Finance leaders may be vowing to support Arab nations on the cusp of a new political era, but behind the rhetoric they remain reluctant to charge into a region whose future leaders might shun their advice.
Finance ministers from a number of big economies met Thursday with officials from some nations in the Middle East and North Africa to discuss the upheaval in the region, where protests have swept some leaders out of office and have others fighting to stay in power.
"We recognize that these transitions are about expanding the freedoms and opportunities of people," France and the United States said on behalf of the meetings' participants.
"We stand ready to support these countries with responses coordinated with the international institutions, who can bring significant resources and expertise to aid the transitions."
The statement did not offer pledges of stepped-up monetary aid, but instead called for a "joint action plan" for development banks to steer investment in ways that support job creation, improved governance and economic reforms.
The careful wording may reflect fears about what comes next in places like Egypt, where interim military leaders are promising credible polls whose results are hard to predict, and in nations like Syria and Yemen, where longtime leaders are struggling to contain popular unrest of their own.
"If you want a solution, then talk is not going to be enough," said Fariborz Ghadar, a Middle East finance expert at the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mohsin Khan, the former Middle East director at the International Monetary Fund, said the profession of support was likely left vague because donors and lenders do not know who will lead these countries in the future, and were examining what they can offer to a region not so much in need of cash as it is of expertise and investment.
"The people who are in D.C. right now from Egypt and Tunisia aren't the people that are going to be (around) in six months," Khan said. "And you don't know what the economic strategy is going to be, so it's very difficult to commit."
A U.S. Treasury official said some bilateral aid was expected but that finance leaders who attended Thursday's meeting, including from the United States, France, Canada, Japan, Russia, Egypt and Tunisia, agreed global lenders were best poised to quickly help the region accelerate growth.
"I think the institutions are in a place where they want to strike a balance" between hustling to help and moving with caution amid uncertainty, he said on condition of anonymity.
GLOBAL MARSHALL PLAN
World Bank President Robert Zoellick has spoken strongly about the need to move swiftly to support the region, and the bank has already approved a $500 million loan to Tunisia.
In a speech last week, he also suggested the bank could begin working directly with local civic groups with direct knowledge and experience of the situation on the ground.
"Waiting for the situation to stabilize will mean lost opportunities. In revolutionary moments, the status quo is not a winning hand," Zoellick said.
But the interim government in Egypt, which came to Washington seeking $10 billion in funding and a declaration of support, extracted few commitments from finance ministers during weekend meetings due to concerns that Egypt lacks a comprehensive reform plan that would reassure the international community the country is moving in the right direction.
IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on Saturday said the fund would make $35 billion in loans available to oil-importing countries in the Middle East and North Africa if asked.
There are also fears that leaders, sensing their own political vulnerability in a still-volatile situation, could roll back economic reforms or resort to populist measures economists believe would sabotage long-term growth.
"There's going to be an anti-market feeling in these countries," Khan said. "I can see why donors are walking on egg-shells, because they don't know what role they can play if ... these countries turn away from Western liberal policies."
Ghadar said a fragile Middle East requires a "global Marshall Plan," with help from regional oil producers and Asian nations like China that are reliant on Middle East oil.
Aid and investment might also come from Europe, fearful of a wave of immigration across the Mediterranean, and the United States, keen to both avoid spikes in global oil markets and ensure instability does not give militants a breeding ground.
But Molly Williamson, a former senior U.S. diplomat, warned that Western governments grappling with their own fiscal woes would be unlikely to be able to provide major new assistance.
President Barack Obama, for example, is facing a fierce battle over Republican plans to slash trillions of dollars from the U.S. budget.
"We don't have it, and we're the moneybags," she said.
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