Ministers from 33 South American and Middle Eastern countries on Sunday began preparing the groundwork for the first-ever summit of leaders from the two regions.
Their talks could lead to a commitment to negotiations for a South American-Arab free trade zone – part of an effort to counter U.S. political and economic influence.
Brazilian media stressed Sunday that the leaders of key U.S. allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be absent. But Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is scheduled to attend. The United States’ request to observe the event was denied.
While the stated goal of the gathering is to boost economic ties, the summit will bring together leaders from countries that resent America’s forceful hand in everything from regime changes to globalization that critics say benefits only large multinational corporations.
“It’s important for these countries to not be seen as being bullied by the West,” said Amany Jamal, a Middle East political development expert at Princeton University. “What better way to do that than re-establish dominance on another front?”
Top government officials from the 11 South American nations and 22 Middle Eastern and North African countries attending the Summit of South American-Arab Countries met Sunday ahead of the two-day summit’s opening on Tuesday.
Leaders gathering in Brasília will range from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a self-proclaimed revolutionary and constant U.S. critic, to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the summit host, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The event is part of Silva’s push to unite developing nations to influence issues like the reform of the U.N. Security Council and the elimination of rich nations’ subsidies for agriculture.
On Monday, Silva will meet privately with the prime ministers of Syria and Lebanon, and with Abbas.
Later, he’ll host a dinner for Chavez and Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, who angered investors in developed countries this year by paying only 30 percent on the dollar on Argentina’s $103 billion debt default.
The summit could also serve as an initial step toward negotiations for a free trade agreement between two regions currently doing little business together.
Brazilian officials said a summit declaration will focus on social issues like Silva’s push to eradicate worldwide hunger; it was unclear how summit participants would address touchy issues like terrorism and the Middle East peace process.
The meeting is being billed as a new step in cooperation to join the interests of poor countries so they have better negotiating power with rich nations that typically dominate global politics and trade negotiations.
South American countries are already moving forward quickly on that front by trying to boost political ties with Asia, particularly China, a major buyer of products ranging from Brazilian and Argentine soy to Chilean copper.
The Middle East, however is Latin America’s weakest regional trading partner. Brazil, South America’s largest economy, exports just $4 billion annually to the Middle East and imports $4.1 billion, mostly in petroleum.
But shipments of products like sugar, beef and chicken from Brazil to the Middle East are exploding. The Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce estimates Brazilian exports to Arab countries could double within five years.
The summit gives the Arab nations the chance to explore ways to penetrate a largely untapped South American export market. Exports to Latin America from regional economic powerhouse Egypt, for example, accounted for only 1 percent of the country’s total exports in the first 11 months of 2004.
And it could be a learning experience for the Arabs as they see firsthand the greater progress South America has made in economic reforms – such as the privatization of state industries and fiscal and political reforms that have boosted foreign investment
This article appeared originally in Mercopress.