In many different ways, the symposium co-organized by the Center University Saint Esprit of Kaslik (USEK) and the RIMAAL (29-30 November) on the relations between the Middle East and South America was an eye-opener. It confirmed the massive potential of the trans-regional relation, the dynamism and ambitions of key stakeholders but also the long way still ahead of us.
During the event, the elements of this new South-South relationship literally crystallized under our eyes: new research avenues were identified (O. Dabene); future events and academic initiatives were announced and people from both continents met and clicked. We truly felt like pioneers.
Throughout the discussions, key-note speakers of both regions highlighted the competitive assertiveness of key South American diplomacies in the Middle East in particular on the Palestinian issue (C. Baeza), the exponential growth of bi-regional trade (C. Quenan) and the potentialities of closer political ties in the context of the Arab Spring (S. Boccanera, J. Herrera). Many stressed the lack of a common approach among South Americans (E. Brun), the tensions induced with Washington and Israel by the rapprochement between the two regions (M. Aboutaher) and the key role of Brazil as a primus inter pares (J.T. Karam, G. Casarões). The lack of vision and strategy on how to seriously engage Arab Diasporas in South America was highlighted on several occasions (W. Habib).
These discussions happened against the enabling backdrop of deep structural changes and strategic moves from key players shaping the future of the relation: 3rd ASPA summit in Peru (JJ. Vagni), inauguration of new embassies, opening of direct flights, joint ventures in the field of energy and agriculture…
From NGC view point however, many new questions emerged from this discussion.
The most serious diplomatic efforts in the last decade focused on engaging pre-Arab spring actors. Venezuela and Brazil for instance invested on their relationship with Syria, Libya and Iran (F. Ahmar, P. Botta) and have consequently lost a lot with the uprisings. They must now re-position themselves if they are to play a role and defend their interests in the new regional configuration. It remains to be seen whether Latin-American diplomacies will be willing and able to articulate a new strategic vision to deal with the “Arab Spring” and reach out to new actors, including in particular the Islamists.
The fast take-off of commercial exchanges alone does not mean much. First, bi-regional trade is at the beginning of a catch-up phase and the starting point is very low. Second, for now these exchanges are reflecting random efforts of a couple of key countries and limited sectors with a strong competitive edge. Brazil represents more than 60% of total exports to/imports from the Middle East and there is a clear concentration of flows on the GCC countries (A. Galindo).
It could very well happen that the catch-up is merely a fast but limited realignment of a normal division of labor between the two regions. Finally, we need to look at this economic relation in the context of Sustainable Development. The two regions and the global state of our planet cannot afford to start on the wrong foot then try to correct the trajectory later.
“Caminante no hay camino se hace el camino al andar” A. Machado
At the end of these two intense days of presentations and discussions, we left with two key conclusions.
– The quest for a meaning : everyone agreed that a new relation between the Middle East and South America should go beyond a mere mercantile vision (Z. Eyadat, H. Nehme), but the deeper meaning of this relationship is still to be defined.
– The need for a concrete agenda: there is a clear willingness to move from potentialities to actions, from general speeches to concrete projects. Important announcements were made in that respect: the USEK declared its willingness to launch a Master on Latin American Studies and the University of Jordan is about to launch an academic Center on Latin America.
NGC looks forward to participating in the next Arab-Latin-American Forum that will take place in Abu Dhabi (15-18 December 2012) and hopes this event will bring more answers on both the long term vision and concrete steps towards a new relationship between both continents.
 In 2010, the exports of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) to the Middle East amounted to 2.91% of the total exports of the region. For their part, Middle East exports to LAC represented only 1.54% of foreign purchases (SELA, 2012).