Qatar extends $1bn loan to cash-strapped Tunisia

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By BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA, Associated Press

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Qatar has offered Tunisia a $1 billion low interest loan to bolster the North African country's battered economy, Tunisia's presidential spokesman announced Wednesday.

The tiny gas-rich Gulf monarchy has also offered 20,000 job openings to Tunisia's myriad unemployed university graduates, added spokesman Adnan Mancer in remarks to journalists.

Tunisia's January 2011 overthrow of its long-serving dictator kicked off a wave of pro-democracy uprising across the region, but also dealt a devastating blow to an economy heavily reliant on tourism and foreign investment.

Tunisia's economy shrank by 1.8 percent in 2011 and its already high unemployment has soared to 19 percent, up from 14 percent, according to official figures. There are an estimated 750,000 unemployed in this country of 10 million, 200,000 of which hold university degrees.

Half of the loan, which will have an annual interest rate of 2.5 percent, will go straight to the central bank to shore up the country's assets, said Mancer.

The announcement comes after a visit by President Moncef Marzouki to the Gulf where he called for investment into the "new, democratic Tunisia." Kuwait has also promised new projects in Tunisia.

In the wake of the visit, the president announced that citizens of the Gulf countries will no longer need visas to travel to Tunisia, which should boost "tourism and investment," said the spokesman.

Many liberal and leftist Tunisians have expressed unease at the growing influence of Qatar in North Africa, especially in the wake of its close support of the Libyan rebels that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi.

The moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, that leads Tunisia's government, has good relations with the government of Qatar. Leftist protesters have carried signs denouncing Qatar, claiming it is trying to make Tunisia more Islamic and have warned against being overly indebted to the monarchy.

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