Remarks at "North Africa: Challenges and Opportunities in a Time of Transition"

Charles H. Rivkin
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce
Washington, DC
August 4, 2014

Good morning. Thank you Mr. De Marino for the kind introduction and thanks to the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce for hosting this important forum on North Africa.

We meet at a time when this region is undergoing the kind of changes that some would call momentous and promising but other more cautious voices might call uncertain and discouraging.

As a businessman in the entertainment industry for more than 20 years, my roots are in the private sector. And during that time, I never met a business opportunity that didn’t come with the Charles Dickens dilemma. What do I mean by that? I refer to the opening sentence of “A Tale of Two Cities.” I think we all know it: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

What I learned quickly was what I believe everyone in this room recognizes: the real question isn’t about identifying the challenges. That’s the easy part. The real question is about seeing the opportunity crouching behind those challenges.

North Africa at this moment, amidst the difficulties, presents a great opportunity for U.S. and local businesses alike, and increased trade and investment will achieve the kind of sustainable, meaningful growth that could transform the lives of people there.

The region has undergone tremendous – even tumultuous – change since 2011. And as we also know, those changes are still in motion – politically and economically. Youth unemployment is almost 30 percent, and young people make up a rapidly growing proportion of the working population.

A cautious person might only see uncertainty and young and restive populations. But behind those challenges are the opportunities: unique and unprecedented for the region. In fact, the infamous youth bulge is an extremely powerful asset that offers the potential for substantial growth in production and increased investment.

The very energy that led young people to demand changes is the same energy that has made them eager to find jobs, economic opportunity, and dignity in their lives. They are not only motivated, more and more of them are highly educated – and they are entering the workforce faster than jobs can be created for them.

Role of the United States

I’d like to talk briefly about the role the U.S. government is playing to help our partners realize this potential and how we are working to pave the way for businesses to flourish and commerce to expand.

Ultimately, the private sector needs to take the lead because – quite frankly – progress cannot happen without it. And with its assets, global reach and competitive capacity, it’s one of the most effective drivers to bring about positive and sustainable change in the region.

What we do to help the private sector is essentially threefold.

  • We promote market-oriented reforms – bilaterally and in conjunction with multilateral partners.
  • We foster home-grown entrepreneurship.
  • And third, we strengthen commercial ties led by U.S. businesses.

On the first point, we work to support reforms that address fiscal weaknesses, market rigidities, barriers to trade, government transparency, regressive and inefficient subsidies, and inadequate social safety nets.

Last month, for example, the U.S. government fully guaranteed Tunisia’s $500 million sovereign bond issuance. Tunisia can now borrow at lower rates than they otherwise could have.

As part of the guarantee, Tunisia committed to improve its social safety net, modernize tax and customs procedures, clarify investment regulations, and adopt a plan to resolve bank insolvency. This makes Tunisia more attractive to investors – and it helps bring jobs to both our economies.

Entrepreneurship – the second item I mentioned – is one of the best ways we can turn challenge into opportunity. First of all, it speaks to what we do best. Entrepreneurship is part of our DNA and is a cornerstone of our economic strength.

When we partner with the private sector we can not only reap economic opportunity for ourselves, we can address a major 21st century challenge: It is estimated that the world is going to need a half billion new jobs by 2030.

Right now, the U.S. Department of State is partnering with private partners worldwide to foster entrepreneurship. Through our Global Entrepreneurship Program, we are working with 100 private partners to build support systems for young entrepreneurs. And we’ve sent delegations to Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia.

We also organize annual Global Entrepreneurship Summits that convene entrepreneurs, investors, and government representatives. Last year’s Summit, in Kuala Lumpur, brought together over 3,000 entrepreneurs, investors, academics, startup organizers, business people, and government officials from over 100 countries to help them network and develop their skills. This November, Morocco will host the fifth summit in Marrakesh, which should prove to be the best yet.

We also have ongoing engagements with entrepreneurs in North Africa. Through the Partners for a New Beginning North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity – or PNB-NAPEO – we are working with local chapters, multilateral companies such as Coca-Cola, and governments to identify and advance economic opportunities. And with the Global Innovation through Science and Technology – or GIST – initiative, we encourage young people in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and other emerging economies to commercialize their science and technology ideas to create new products and companies.

Thirdly, the State Department – and specifically the Economics and Business Affairs Bureau – takes a leading role in building trade agreements and investments and promoting commercial ties globally.

We have a Free Trade Agreement with Morocco, as well as Trade and Investment Framework Agreements with Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. And through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the U.S. Government is providing more than $400 million in financing and insurance in Egypt. This supports companies that work in transportation, finance, high-tech, energy, construction, and franchising.

Every day, our Ambassadors and economic officers advocate for U.S. businesses and investors abroad. Two of our most successful initiatives are our own Direct Line to Business program and our Business Information Database System, or BIDS. Through our Direct Line webinars, businesses can speak to our Ambassadors and officers in the field to get on-the-ground analysis of market conditions and opportunities. The programs also help businesses find out about new opportunities and give a snapshot of trends in the increasingly competitive global economy.

I’d like to share one example of how this plays out on the ground. We have worked with American biopharmaceutical companies encourage their buy-in to Algeria’s vision to create a local biotech cluster in Algeria – based on the ones in California and the Northeast Corridor. And recently, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America largest innovative pharmaceutical association here in the United States signed an MOU with the National Pharmaceutical Products Control Laboratory of Algeria to encourage innovation, employment and investment in their economy.

There are many more examples I could share – but they all point to one clear message: What the region needs is the initiative and the pioneering hand of the private sector.


It’s easy to forget what a rugged and unforgiving terrain the United States used to be. But it was the work of the private sector that built this country – from railroad magnates to bankers to bridge builders. And it took that first wave of far-sighted investment to literally pave the way for further investment and prosperity.

North Africa is a region where similar long term rewards await – requiring the kind of foresight and early investment that can lead to powerful and sustainable economic growth. The earlier the role that the private sector takes, the greater the prospects for the region’s democratic and economic futures, and the greater its own long term prosperity.

Thank you – and we are all looking forward to seeing what you can do in the immediate and long term future not only for North Africa but for Americans back home.


  • I am honored to introduce four people with an extraordinary depth and breadth of experience in the increasingly overlapping worlds of business and diplomacy.
  • Henry Ensher, US Ambassador to the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria since March 2011, served as a Foreign Service Officer for 27 years in Mexico, Muscat, Tunis, Damascus, Jeddah, Algiers, and Tel Aviv. He has served as political and economic section chief, and has worked in the commercial and public diplomacy programs. And his most recent chapters have included extensive and highly influential postings in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a fluent speaker of Arabic and Hebrew. And he has received the Department of State Award for Heroism and the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service.
  • Ambassador Dwight Bush, Sr., has more than 30 years of international corporate banking experience for Chase Manhattan Bank, as well as other banking and financial companies and organizations from Sallie Mae to the Urban Trust Bank. He is the president of D. L. Bush & Associates, a Washington, DC-based financial advisory and business consulting firm. And he has worked with a variety of philanthropic and education institutions, including Cornell University, Xavier University and the National Symphony Orchestra.
  • Jake Walles, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Tunisia since July 2012, was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, which included U.S. policy with respect to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. For more than 20 years, he was an active participant in U.S. efforts to promote peace in the Middle East dating back to the 1991 Madrid Conference. He’s a career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister Counselor, and the recipient of a Presidential Rank Award in 2007 and the Department’s Superior Honor Award in 2001 and 1994 for his work in promoting peace in the Middle East.
  • All of them have come through different paths … all with their own sets of expertise … but all of them understand deeply that political and economic progress, as well as prosperity and security, all go hand in hand. And I look forward to hearing those different perspectives over the course of this important forum.