Tunisia wins billion-dollar pledges for ailing economy

Tunis - Qatar and France promised more than a billion dollars in financial support for Tunisia at an investment conference on Tuesday aimed at reviving the country's struggling economy.

Nearly six years after its Arab Spring revolution, Tunisia hopes the meeting will help it confront challenges including high unemployment, low growth and a tourism sector hammered by jihadist attacks.

The two-day "Tunisia 2020" conference aims to put the North African nation "back on the investment map of the Mediterranean", officials said.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani pledged $1.25bln  in financial support at the opening session.

He said the money would "support the Tunisian economy and strengthen its process of development".

He did not give details on the form of the assistance.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the French Development Agency (AFD) would invest "at least $265m every year" in Tunisia.

"We will also implement operations to convert Tunisian debt into development projects," he said.

He praised Tunisia's "exemplary transition" following its 2011 revolution and said France had a "duty and a responsibility" to support it.

Valls, on a two-day visit to Tunisia, met President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed on Monday evening.

Chahed's government took office in August in place of an administration heavily criticised for its economic management.

That followed a catastrophic 2015 in which attacks claimed by the Islamic State group killed 59 foreign visitors and 13 Tunisians, dealing a devastating blow to the key tourism industry.

Strikes and social unrest have also hit strategic sectors including phosphate mining.

Around 15% of the workforce was unemployed in the spring of 2016 according to the World Bank - many of them young graduates, who have seen the hope of the Arab Spring dissipate.

The government hopes the conference, attended by more than 2 000 business, finance and political leaders from 40 countries, will attract billions of dollars of much-needed investment.

Officials say the conference is part of a charm offensive aimed at the private sector.

It is also seeking bids on 140 ventures - from infrastructure and agricultural projects to hi-tech schemes - worth roughly $32bln.

The European Union announced a doubling of its financial support in 2017 to $318m.

Essebsi will head to Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday for an EU-Tunisian summit.

Chahed told AFP last week that Tunisia deserved support and that the international community "should invest in Tunisian democracy".

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