Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

A sense of deep connection has reverberated between South America and Arab countries since the early waves of Arab migrations to South America in the late nineteenth century. The Arabic language also played an important role in Brazil’s history. Most of the Muslim African anti-slavery activists and revolutionaries in nineteenth century Brazil wrote and spoke Arabic, or Portuguese and African languages using Arabic letters. Although there are more than 16 million Arabs and their descendants in Brazil, which constitutes the largest Arab community outside the Middle East, no Brazilian president had ever visited the region until President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003. His was the first official visit of a Brazilian head of state to any Arab country since the emperor Dom Pedro II (1825–1891) visited the region in the nineteenth century.

Historically, relations between Arab states and South America were built primarily on bilateral negotiations and agreements. Since early 2003, however, a new approach has developed that prioritizes an alternative model of international relations through bi-regional cooperation. Following the election of President Lula da Silva in 2003, Brazil launched a series of summits promoting political, economic, technological, cultural and educational cooperation with Arab countries. In 2005, the Summit of South American-Arab Countries (Cúpula América do Sul-Países Árabes, ASPA) was formally established with 12 South American and 22 Arab countries cooperating in the fields of science and technology, the environment, culture and education, economy and social issues.

ASPA is one of the first mechanisms to promote cultural and educational cooperation within a South-South perspective of solidarity. Over the past 15 years, the final declaration of each ASPA Summit of Heads of State and Government, held every three years, has emphasized the importance of translating and publishing books, organizing exhibits, festivals, workshops and cultural and educational exchange programs. While ASPA’s initiatives have produced significant results, they are limited by a lack of financing and an emphasis on trade. These limitations illustrate some of the challenges of South-South solidarity and cooperation.

Cultural Diplomacy and Achievements

In 2005, Brazil hosted the first ASPA summit, which was intended to serve as a platform for the formulation and implementation of a common agenda between the regions. The response was encouraging: commercial and cultural relations strengthened considerably and Arab countries opened several new embassies and consulates in South America. Brazil opened more than 20 new embassies in the Middle East and Africa. Similar to the South-South vision laid out at the Bandung Conference between Asian and African states in 1955, participants envisioned the summit as a launching pad to coordinate positions as a unified block in order to influence the United Nations, World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Some of ASPA’s most significant accomplishments have been at the cultural level. At the time it was founded, political leaders in South America understood that cultural diplomacy could produce crucial results in mobilizing domestic, regional and international support for an emerging South-South solidarity. They also realized that cultural initiatives could enhance political and commercial relations and build alternatives to the hegemonic politics of the global North. Ministries of culture as well as civil society-based cultural and research institutions have played a major role in this process.

The establishment of the Library and Centre of South American and Arab Research (BibliASPA), in São Paulo, Brazil, with branches in other cities, has been among ASPA’s most impressive cultural and educational accomplishments. This institution promotes critical, cross-regional reflection through the publication of books in Portuguese, Arabic, Spanish, English and French; creating and translating literary and social science works from one region to the other; maintaining a website in five languages; organizing conferences, courses, debates, exhibitions, movie festivals, theater performances and the annual South American Festival of Arab Culture.

Another goal of BibliASPA is to promote the teaching of languages ​​such as Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish. Language instruction supports researchers in the study of non-European sources and promotes non-Eurocentric ways of reading and interpreting. It also helps Arab, African and South American refugees and migrants integrate into the society where they live. Brazil, for instance, receives the most refugees in South America, the majority of whom are Arabs and Africans. At BibliASPA refugees are offered free education. Every month about 1,350 refugees also receive food, transportation, clothing, legal aid, psychological assistance, translation and assistance in finding a job.

An important achievement of ASPA is the establishment of the research group “Arab, African, Asian, South American and Diasporic Themes, Narratives and Representations,” which aims to promote the reading, analysis and translation of key texts and manuscripts directly from the original language without an intermediate language. Creating proficiency in, and literary appreciation of, regional languages paves the way for a new generation of cultural dialogue within the global South and avoids the stereotypes and ignorance historically generated by relying upon the mediation of a third language, especially considering the possible imperial, geopolitical or cultural biases inherent in these frames of understanding. ASPA has also formalized spaces for networking among artists and academics, beyond the networking of government officials and businessmen. A good example is Fikr: Journal of Arabic, African and South American Studies, with an editorial board of professors from 25 countries.

Challenges and Difficulties

Unfortunately, despite the focus within ASPA on South-South cooperation, a critical problem emerged when some Arab countries called on European and North American expertise to oversee several initiatives, thus undermining the entire idea. A concrete example was the assistance offered by the Qatari government to educational programs in Brazil and Argentina, including support for Arabic language learning. Doha asked North American institutions to supervise the programs although the designated team did not speak Portuguese, Spanish or Arabic and had never been to Brazil and Argentina. Brazilian and Argentinian professors, teachers and students were offended by the way they were treated and were confused by the orders, orientation and promises made by the North American team on behalf of the Qatari government. The North American visitors brought with them stereotypes about favelas, Carnival and beaches. Their South America seemed to be a holiday reward rather than a workplace.

The episode reinforces the idea that the era of “triangulating” South-South relations via the mediation of the United States or Europe should be over. Brazil, for example, has features and histories that allow it to develop a special direct relationship with Arab and Muslim countries. South America should consolidate and expand its privileged relationship with Arab countries through a respectful and non-invasive dialogue, but one that should never concede ground in key areas such as human rights, freedom of expression, social inclusion and the environment.

Further development of BibliASPA and other initiatives have been agreed upon in the summits but have not seen the light of day due to lack of funding and political follow up. The ministers of culture of South American and Arab countries affirmed their support in their Riyadh 2014 summit meeting and called for an ASPA museum. They also urged BibliASPA to prepare and implement more programs of translation between Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese and English. At the fourth ASPA summit, in Riyadh in November 2015, the heads of state and government commended the progress achieved in the field of cultural cooperation, applauded BibliASPA and urged practical steps forward. But repeated requests for financial support and a fixed budget for culture and education have been ignored.

Difficulties are perhaps understandable. On one side, some Arab countries involved do not fully see the importance of supporting, with practical steps, educational and cultural initiatives related to ASPA—despite public affirmations to do so—and some have instead pursued initiatives with the global North. On the other side, South America has been facing political and economic crises, decreasing support for culture and education, and unfortunately the current governments of countries like Brazil and Argentina do not see social, cultural or educational programs as priorities. The turn to more conservative governments has made cooperating on ASPA style initiatives more difficult. Brazil’s current government, led by Michel Temer, who took office in May 2016, remains deeply unpopular. Today, ASPA’s bi-regional cooperation is threatened by political and economic crises in South America and by upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa.

The ASPA model aims to institutionalize and build upon historic ties to advance common interests. Challenges include the lack of financing for culture, education and research projects (which also enhance political and commercial relations); an excessive dependence on chambers of commerce (which have expertise on its sphere of work, but not on societies, culture and education); difficulties in realizing the importance of the refugee issue; travel barriers and restrictions (Arab and South American citizens carrying ordinary passports still need visas in most cases) and other factors. As the term ASPA (which means quote in Portuguese) itself suggests, member countries should facilitate cooperation and rapprochement through more consultation and inclusion.

For the ASPA process to advance and for cooperation to be not just a momentary and elusive initiative, both regions need to continue building institutional frameworks and organizations, as well as to maintain the original commitment to cultural and educational programs. This commitment includes providing adequate financing, institutional support and the reactivation of dormant initiatives, such as the ASPA-UNESCO contact group that was established to formalize cultural cooperation with the United Nations. The ASPA movement of rediscovery and of cultural valorization can encourage the construction of alternatives enhanced by mutual understanding and critical reflection upon rich histories of linguistic, literary, commercial, social and development partnership and transregional exchange.

How to cite this article:

Paulo Farah "South-South Solidarity and the Summit 
of South American-Arab Countries," Middle East Report 284/285 (Winter 2017).
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