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POLITICS: Arab-Latam Bid for a Diverse World

DOHA, Mar 30 2009 - The Moors invaded and conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula in 711AD. By the time they were driven out of Granada in 1492, the Arabs had left an indelible racial and cultural imprint. Both the Spanish and Portuguese languages have a marked Arabic influence.

Yet, when the Spanish and Portuguese crossed the Atlantic to conquer America, the close connection with the Arab world was somehow lost as the new colonies fought to establish their own identities.

More than five centuries later, the arrival of South American heads of state on Mar. 31 in Doha, Qatar to attend a presidential summit with Arab leaders is a conscious effort on each side to rediscover the other and forge a relationship that is seen as long overdue.

For Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, it is a priority.

“It is imperative for the countries of South America to establish a real understanding with the nations of the Middle East, with the Arab world, so that we can establish not just a commercial relationship, but a political and cultural relationship, so that we can be free of the ties and decisions of the so called rich countries,” he said in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera.

Common Ties

The effort to find common ground with the Arab region reflects Latin America’s changing priorities.

In the last eight years, the political map has changed radically, with every major South American country, except Peru and Colombia, now being led by a left or centre-left government. From Venezuela’s fiercely anti-American president, Hugo Chavez, to Chile’s and Brazil’s more moderate leaders, all are staunch proponents of a multi-polar world, not dominated by a super power nor a bloc of industrialised nations.

“Ten years ago it would have been impossible to think of a meeting like this between the Arabs and Latin America or South America,” Chavez said.

“It is now that the left-wing movements have managed to obtain political power and lead governments in Latin America, that this possibility has opened, because before our governments would always kneel before the U.S. state department,” he said.

Limited Links

While they are on opposite sides of the globe and have very different cultures and political structures, the two regions share a common colonial experience.

Given the changing global political and economic map, South America and the Arab region are attempting to join forces, so their voices carry more weight, especially in multi-lateral forums such as the G20 group of leading industrialised nations.

South America’s powerhouse, Brazil, is counting on Arab support to help push its candidacy for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, which, if successful, would give the Arab region an ally in a strategic arena.

The South American-Arab Leaders’ Summit was the brainchild of the Brazilian president, who hosted the first such meeting in 2005 in Brasilia. At the time it was little more than a declaration of good intentions to strengthen ties, yet it was as significant first step.

“Our relations with [the Arab world] were very limited, very small… we had a trade balance of 8 billion dollars with the Arab world, and after that meeting, after that initiative of our government, our trade balance has climbed to 20 billion dollars,” Lula said.

Something similar has happened in Argentina where, in just three years, exports to the Arab region have jumped from 1.8 billion to 4.5 billion dollars, according to Sattam Al Kaddour, the secretary-general of the Argentine-Arab Chamber of Commerce.

Arabian Origins

It should not be so surprising.

There are up to 20 million Arabs and descendants of Arabs living in the region, most of them in South America.

In Brazil alone, there are an estimated 10 million. About 8 million of them are Lebanese – more than in Lebanon itself.

Argentina has an estimated 3.5 million people of Syrian and Lebanese origin. Carlos Menem, Argentina’s former president, is the son of Syrian immigrants.

Neighbouring Chile has the largest community of people of Palestinian origin outside of the Middle East, the vast majority Christian Palestinians who migrated from Beit Jala and Bethlehem.

The first exodus occurred in the mid-19th century, when Palestine was ruled by the Ottomans.

After the foundation of Israel in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes, many Christian Arabs followed their ancestors to the Americas.

The majority went to Chile, where the mountains and Mediterranean climate of Santiago’s central valley seemed familiar.

Today, many Chilean Palestinians are prominent members of the business and political community. Nevertheless, despite the large number of South Americans of Arab origin, the direct contact between the two regions has been limited. It was not until last year that the first direct flight between a South American city (Sao Paulo) and an Arab country (Dubai) was inaugurated.

Trade Benefits

So, why has it taken so long?

Celso Amorim, the Brazilian foreign minister, said: “Until now, both regions used to always look towards the United States or towards Europe, but never towards each other.

“The unprecedented push to bring the two regions closer is being applauded, especially by the South American business community.

“The potential here is unimaginable because, if we look towards the Arab world as a whole and Latin America, we see that the economies of the two regions compliment each other perfectly.

“In the Arab region they have large deserts and a very dry climate, and in Latin America we have green, fertile soil and 26 percent of the world’s fresh water supply,” Al Kaddour said.

The balance of trade so far is in South America’s favour.

“The fod export sector is the most important right now because the Arab region is a big buyer of food products and South America, especially Brazil and Argentina, are countries with a large agro-industry,” Al Kaddour said.

It is hoped the second South American-Arab Leaders’ Summit in Doha will give a push to the newfound relationship.

The widespread sympathy for the Palestinian cause in South America, especially after Israel’s recent war on Gaza in which more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed, should contribute.

Venezuela and Bolivia went as far as to expel the Israeli ambassadors in their countries, and Chile and Brazil issued strong condemnations during the Israeli attacks on Gaza.

“It is very interesting to exchange views between Arab and South American leaders, to establish accords, no?” Chavez said. “The most important thing, though, is the geopolitical relationship. I think this is the beginning of a path that we are building, in the construction of a multi-polar world.”

*Published under an agreement with Al Jazeera.

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