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Wed 4 May 2011 08:11 PM

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World Bank's lender looks to up MENA investments

International Finance Corporation says it aims to at least match $3.3bn portfolio of 2010

World Bank's lender looks to up MENA investments

Political turmoil gripping Arab

states that has pushed investors to step back in apprehension

has not dampened the Middle East's growth prospects, the

regional head of the World Bank's private-sector lender said.

Uprisings that toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt

after decades and now threaten their counterparts in Syria,

Yemen and Libya have not curtailed the International Finance

Corporation's (IFC) commitments in the region, Dimitris

Tsitsiragos said in an interview.

Since Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step

down, the country's tourism and foreign investment have slumped,

hitting national income hard and sending the economy into an

estimated 7 percent contraction in the January-to-March quarter.

But Tsitsiragos, the IFC's Middle East, North Africa, and

Southern Europe director, told Reuters in a recent interview

that the Arab world's most populous country had potential to

boom and the IFC is ready to support investment in the country.

"We think at this stage, we need to step up, because we need

to show our support - or our confidence - in the market,"

Tsitsiragos said. "By investing at this time, in this region,

what we show is that business prospects are good."

The IFC's Middle East and North Africa portfolio ran at

about $3.3 billion in 2010 and he said the group was looking to

match that in 2011 and even increase investments later.

"It might be a challenge because the situation has slowed

down a bit but I think we are prepared to scale up our

investments," he said. "If you look at it in the longer term,

business prospects in Egypt and North Africa are very strong."

A widening graft probe against executives associated with

the ousted regime in Egypt has heightened investor worries about

the risk of doing business in the country, putting pressure on

the country's stock exchange and foreign reserves.

Egypt's EGX30 index has tumbled 29 percent this

year. Shares in real estate firms being probed over purchases of

state land for development have slumped as much as 70 percent.

"It is understood that when there is change, there are going

to be a lot of investigations. I think the government has to go

through this process," Tsitsiragos said, adding that the IFC was

carefully selecting clients to work with.

"What is also important is that this type of process should

be done in a way that sends a message that these countries are

receptive to private investment and it should not stop

investment," he said. "One has to see what the outcome will be."

But beyond the political risk, Egypt and the rest of the

region are faced with enormous challenges to find employment for

a bulging young population, increase funding access to small and

medium-sized enterprises and boost infrastructure investment.

Private sector investment is critical in the region which

needs to create about 40 million jobs over the next decade,

according to World Bank estimates.

About 25 percent of the young in the region are unemployed,

costing the region about $50 billion each year, the IFC says.

"You have changes in the government, you have changes in the

political systems, but you don't have changes in the challenges

yet that face the region," Tsitsiragos said. "It is still there

and it is a challenge for whoever is going to come to power."

"One thing that comes to us is that the private sector is

important and it needs to be supported during such times."

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