Brazil: Middle East Economic Policy Under the Radar

The current search for new trading partners in unexpected geographic areas demonstrates the extent to which Brazil has changed its foreign policy the last few years. With an agenda that has focused primarily on global business performance, the Middle East has emerged as a key area for Brazilians who want to expand the consumer market of their companies.

From the Empire of Brazil to the military government

If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil tries to fill diplomatic gaps today in the case of the Middle East, it is a consequence of a process that began two centuries ago, when Emperor Dom Pedro II visited the former Ottoman Empire, which included Greater Syria–present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

It was in the 1970s, during the oil crisis, that the Middle East finally got onto the radar of Brazilian diplomacy and since then Brazil has only increased its diplomatic missions in that region. However, this increase in relations did not prevent a shock that would be felt until at least the next decade as described [pt] by blogger Virtuália:

Grande Oriente Médio. Imagem de Lobo Estepario no Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Greater Middle East. Image of Lobo Estepario on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Com a crise petrolífera de 1973, encerrava-se o chamado “Milagre Econômico Brasileiro”, e o país entraria em colapso econômico, crise que se veio a agravar, só encerrando depois do fim da ditadura militar.

With the oil crisis in 1973, it ended the so-called “Brazilian Miracle” and the country would collapse in an economic crisis that became worse, ending only after the end of the military dictatorship.

Then in Brazil a diplomatic pro-Arab orientation began, in which the Brazilian authorities would publicly condemn the Israeli expansionist policy and support the establishment of a Palestinian State to coexist peacefully with the Jewish State. It was called “national interest diplomacy” carried forward from the government of General Médici (1969-1974) and aimed to prevent reprisals of oil-producing countries.

The first decade after redemocratization

The dependence on “black gold” inevitably forced dialogue between leaders of Brazil and the Middle East, which originally was between equals: dictators. But remained without any major embarrassment on the Brazilian side until well after the return of democracy to the country. Among those dictators were Moammar Gadhafi, Hafez el-Assad and Saddam Hussein. For example, at the time of Gulf War, when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in 1990, Brazil was exporting everything from chicken to arms to Iraq.

Specifically on the arms brokering, the blogger “O Informante” [The Insider] says [pt]:

Nos anos 1980 e parte dos 1990, aliás, países em conflito como Iraque, Líbia, Angola, Paquistão e Colômbia também estiveram entre os maiores compradores de armas brasileiras.

In the 1980s and part of 1990, moreover, countries in conflict such as Iraq, Libya, Angola, Pakistan and Colombia were among the biggest buyers of Brazilian arms.

Consequently, it is believed that most of the arms used in both the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi troops and in his defense during the war were produced in Brazil.

The Middle East in the Lula administration

Lula da Silva e Mahmoud Abbas: Brasil e Palestina discutem em Salvador acordo de paz para Oriente Médio, 2009. Foto de Secom Bahia no Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Lula da Silva and Mahmoud Abbas: Brazil and Palestine discuss in Salvador peace agreement for the Middle East, 2009. Picture of Secom Bahia – Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The Lula administration (2003-2010) gave new impetus to relations with the Middle East. Unlike the rest of the world, Lula's Brazil was less dependent on Arab oil, it imported less and exported more to the Middle East; not only raw materials but also products with higher added value, increasing economic activity between the two parties.

Of all the visits that Lula made to the Middle East, the most controversial was to Iran in 2010. His Brazilian boldness aimed at more than a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear project, he also believed it was time to call attention to the country to ensure an amiable environment in a market with almost 69 million people. In a response to a comment made on the Blog da Cidadania (Citizenship Blog), reader Mariana questions [pt] the reaction to Lula's visit to Iran:

[…] ditadura boa é ditadura amiga. Senão vejamos:
1) A China é uma ditadura, mas o mundo todo quer vender produtos para os chineses, porque o tamanho do mercado ali é descomunal.
2) A Arábia Saudita é outra ditadura, mas como é aliada dos EUA, ninguém diz nada.
3) Mubarak e Kadafi, até há algum tempo, eram aliados.
4) A Comunidade Europeia e os EUA têm ganho dinheiro fazendo negócios com regimes ditadorais.
Portanto, criticar Lula por causa do Irã (lembrando que o que Lula e o Itamaraty fizeram foi recomendação de Obama, registrada em carta) não passa de inocência ou, alternativamente, de hipocrisia.[…]

A good dictatorship is a friendly dictatorship. Consider this:
1) China is a dictatorship, but the whole world wants to sell products to the Chinese, because the size of the market there is huge.
2) Saudi Arabia is another dictatorship, but as an ally of the U.S., so nobody says anything.
3) Mubarak and Gadhafi, until some time ago were allies.
4) The EU and the U.S. have made money doing business with dictatorial regimes.
Therefore, criticizing Lula because of Iran (remembering that what Lula and Foreign Ministry have been recommending Obama also recorded in a letter) is nothing but innocence or, alternatively, hypocrisy.

The turnover of Dilma Rousseff

As Lula, Dilma advocates a peaceful solution to the conflict between Arabs and Israelis and the right of Iran to develop a nuclear program for peaceful purposes. The difference between the current president and her predecessor is that she doesn't show back up any policy without the blessing of leading international players.

Manifestação contra Ahmadinejad no Rio de Janeiro, Junho 2012. Photo by Roitberg on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Demonstration against Ahmadinejad in Rio de Janeiro, June 2012. Photo by Roitberg on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The result was seen in the Rio +20, the conference on sustainable development, which Brazil played host to on June 22, 2012. Dilma refused to meet with her Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. News analysis indicates that the President wanted to avoid having her image attached to a leader whose name brings up human rights abuses.

The refusal of the President of Brazil to meet with Ahmadinejad doesn't mean that the country has changed its strategy in the Middle East. In an article republished [pt] in the blog Leituras Marona [Readings Marona], one sees that the President shows an eye to what has happened there:

[…] o Brasil voltou a considerar uma atuação mais forte no Oriente Médio e Norte da África. Dilma tem incentivado seu ministro de Relações Exteriores, Antônio Patriota, a acompanhar de perto os desdobramentos naquela região, especialmente preocupada com a questão dos direitos humanos na Síria.[…]

[…] Brazil returned to consider a stronger role in the Middle East and North Africa. Dilma has encouraged her Minister of Foreign Affairs, Antonio Patriota, to monitor developments in the region more closely, particularly the issue of human rights in Syria.

The current Brazilian government finally seems to have felt the weight of lobbying for the Middle East. The declarations of President Rousseff on the region have been intended to counteract Brazil's policies during the Lula administration; at the same time, she has promoted knowledge of business practices in the Middle East to Brazilians entrepreneurs. The challenge remains to make new ties without displeasing old partners and thus avoid any economic losses without giving up Brazil's place on the world's stage.


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.