The United States plans to hold a conference in September with newly democratic Arab countries to help them recover assets spirited abroad by autocrats, a US official said Thursday.
Robert Hormats, the under secretary of state handling economic affairs, said that Arab Spring nations had been seeking the assistance of the United States and European nations to locate money that was funneled overseas.
"Of the priorities that they all expressed, that was really very close to the top of the list," Hormats told reporters. "First of all it's an issue of justice, and it's also an issue of money."
Hormats said that the conference, which will involve Arab Spring and Western nations, will look at forensic work and other ways to locate assets. He said that the conference will likely take place in a Gulf Arab country.
Hormats was speaking after a visit to Tunisia, where fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest harassment, unexpectedly setting off a wave of protests that have toppled several Arab dictators.
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The official was upbeat about expanding US investment in Tunisia, saying that the country was outward-looking and well-educated and praising Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali for his economic priorities.
"They have challenges," Hormats said. "But the important thing about them is they have a very well thought-out set of policies for addressing those challenges and a very good government leadership to do that."
"They are making a major effort to open up opportunities to people like Bouazizi who made the revolution, to give them an opportunity to participate in the economy and to feed their families," Hormats said.
The United States in March announced a grant of $100 million to help Tunisia pay debts left over from dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year reign.
But Hormats said that the United States would be careful not to "over-promise."
He agreed with criticism of last year's Group of Eight summit in Deauville, France, which mentioned billions of dollars to support the Arab Spring, saying that the nations came under false expectations that this was all new money.