* Minister's prediction more optimistic than IMF
* 2011 GDP figures expected at end-March
ABU DHABI, March 20 (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates' economy is likely to expand nearly 4 percent this year, the Gulf country's Economy Minister Sultan bin Saeed al-Mansouri said on Tuesday.
"The UAE economy is expected to grow by almost 4 percent in 2012," he told a conference in the UAE capital. "This is an estimate; by the end of the year it could be better."
Last November, Mansouri had said Europe's debt crisis and weakness in the U.S. economy might slow the UAE's growth to around 3 percent in 2012. But since then there have been signs that the debt crisis is easing and that the U.S. economy is strengthening.
The minister's latest prediction is more optimistic than a forecast by the International Monetary Fund, which predicted last week that the UAE's economic growth would slow to 2.3 percent in 2012 from an estimated 4.9 percent last year.
Mansouri declined to comment on how the UAE economy performed last year, saying he wanted to give an exact figure. The UAE's statistics bureau has yet to release 2011 GDP data, which is expected by the end of this month.
Robust oil prices and strong trade flows with Asia have helped the UAE, one of the top five crude oil exporters globally, recover from the 2009-2010 Dubai debt crisis, which exposed excesses in its property sector and led to a $25 billion debt restructuring at state-owned Dubai World.