U.S. Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats on Thursday talked up Tunisia as an investment destination for U.S. firms and said the United States was supporting a conference in September to locate loot stolen by former dictators of Arab Spring countries.
Hormats led a recent U.S. businesses delegation to Tunisia, where the Arab Spring revolts first began last year, and said he was impressed with what he heard and saw.
Tunisia has traditionally looked to Europe for trade and investment, but Hormats said the United States was encouraging firms to seek business opportunities there.
"We see the kinds of reforms they are undertaking as positive," Hormats told reporters. He said the United States was providing a $100 million cash transfer to Tunisia to help the government pay down debt and borrow on capital markets.
In addition, the United States was working to establish an enterprise fund to support small and medium enterprises in Tunisia, which are generally the job creators in an economy.
Tunisia has been slow to emerge from recession caused by street protests last year, but has held a steady course on inflation, interest and exchange rates following the ouster of the former president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in January 2011.
Of the Arab Spring countries Tunisia is widely regarded as the most advanced in its political transition. However, investors still appear to be taking a wait-and-see attitude.
Hormats said Tunisia "represents a number of very positive elements and a very positive direction and considerable success in a very short period of time."
He said with it highly skilled workforce and proximity to other developing countries, Tunisia's government was looking to turn the country into a regional manufacturing hub and was seeking support from international lenders to develop its port.
Attracting private investment has become critical to rebuilding Tunisia given that big Western economies are unable to commit large amounts of aid due to budget cuts.
More than a year after the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, aid that was promised has been slow to arrive in Arab Spring countries.
A May 2011 summit in France pledged $38 billion in aid to Egypt and Tunisia, and later added Morocco and Jordan to the list of aid recipients.
Blaming it on a "communication issue" Hormats said the pledges from Group of Eight industrialized nations included existing funding commitments but did not amount to substantial new aid.
"One of the things we are trying to do now is be very clear that we do not want to over-promise, we want to make sure that what we say we're going to do," he said.
"What we are trying to do is be more realistic in the way these things are discussed with them so as not to lead to inflated expectations," Hormats added.
QUEST FOR STOLEN ASSETS
The government of Tunisia is working to recover the stolen assets of former dictator Ben Ali and his inner circle, said to be worth billions.
Hormats said the United States was supporting a conference in September that would look at ways to recover assets stashed abroad by dictators and their inner circles.
The location of the conference must still be decided but would likely be in a Gulf Arab country.
Hormats acknowledged the recovery process will be slow because of the different legal systems and jurisdictions of countries where the loot may be stowed.
"We want to help them figure ways to get it back and it is a very high priority" for these governments, he added. "They see it first of all as an issue of justice and an issue of money. When you combine the two it is a potent force."