Arabs must know Latin America

The idea of a Latin American-Arab summit started 10 years ago thanks to Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president. However, until now only four summits have taken place, the last in Riyadh. There is a lot in common in the histories of Arab and Latin American countries. Both were subjected to harsh colonialism, and much of the colonial legacy and its memory continue to this day.

Both regions were important arenas for U.S. Cold War policy, and in both cases that policy failed with devastating consequences. Moreover, there are more than 15 million Arabs living in Latin America, about 12 million of them in Brazil alone.

Not only have they assimilated in a culture that is not very different from their own, but many have become successful businessmen, politicians, even heads of state. More importantly, both regions can benefit greatly from each other for their respective development.

Many research centers in Latin America are dedicated to understanding the Arab world and the Middle East. In the Arab world there seems to be only one counterpart, in Lebanon.

Abdullah Hamidaddin


There are quite a few challenges ahead in terms of cooperation. Firstly, the interests of the countries in each region diverge so much that it is almost impossible to imagine collective economic or political cooperation. Secondly, both the Arab League and the various regional organizations of Latin America are weak and ineffective when it comes to making collective decisions.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is that Iran has made headway in Latin America. For the past 12 years or so, Tehran has pursued a consistent outreach policy with many Latin American countries. It even buys uranium from there. Worse than that, Iran’s Republican Guard and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah have a broad and strong business network there. And in 2012, Iran’s Press TV launched its Hispanic version.

Those three challenges may hinder effective engagement between Arab and Latin American countries, but only when we think of that engagement in terms of two blocs. Those challenges will not stand in the way of bilateral and multilateral relations between countries from the two regions.

However, there is a fourth and more pertinent challenge: neither region understands the other well enough. To foster regional cooperation, it is not enough for heads of state and business leaders from both regions to meet. Nor is it enough to measure the growth of cooperation by the growth in trade. Summits, business meetings and trade contracts are vital but not enough. Long-term regional cooperation is about people to people, and not just elites to elites.

Latin Americans and Arabs need mutual understanding of each other’s histories, cultures, religions and ethnicities. Latin Americans have done much better than Arabs in terms of understanding. Many research centers in Latin America are dedicated to understanding the Arab world and the Middle East. In the Arab world there seems to be only one counterpart, in Lebanon.

Arabs urgently need to study Latin America. We should send more students there, tour their countries, know their newspapers, cooperate with their civil society, translate their intellectual work and literature. We need to interact with Latin Americans directly, to be more in touch with their minds and souls.

The next Latin American-Arab summit will be in 2018. I hope by then we can speak not only of an increase in trade or in mutual support for political causes, but also of the number of Arab research centers and academic institutions dedicated to understanding Latin America.

Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:46 - GMT 06:46
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