In 2005, Brazilian President Lula initiated the first Summit of South America and Arab countries (ASPA) in Brasilia in an attempt to create a strategic South-South alliance for international development, justice and peace. This was followed by the Doha ASPA Summit in 2009. We are today on the eve of the 3rd session in Lima, Peru on October 1-2. 21 members from the Arab League and 11 from the Union of South American Nations, the Unasur (Syria and Paraguay are suspended from their organizations) will attend.
Many leaders have confirmed personal attendance, including Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Ecuador’s Rafael Vicent Correa Delgado, and Uruguay’s Jose Mujica. List of prominent Arab leaders includes King Abdullah of Jordan, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Emir of Qatar Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani and Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki. Parallel to the political sessions, 400 business people from both regions will gather in the ASPA CEO Summit.
Since the last session in Doha (2009), the Arab world has been deeply and irremediably transformed. The Palestinian issue which was at the heart of the Arab-Latino consensus has lost for now its centrality. Other much more divisive issues have arisen.
The Peruvians will be hosting in Lima new Arab leaders with a different, challenging vision of the Middle East as well as representatives of the Arab monarchies still trying to weather the storm of the Arab Spring.
It will be interesting to follow how this new regional configuration reflects on the discussions regarding Syria, Human Rights and Democracy, the status of religions and economic aspects.
1- The Syrian Crisis and beyond
There will be a heated debate over Syria, on who to blame and what to do.
ALBA members (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) have taken side with the Assad regime considered as a strategic fence against American imperialism and, more recently, against what they see as a rising Islamist terrorist threat. Venezuela is even actively supporting the Syrian regime by sending cargos filled with oil.
ALBA’s position on Syria is not representative of the rest of the continent. Other influential Latino countries such as Mexico, Chile and recently Brazil, have condemned the regime’s violence against civilians. However, South American countries have one common red line: they oppose foreign interventions.
On the other side, the Arab league adopted a high profile policy against Assad’s regime, calling for a peace keeping mission and on Assad to step down. Arab participants will probably lobby heavily on Venezuelan authorities to stop sending oil to Syria, insist on a clear condemnation of the Syrian regime and push for stronger international action. ALBA Leaders’ narrative of a Syrian president resisting American and Israeli imperialism might be seriously challenged by the new Arab leaders, in particular by Egypt.
Beyond the specifics of the Syrian crisis, broader issues are at stake. The matters of Democracy and HR were in the past gently dodged to accommodate non-democratic Arab counterparts (actually, all but Lebanon). The only strong stance for democratic reform in the Doha declaration referred to … UN institutions.
This might not be an option anymore as a stronger push will be given for a new wording hailing the Arab Spring and democratic elections and condemning the use of force by regimes against their own citizens. We shall see how the Arab kingdoms (and Algeria), in particular the Gulf monarchies, will deal with these new narrative and vocabulary.
2 – The Religious Factor
One of the distinctive aspects of the previous ASPA summits was the explicit refutation of the concept of “Choc of civilizations”. Together, the leaders of the two regions representing most of the Christians and Muslims in the world put a strong emphasis on the notion of Dialogue of Civilization and the respect for all religions. Aware of the misuse and prejudices attached to the “War on Terror”, ASPA leaders rejected “any linkage between terrorism and a specific people or religion”.
More specifically, the Doha declaration expressed concern at the “rise in instances of deliberate negative stereotyping of religions, their holly figures and followers”, referring to the airing of the Dutch “Fitna” movie in 2008. Indirectly, these stereotyping were qualified as illegal incitements to religious hatred.
We can expect the Arab delegations to arrive in Lima with strong instructions regarding the explicit condemnation of the movie “the Innocence of Islam” and any other instances considered as an insult to Islam as well as the need to prosecute those inciting to religious hatred.
This will test South American’s attachment to freedom of expression and maybe also their immunity to islamophobia. Up to know citizens of Arab descent enjoyed a certain prestige in South America due to their socio-economic success and to an orientalist vision of the Arab world.
Will this elitist and romantic perception pervasive in South American societies resists in the face of over-publicized scenes of “Muslim rage”? Are Latino diplomacies really looking forward to working with newly elected Islamist authorities?
3 – Economics and Environment
Since the last summit in Doha, the economic crisis has become a permanent state of global sluggishness that is benefiting no one. While America, Europe and Japan were the most affected, the downturn is now proving to be costly for emerging markets in terms of trade surpluses. This has awakened protectionist reflexes, in particular in Brazil, the world 5th economy.
In this context, the enthusiasm of previous ASPA declarations for free trade and the condemnation of all “discriminatory and protectionist measures” (Brasilia declaration) might be tuned down. Also, the rising popular concern in South America regarding acquisition of land and natural resources by foreign investors could be reflected in the final declaration.
Global environmental concerns are growing and ominous scientific predictions on water stress, food security, global warming, desertification and biodiversity loss are increasing. Most of these phenomenons will affect primarily developing countries. In this context, will ASPA leaders show more environmental awareness and embrace a greener economic model? Probably not.
The ASPA CEO summit’s agenda is not very heartening in that respect. Panel 3 on energy asks “How can we maximize the use of non-renewable energy sources while protecting the environment and developing new technologies”.
Panel 4 “Beyond Natural resources” dares to ask “Is climate change an issue?”
Conclusion: a view from the ground
It is already the third time leaders of South America and the Arab world meet to agree on the need for more cooperation. However, little innovative and concrete achievements have been made.
On a very practical level, the reality is that citizens, students, businessmen or simple tourists from both continents are finding it extremely difficult to travel from one region to another. There are almost no direct flights between the two regions; connections are inconvenient, tiring and expensive.
More importantly, getting a visa is proving to be quite a challenge due to immigration policies on both sides: Latinos coming to the Middle East tend to be suspected of drug trafficking, while Arabs travelling to South America go through a long screening process before getting an answer.
We can only hope that the third ASPA summit will find a new breath and propose concrete innovative ideas to build closer ties and more tangible bridges. Both regions need it and their people could benefit immensely from such a rapprochement.
 Including Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador.
 A short movie produced by Dutch MP Geert Wilders attempting to demonstrate that the Qur’an motivates its followers to hate all who violate Islamic teachings.