Brazil: Is There A Clear Foreign Policy for the Middle East and Africa?

The twenty-first century has brought important changes to the balance of power which had been in place until then, with obvious ramifications for the international economy and politics. In this context, Brazil has come to dispute its influence in recent years in two regions which were formerly dominated by the central countries: the Middle East and Africa.

The current Brazilian foreign policy in the Middle East

The Middle East attracts global attention for two primary reasons: oil, and its geographical position. The former ensures energy for the production of all that we consume, while the latter represents a natural bridge which has connected Europe, Asia and Africa since time immemorial. In this respect, the Brazilian ambassador Hadil da Rocha Vianna, in the preface of the Ministry of Foreign Relations (MRE) publication “Prospects for a policy of commercial promotion in the Middle East” in 2011, said the following [pt]:

[…] o Governo brasileiro está convencido de que o incremento da parceria com diferentes regiões do planeta deverá assumir caráter central em sua diplomacia comercial, contexto em que a relevância do Oriente Médio é evidenciada.

[…] the Brazilian government is convinced that an increase in partnership with different regions of the planet must play a central role in its commercial diplomacy, a context in which the relevance of the Middle East is evident.
Visit of the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brazil, 2009. Photo from the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Brazil (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Visit of the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brazil, 2009. Photo from the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Brazil (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In fact, it was “commercial diplomacy” which prompted the visits of the ex-President Lula to the region in the first year of his mandate as well as the organisation of the first South America-Arab Countries (ASPA) summit meeting in Brazil in 2005. Since then, Brazilian exports to the Middle East have more than quadrupled, rising from US$ 2.3 billion to US$ 10.5 billion, turning the trade balance for the first time in favour of Brazil.

The increase in trading also favoured the Brazilian initiative to try to involve itself in discussions on the peace process in the Middle East, which included the proposal of an agreement to avoid greater sanctions on Iran – as a result of the continuation of its nuclear programme – and the mediation of the Israel-Palestine conflict, both in 2010. According to the MRE, the country had sufficient credentials for this as it is relatively self-sufficient in oil and has no great national security concerns in the region, nor does it have any colonial baggage in the Middle East, factors which would give Brazil the status of a “neutral power”.

As was later seen, Brazil's pretensions did not get much further, due in part to the inexperience of its diplomats with the religious and ideological complexities of the peoples who live in the region, but also due to Brazil's inability to back up the diplomatic decisions taken with guarantees, that is, to apply sanctions to countries which did not respect the agreements.

The South Atlantic and its relations with Africa

The same principle of South-South relations applied by Brazil to the Middle East was also applied to Africa. The ex-President Lula spoke of a “historical divide” between the country and the African continent, by which he was almost certainly referring to the slave trade led by Brazilians. In a text published [pt] on the page “Racismo Ambiental” (Environmental Racism), the writers Luiz Fabbri and Matilde Ribeiro discuss the legacy of this divide in contemporary Brazilian society:

Com efeito, foram traficantes brasileiros, em associação com grandes latifundiários, ou seja, as elites econômicas imperiais, que tomaram as rédeas do tráfico para o Brasil. Embora o país tenha evoluído desde então, os herdeiros dessas elites, e em alguns casos inclusive seus descendentes diretos, continuam tendo um enorme peso na vida política e na economia do país.

For practical purposes, it was the Brazilian traffickers, in association with large ranch owners, that is, the imperial economic elites, who took control in the slave trade to Brazil. Although the country has evolved since that time, the heirs of those elites, and in some cases their direct descendants, continue to carry huge weight in the country's political life and economy.
Africa Brazil. Photo by Rafael Alvez on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Africa Brazil. Photo by Rafael Alvez on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In this way, Brazil wishes to repay its historical debt through cooperation agreements involving agriculture, tropical medicine, technical training, energy and social protection. At the same time, Brazilian multinationals and non-governmental organisations have come to include Africa in their plans, making the emerging Brazil coincide with a new Africa.

There are good reasons for this interest. In the last decade, Africa has shown itself to be resistent to economic crises and many countries display strong growth, which explains the investment of Brazilian groups primarily in infrastructure and cooperation on institutional capacity-building.

From trade to politics

Brazil is the only country in Latin America with a foreign policy specifically targeted towards the Middle East and Africa. However, what is striking is that this policy is based on relations of a commercial nature. It was thus for both the Iranian issue and later for the conflict between Arabs and Israelis.

As was seen a short time later, the proposal for the Iranian issue was toppled at the United Nations Security Council and the attempt to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians was practically ignored. On this matter, the Garden Blog expresses [pt] a scathing critique of the Brazilian diplomatic strategy for the Middle East and warns:

A realidade não demorou a lançar um tijolo na nossa testa. Quando se trata de grana e território, países não perdem tempo com licores e charutos. O que importa são definições: amigo ou inimigo, contra ou a favor, sérvio ou bósnio, judeu ou muçulmano. […] Se existe uma região do globo onde os perigos são catastróficos e as recompensas meramente simbólicas, é esta.

Reality did not take long to throw a brick at our head. When it is a question of money and land, countries don't waste time with drinks and cigars. What is important are definitions: friend or enemy, for or against, Serb or Bosnian, Jewish or Muslim. […] There is a region of the globe where the dangers are catastrophic and the rewards merely symbolic, and it is this one.
President Dilma Rousseff with the Ambassador of Guinea-Bissau, Eugénia Pereira Saldanha Araújo, 2011. Photo Germano Corrêa/MRE on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

President Dilma Rousseff with the Ambassador of Guinea-Bissau, Eugénia Pereira Saldanha Araújo, 2011. Photo Germano Corrêa/MRE on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

But what does the Brazilian strategy for international engagement consist of? Since the re-democratisation of Brazil in the 1980s, a recurring item on its external agenda has been the demand for reform of the international political and economic order and the Middle East and Africa show themselves to be useful platforms for these ambitions.

But it is in the political arena in which a difference in treatment of the two regions can be observed: while Brazil positioned itself at the UN in defence of dialogue in the Iraninan case, the same thing did not occur when the recent coup d'etat in Guinea-Bissau took place. The country's endeavour seemed to be driven by the visibility offered by each issue, and in this case, the Middle East was unbeatable. What does not seem clear to the Brazilians is that – maintaining the ambition to be an emerging power – sooner or later they will have to take sides and even involve themselves militarily to defend the interests of their corporations and, in the end, economic investment will demand that their politicians take a position.

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