area of more than 2.4 million sq km; it is the world's 11th-largest country and the second-largest in Africa. But some more recent numbers are significant. The country's 2010/14 economic development programme is worth $286 billion. Within this programme, there is an allocation to build 1.2 million housing units.
"That's really a lot," says Boutache in understated fashion. "It offers excellent opportunities for construction companies. It is important that Bulgarian companies take a fresh, closer look at opportunities in Algeria for economic co-operation."
The embassy in Sofia has orientated itself to being a connecting point, providing information and facilitating communication about opportunities.
A seminar was held in Sofia in February at which Boutache outlined the opportunities, there was another in Lovetch and an-other in Algeria in March.
"I am trying to show the path, while it is up to the entrepreneurs to take action."
There would be a long way to go to return to the engagements of time past, when there was a peak of 7000 Bulgarians in Algeria. The number now is no more than 150.
Algeria is seeking to make itself more competitive by adapting its laws and regulations to give what Boutache describes as "substantial" incentives in taxation and repatriation of benefits.
"I believe that foreign companies that invest in Algeria will find it worth their while."
Right now, he says, there are two sectors which offer important opportunities for bilateral co-operation, construction and public works as well as energy.
Algeria is a significant producer of natural gas (energy exports are the backbone of Algeria's economy; during the January 2009 natural gas crisis precipitated by the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, Bulgaria received natural gas from Algeria via Greece).
Algeria is among the top three in supplying natural gas to Europe, including exports to Bulgaria's neighbours Turkey and Greece.
Given the important projects in which Bulgaria is or will be participating, such as Nabucco and South Stream, there is great potential, he says.
On the issue of discussions on co-operation in the field of energy, Boutache says: "I do hope to achieve some results in the very near future".
"There are strong possibilities to find ways and means to co-operate in the field of natural gas."
Algeria and Bulgaria already have 23 cooperation agreements signed, in a range of fields from maritime transportation to police co-operation, cultural and scientific co-operation and tourism promotion.
"As you well know, agreements are good, but also have a good chance of remaining documents and papers unless there is the will to implement them."
Boutache says that he has the sense that in Sofia, the authorities are keen to follow through.
In economic co-operation, "there is no other way than direct discussion and dialogue, especially between entrepreneurs, to identify fields of co-operation and create favourable conditions for the implementation of whatever project they find to be interesting for both countries."
A country of such a scale (another statistic: 1200km of coastline) naturally offers great diversity for the visitor.
After tourism being neglected by officialdom for decades, to say nothing of the times that the civil war would hardly have been an incentive for tourists, Algeria is embarking on developing a new tourism promotion strategy.
The country boasts attractions alluring in their exoticism, from the sprawling Sahara to sites such as the well-preserved Roman city at Timgad, location of the international festival of Arab music, the latter now past its third decade.
Already, there is a Bulgarian enterprise that takes tourists for safaris in the Sahara, travelling in the vast expanses of its sands by jeep and spending nights under the stars.
Boutache explains that Algeria is working hard to develop the tourism sector, building related infrastructure and setting up schools to train people to work in the hospitality industry.
The winter season, roughly from October- November to March, sees the arrival of thousands of tourists, mainly from Western European countries such as France and Germany.
For Europeans, Algeria is a very affordable destination, but most of all, there is the exotic allure of places such as Tamanrasset, places that offer so much to see and do, in the words of Boutache.