There could hardly be a more graphic instance of an emerging new world order than Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the premiers of both Syria and Lebanon all flying for a get-together in Brasilia in Brazil, designed from scratch in the 1950s by modernist icon Oscar Niemeyer as the futuristic capital of the new world.
They were among the heads of state and ministers from 33 South American and Arab League states gathered in the Brazilian capital for the first-ever Arab-South American summit. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim has described the summit as an “alliance of civilizations” – a reference to 150 years of Syrian-Lebanese immigration to South America. More than 10 million people of Arab descent live in South America, most of them in Brazil, which holds the largest Arab diaspora in the world.
The “Declaration of Brasilia” to be endorsed this Wednesday calls for close political and economic ties between South America and the Arab world; demands that Israel disband its settlements in the West Bank, including “those in East Jerusalem”, and retreat to its borders before 1967; criticizes US “unilateral economic sanctions against Syria”, which violates principles of international law; and forcefully condemns terrorism. Israel is also implicitly criticized for holding an undeclared nuclear arsenal. The declaration also calls for a global conference to define the meaning of terrorism, and defends peoples’ rights to “resist foreign occupation in accordance with the principle of international legality and in compliance with international humanitarian law”.
It’s unlikely that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will lose any sleep over what happened in Brasilia – despite all the inevitable hardline Israeli-American rumblings. Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa said, “It’s their [Israel's] problem if they are concerned. If they don’t want to be concerned anymore, they should change their policy in the occupied territories.”
Washington was so concerned about the summit turning into a forum against President George W Bush’s Greater Middle East and against Israel that it pressured the pliable, dependent leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Morocco not to attend. As much as Brazil counts on Arab support in its pledge for a permanent United Nations Security Council seat, the Arab League counts on South America to support an Egyptian bid.
South America is avidly cultivating much stronger ties with China, Russia and the Arab world – and there’s little Washington can do about it. The US officially requested to be an observer at the summit. The Brazilians politely declined: “It’s a public meeting, you can watch it on TV.”
Not surprisingly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Abbas were welcomed in Brasilia as heroes. Brazilian President Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva diplomatically praised the Palestinians for their “patience” during the Middle East peace process. Al-Jazeera went live with the opening remarks by the co-hosts, Lula and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, also the current president of the Arab League. Lula insisted once again that “poor countries [must] receive the benefits of globalization”. The Algerians are excitedly talking about “a coalition on cultural, political and economic terms”. Al-Sharq al-Awsat, a leading Arab paper, stressed how the summit could influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The London Arabic-language daily al-Hayat published a half-page photo of Talabani arriving in Brasilia.
The key point of all this is economic. Bilateral trade between South America and the Arab world stands only at US$10 billion a year, but growth possibilities are endless. The main success of the summit is the PetroSul agreement, which creates a continental oil major composed by Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela.
Arabs are delighted to find good products and competitive prices in South America and a business climate much more relaxed than in Europe, and especially post-September 11 US. For instance, Brazil will export even more sugar, beef and chicken to the Middle East. According to the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, exports may double within five years.
According to Georgetown University’s Tarik Youssef, “From the Arabs’ perspective, Latin America is probably the best case to benchmark the pace of progress in the Arab world,” meaning in both the political and economic spheres. Arabs may learn one or two practical things in South America in terms of privatization and fiscal and political reforms. Brazil is forcefully engaged in a campaign for the elimination of rich countries’ agricultural subsidies – a popular theme also in the Arab world. The summit is the first step toward a future free trade agreement between the Mercosur and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
No wonder Washington hawks are uneasy. There’s an emerging geopolitical axis on the map – Arab-South American. It’s non-aligned. And it’s swimming in oil. Between them, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Egypt, Qatar, Libya, Oman, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil pump about 27.2 million barrels of oil a day, about 32.5% of global production.
One of the key reasons for Talabani’s presence at the summit is that Brazil will inevitably be back to oil-field development in Iraq. Brazil had very close commercial relations – in the oil service industry and in the military sector – with Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s time. Brazilian technical expertise helped in the discovery of some of the largest Iraqi oilfields.
Both Venezuela and Brazil hope to win plenty of service contracts in the Arab world. Venezuela, instead of just supplying about 13% of the daily US oil consumption, is avidly diversifying – striking new deals with Spain and China. The last thing Hugo Chavez wants is to be dependent on the US market.
The writing on the (global) wall is now inevitable: region-to-region economic deals, more exports, and increased distancing from the weak dollar. In this renewed South-South cooperation, trade and commerce prevail over invasion and regime change; respect to UN resolutions regarding military occupations prevail over alienated terrorism rhetoric. There’s an alternative global agenda in town.