Economy & Trade, Financial Crisis, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Building New Bridges to Latin America

Baher Kamal

MADRID, Mar 29 2009 (IPS) - In the shadows of a critical Arab summit in Doha this week, a parallel Arab- South American heads of state meeting is expected to seal key political and economic cooperation agreements between the two regions.

According to the draft final declaration accessed by IPS, the Arab-South American summit in the Qatari capital Mar. 31 will pledge mutual political support in international fora, and increasing trade, energy and technological exchanges.

The document stresses the need to establish an "independent, sovereign Palestinian state" through "a negotiated solution" that leads to the creation of a "united, integrated state, within concrete and internationally recognised frontiers", alongside Israel.

On Iraq, the draft declaration prepared by the South American and Arab foreign ministers in Cairo earlier this month underlines the need to "respect the unity, freedom, sovereignty and independence of Iraq, without interference in its internal affairs."

During the 22-day Israeli war on Gaza, most South American leaders strongly condemned Israel for its attacks on the Palestinian civilian population, which left more than 1,400 dead and 5,000 wounded. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales cut diplomatic relations with Israel.

Venezuela and Bolivia, along with several other South American countries, have condemned the former U.S. administration's policy in the Middle East, its occupation of Iraq, and its 'war on terrorism'.

The draft declaration also expresses "deep concern" about the international financial crisis and its impact on the economies of the Arab and South American countries.

The League of Arab States estimates that Arab countries have lost more than 2.5 trillion dollars due to this crisis. The document calls for the creation of an international financial system capable of preventing financial speculation.

Beyond such political agreements, the summit will focus on ways to strengthen economic and trade cooperation.

Commercial exchanges between the two regions increased from 8 billion dollars in 2005 to 21 billion dollars last year, according to Ibrahim Moheiddin, director of the Two Americas Department at the Cairo-based League of Arab States.

There is much room for cooperation between the Arab and South America regions in technology, peaceful use of nuclear energy, the aviation industry, the fight against desertification, and over water resources, Moheiddin said in a statement in Cairo.

The South American and Arab Business Forum, to take place Tuesday on the sidelines of the summit, will discuss specific cooperation projects in these and other sectors.

The initiative of holding Arab-South American summits was taken by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during his visit to five Middle East countries in December 2003. The first such summit was held in Brasilia in 2005. It drew 34 heads of state – 22 Arabs and 12 South Americans.

The new agreements are based on a strong political will to strengthen South-South cooperation. The push for that has strengthened with the election of several leftist regimes in a number of South American countries looking to reduce dependence on the United States.

For the Arabs too, this inter-regional cooperation represents a gradual political and economic shift from traditional European and U.S. political influence, and dependence on their markets.

There is scope for cooperation at many levels. Brazil and Argentina, and Saudi Arabia, are members of the G20, whose leaders are gathering at a critical summit in London this week. Ecuador and Venezuela are members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), along with Arab oil producers.

The two regions are looking also to expand ties at the people level. The Arab League estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of the population of South America is of Arab origin, seven million in Brazil alone.

Qatari officials expect that at least 16 of the 22 Arab heads of state, and eight of the 12 South American presidents will join the Doha summit. The other countries from the two regions are expected to be represented by high-ranking officials, including vice-presidents and prime ministers.

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