The Tunisian government has declined to name the eight bidders, but says they come from the UAE, Kuwait, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Kuwait and Portugal.

The Transport Ministry has indicated that once requests for proposals are issued, a bid deadline of 25 December will be set, with an award made early next year, and construction beginning later in 2009.

The port will have capacity for 5 million containers a year and will be complemented by a nearby free trade zone. With global shipping booming, Tunis hopes to attract trans-shipment traffic between Europe and Africa, and throughout the Mediterranean.

As part of the project, Tunisia says it will also build a $120m dam to protect the new port from soil erosion.