Arab leaders pledge $2 billion to boost economies

In wake of Tunisia unrest, leaders in Sharm e-Sheikh commit to providing jobs, giving loans for small enterprises to young people in Arab states.

sharm el sheikh 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
sharm el sheikh 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
CAIRO — Wary of the unrest in Tunisia, Arab leaders are expected Wednesday to commit to a proposed $2 billion program to boost faltering economies that have propelled crowds into the streets to protest high unemployment, rising prices and rampant corruption.
The pledge was made in a document obtained by The Associated Press that is to be adopted by the economic summit opening Wednesday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
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This is "a commitment to provide job opportunities for Arab young people in order to empower them to participate fully in their societies," stated the document, labeled as the summit's final statement.
The idea of the fund was first suggested by Kuwait during the economic summit in the Gulf emirate in 2009 but has been slow to get off the ground like many Arab League initiatives requiring members to pledge money.
Arab diplomats said oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have promised to pay $500 million each and, after the economic-related unrest in Tunisia, additional pledges are pouring in.
Thamer al-Anni, an Arab League official, said some $298 million in additional pledges were made by 11 other member states Tuesday.
He said a special fund would be set up within weeks, after a two-year wait to operate as a bank that provides short- and medium-term loans to young Arabs who want to start their own small enterprises.
"This will be for businesses with a small capital around $20,000-$50,000," he told AP.
He said priority will be given to the less developed countries such as Djibouti, Sudan and Yemen.
Weeks of protests over corruption and political repression forced Tunisia's longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country Friday to Saudi Arabia.
Protests renewed on Tuesday after Tunisia's main trade unions and other opposition groups rejected a new government to replace Ben Ali's appointed Cabinet.
Turmoil in Tunisia, triggered by political repression, rising unemployment and skyrocketing food prices has cast a shadow over the summit, which originally was meant to be a platform to discuss trade, business and investment.
"All these projects will increase employment and achieve stability in the Arab societies," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, responding to a question about the impact of the Tunisian situation on the region.
The unrest started after a 26-year-old unemployed man in Tunisia set himself on fire last month in protest. The incident sparked a tidal wave of protests that eventually toppled Ben Ali.
On Tuesday, a 25-year-old unemployed Egyptian man died after setting himself on fire on the roof of his home in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria hours. Hours earlier, two Egyptian men, also inspired by events in Tunisia, attempted to set themselves on fire in downtown Cairo. A day earlier, another man burned himself in front of parliament also in protest of the government.
On Monday, a Mauritanian man reportedly unhappy with the government torched himself in his car outside an official building in the capital, Nouakchott.
In Algeria, there have been seven cases of people attempting to set themselves on fire, including one man who died Saturday from his burns.
Thousands have demonstrated in Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Libya and Yemen recently over the economic situation, some explicitly in solidarity with the Tunisians.
In Sudan, police on Monday arrested Islamic leader Hassan Turabi after he spoke out against President Omar al-Bashir's government and called for a popular revolt similar to the one in Tunisia that toppled Ben Ali.
Oil-rich nations in the Gulf that are ruled by autocratic families are taking precautions.
Kuwaiti ruler Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah decreed Monday that free food rations be given to all Kuwaitis at a cost of $818 million.
He also ordered the government to give every Kuwaiti citizen a grant of some $4,000.
Saudi King Abdullah also promised to increase government spending in the coming years. He told a Kuwaiti newspaper Monday that Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil supplier, plans to spend $68 billion next year on projects to reduce unemployment and spur growth.