Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Rumba in Riyadh

Latin America has much to teach the Arab world, and at last week’s Arab-Latin America Summit in the Saudi capital Riyadh, the two regions agreed that they have much in common, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The United States and Europe are indulging in an orgy of self-righteousness over human rights and democracy while Arab and Latin American nations have metamorphosed into the favourite whipping boy of the international media.

Venezuela is ostracised and treated as a pariah state. Ecuador is eschewed for offering WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange safe haven in its embassy in London. Argentina has discord with Britain over “The Malvinas”, the South Atlantic islands off its southern coast that Britain claims as “The Falklands.”

Needless to say, several Arab nations have also come under fire. Morocco claims the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla as integral parts of its sovereign territory. And elsewhere there are piles of bones of contention between Arab states and the West. This is no time for Arab and Latin American nations to go wobbly on solidarity.

While doubtless there are elements of xenophobia and a growing anti-Western, anti-imperialist sentiment in the two regions, the politics of decolonisation apart, petroleum and natural gas featured prominently at the recent fourth Arab-Latin American Summit, with many member states of the two regions belonging to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

The Arab-Latin American summits, held every three years, began in Brazil in 2005 and subsequently met in Qatar and Peru. This year’s host nation, Saudi Arabia, is the world’s biggest oil exporter, while Ecuador, OPEC’s smallest member, also participated. All concurred that closer cooperation would be a real step forward.

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, in his introductory remarks at the Riyadh summit, said that trade between the two regions has reached $33 billion, compared to just $6 billion a decade ago. Egypt and Argentina are cooperating in the development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

“The Arab region is witnessing political developments not seen before,” Al-Sisi said in Riyadh. “Its leaders and the region’s institutions are exposed to real threats.”

He continued, “Groups have tried to adopt extremist ideologies and impose their opinions and ideas to change the identity of some Arab nations, among them Egypt.”

Egypt’s Al-Sisi, like Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, are often harshly criticised in the international media, especially in the United States and European. Nevertheless, both Arab leaders and their Latin American counterparts understand that they need to be ambitious but realistic.

Among Arab heads of states that participated in the Riyadh Arab-Latin America Summit were Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, yet another adversary of the West and wanted on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Latin American leaders apparently turn a blind eye to such contentious issues.

Also present in Riyadh were Jordan’s King Abdullah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. The unquestionable star of the show, however, was the host — the king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

South America’s smallest country, Suriname, has the largest percentage of Muslims in its population of any Latin American nation, even though, strictly speaking, the former Dutch colony is not a Latin nation. The continent as a whole has a huge and economically dynamic population of Arab descent. There are, for instance, more than 10 million Lebanese in Brazil, the continent’s largest nation.

Small wonder that the idea of the Arab-Latin American summit was the brainchild of former Brazilian President Lula da Silva. Moreover, Arab communities, and in particular Levantines, have traditionally been active in Latin American politics. Several Latin American presidents, including Argentina’s former leader Carlos Menem, are of Syrian descent. Some half a million Mexicans are of Lebanese descent.

Latin America is unique among the world’s regions in that it has had no less than seven presidents of Arab descent. Apart from Menem, president of Argentina from 1989 to 1999 (Syrian); Julio César Turbay, president of Colombia from 1978 to 1982 (Lebanese); Elías Antonio Saca, president of El Salvador from 2004 to 2009 (Palestinian); Abdalá Bucaram, president of Ecuador from August 1996 to February 1997 (Lebanese); Jamil Mahuad, president of Ecuador from August 1998 to January 2000 (Lebanese); Carlos Flores Facussé, president of Honduras from 1998 to 2002 (Palestinian); Jacobo Majluta Azar, president of the Dominican Republic from 4 July 1982 to 16 August 1982 (Lebanese); and Julio Teodoro Salem, head of state of Ecuador from 29 May 1944 to 31 May 1944 (Lebanese) were all democratically elected — with the excepion of Teodoro — by universal and direct suffrage.

Their influence on the international stage can be seen in the prominent position that Latin American countries have taken on issues such as that of the Palestinians. Now it is up to Arabs to strengthen the bonds between the two regions. Most Latin American nations are dedicated to the Palestinian cause. There are certain political issues that Latin America would like to see more support on from Arab countries. The Malvinas is one of those burning issues.

I was at a meeting on the Malvinas in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa earlier this year. I had the pleasure of meeting Argentine Secretary for Malvinas Affairs Daniel Filmus.

“We want Arab and African support for us to regain sovereignty of the Malvinas. Sovereignty must be officially transferred to Argentina,” Filmus told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“In January 1833, British troops occupied the Malvinas Islands and expelled the Argentine authorities and population inhabiting the islands, replacing them with a British colonial administration and British settlers, in much the same manner as the Israelis today have settlements in Palestinian occupied land.”

He continued, “It is a matter of territorial integrity, just like Egypt regained Sinai from Israel. We will persist. We will insist and still follow the diplomatic ways.”

Many nations, including China and the “Group of 77”, which now numbers 132 countries, have recognised Argentina’s right to regain the Malvinas. “In its General Assembly Resolution 2065, the United Nations defined the Malvinas as Argentine territory,” Filmus told the Weekly. “Moreover, we now have a 30-year-old democracy.”

Windows of opportunity for cooperation between the Arab world and Latin America have always existed, “but haven’t been open enough to take advantage of [our shared] capabilities,” said Sudan’s foreign minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, in Riyadh.

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