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World: Arab-Latin American Summit -- Two 'Underdog' Regions Seeking Strength

An unprecedented summit opened in Brazil today between Arab countries and Latin American states. The summit brings together two worlds that have had little contact. One of the main goals of the conference is to increase trade and business links, but the Arabs will also be looking for diplomatic support for the Palestinian cause and other political issues. Could this summit of 34 countries therefore take on an anti-U.S. direction?

Prague, 10 May, 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Brazil is playing host to an unusual gathering of heads of state and government, who are hoping to slightly shift the earth's center of gravity -- in economic and political terms that is.

Leaders from 22 Arab countries and 12 Latin American states today opened a summit in the capital Brasilia aimed at boosting the developing world's share of global trade, and at increasing their political influence.

Latin America and the Arab world are alike in that they have massive potential, but have never fully realized that potential. Despite abundant natural resources or great territorial depth, they still endure various degrees of poverty, social conflict, or political stagnation.

Turi Munthe, who is a Mideast regional expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says this summit is an attempt by the "underdogs" to show they can be independent of the great trading blocs.

"This [summit] is partly a contingency plan to allow themselves greater independence from the two dominant political and economic players in the West, namely the United States and the European Union, but it is also an attempt to look to the future," Munthe says.

At the summit, the Latin American trade grouping Mercosur -- consisting of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay -- hopes to sign a trade accord with the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

Another analyst, Jossi Meckelberg of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, says the Latin American-Arab link reminds him of the origins of the Nonaligned Movement in the 1950s.

"Some parts of the world [today] feel left out of the process of globalization, just as some countries felt left out of the Cold War, they felt [at that time] like foot soldiers in a much bigger game of the superpowers, as in a chess game, and I think some parts of the world -- like Latin America -- are feeling left out again," Meckelberg says.

On the political front, the Arab states are eager to recruit Latin American support for the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and also to reinforce Arab views on Iraq and what constitutes terrorism.

Among those attending are Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

The summit comes at a time when Brazil, under the leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is actively seeking a wider diplomatic role in the world. Increased contact with the Arab world could fit this plan.

Venezuela, under the populist President Hugo Chavez, is pursuing radical policies frowned on by Washington, and would likely welcome contact with Arab countries that also diverge from U.S. policies.

Analyst Meckelberg notes the ambivalence of the Latin Americans toward the United States. While they admire the United States, he says, at the same time they dislike its dominant role in the Western hemisphere. He says he believes Arab-Latin American cooperation could make itself felt in terms of new attitudes in regional and international bodies.

"On the level of devising policies together, which could be reflected in the OAS (Organization of American States) meetings, and in specific groups at the United Nations," Meckelberg says.

The United States and Israel are aware of the potential for anti-American sentiment. Washington asked for observer status at the summit but was turned down by Brazil.

U.S. and Israeli officials and diplomats have already expressed concern about the reported contents of the summit's draft final document.

This draft reportedly includes a reference to the right to resist foreign occupation. That is something that could be used to criticize the U.S. military presence in Iraq, and the Israeli occupation the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The draft also calls for an international conference to define terrorism. That is not favored by Washington or Israel, as it could call into question their designation of the militant Islamic movements Hizbollah and Hamas as terrorist organizations.