Brazilian links with the Middle East since the impeachment
From 2003 to 2010, we witnessed a renewed Brazilian diplomatic activism towards the Middle East. However, some doubts emerged after the election of Dilma Rousseff in 2011, then replaced by Michel Temer, her former Vice-President. In the wake of the impeachment occurred in May 2016, the Brazilian objectives regarding the Middle East have blurred even more.
First of all, we observed a turn to Israel. Although Michel Temer was the Vice-President of Dilma Rousseff, his party was at the heart of the impeachment process. Once at power, he engaged a strategy of differentiation to her predecessor. Temer’s party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB in Portuguese) is a coalition entity, it allies with any of the main groups depending on the electoral opportunities. This time it associated with right-wing parties, such as the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB in Portuguese) of which José Serra is a member. He was the Minister designated for heading Itamaraty in a first time, and he is known for his links with pro-Israel organizations and representatives (Baeza, 2017).
Indeed, the Brazilian official position have shifted toward a more pro-Israel stance, after a decade of a diplomatic position more in favor of the Palestinians during the Worker’s Party governments. Only a few days after José Serra’s appointment in May 2016, a first dissonance with the ministry appeared. Brazil previously voted at the Unesco Resolution on the cultural heritage of the Occupied Territories. In early June, Itamaraty published an official note precising that whereas Brazil supported the text, it considered it unbalanced and would change its position if partiality was not avoided in future resolutions (MRE, 2016b). The Minister also traveled to Israel in September 2016 to attend the funerals of Shimon Perez and met with the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nevertheless, the Temer adminsitration did not cut links with the Palestinian Authority, as proved by the meeting between Michel Temer and Mahmud Abbas in September 2016 during an international event (MRE, 2016c). The Brazilian authorities seem to come back to the traditional middle-of-the-road position of their country.
Another important factor of the links between Brazil and the Middle East relies on the Arab diasporas living in the Latin American country. Diasporas in Brazil are multiple, and the Jewish community is one of them. The focus on the Arab groups here is because increased relations with the Middle East have galvanized their visibility and actions with Arab countries. Essentially Christian, the Brazilian community is mainly composed of descendants from Lebanon and Syria (the first waves of migration took place during the Ottoman Empire when both territories were not independent). Its number reached between roughly six and seven million people for the Lebanese, and two million for the Syrians in 2003, the vast majority living in the state of São Paulo. This community is powerful in both the economic and political sectors, with a more visible mobilization in the first one.
Despite the changes in the executive, this variable may keep its relevance, as Michel Temer himself is of Lebanese descent, and he visited Lebanon when acting as the Vice-President. A testimony of continuity on that point is symbolized by his participation in the Congress of the Lebanese Diaspora, organized in São Paulo in November 2016 (MRE, 2016a).
Another motivation concerns economic interests. The international crisis affected trade flows between Brazil and the Middle East in 2009, but they recovered as soon as 2010 in regards to exports whereas imports have lacked stability. Since then, exports have more or less reached US$10.1 billion in 2016 while imports have continued to grow up to roughly US$ eight billion before crashing to 3.6 US$ last year. Brazil buys mainly oil, kerosene, and gas from the Middle East. Primary goods reach half of these flows. The severe decrease in Brazilian imports is therefore explained in three ways: the decline in prices for these goods, the increase in domestic production, and the economic recession.
When put into perspective, exchanges with this region are not relevant for Brazilian overall foreign trade, even more as they are not stable. According to UN Comtrade, in 2015, Brazil’s main partners in the Middle East were Saudi Arabia – nevertheless only the 15th client for exports and the 21st provider for imports -, then the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, and Iraq. Except for some Gulf monarchies, flows tend to vary from year to year.
Nonetheless, the evolution of Brazilian exports to the Middle East is relevant regarding trade balance. The Brazilian global trade balance had been negative in 2014, but returned to be positive in the wake of the economic crisis and the drop of imports. With the Middle East, although trade balance was negative in 2000, it became significantly positive for Brazil, among important variations, to reach a surplus of US$6.6 billion in 2016. This surplus may be another incentive for the Brazilian government to pay attention to the Middle East.
A last interesting point concerning the Temer administration and this region refers to Iran. After experimenting various changes during the last decade (Brun, 2016), bilateral links became diplomatically easier thanks to the Iran nuclear deal, reached between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 in July 2015. Since then, relations between Brazil and Iran have risen again. First, Minister Vieira traveled to Tehran (and Beirut) in September 2015, followed by the Minister of Development, Industry, and International Trade one month later, and Political Consultations were organized in April 2016. Very interestingly, a mission was realized by the Trade and Investment Promotion Department of Itamaraty in June 2016, i.e. after the impeachment. It is to be noticed that international sanctions had severely affected bilateral trade before the deal. The more Iran gets inserted in the international community, the more Brazilian business opportunites may be recovered.
Summing up, the arrival of Michel Temer to the Brazilian presidency has worsened uncertainty. The Brazilian diplomacy in the Middle East has thus continued to lose readability, strongly affected during Dilma Rousseff’s mandate.
Some differences are to be emphasized between the Brazilian representatives. Michel Temer appeared more pragmatic than his first Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Serra. Let us see what will occurr with the new nominee, Senator Aloysio Nunes Ferreira.
ANBA (2003), “Expectativa de negócios dá o tom da visita de Lula ao Líbano”, ANBA, 5 December.
Baeza, Cecilia (2017), “Latin America’s Turn to the Right: Implications for Palestine”, Online Note, Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, 13 January.
Brun, Élodie (2016), “Brazil’s Relations with Middle Eastern Countries: A Diplomacy in Search for Constancy (2003-2014”, in Marta Tawil (ed.), Latin American Foreign Policies towards the Middle East. Actors, Contexts, and Trends, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 37-57.
MRE – Ministério das Relações Exteriores (2016a), “Discurso do presidente da República, Michel Temer, durante cerimônia de abertura do Congresso da Diáspora Libanesa da América Latina – São Paulo, 27 de novembro de 2016”, Bulletin, 27 November.
MRE (2016b), “Viagem do Senhor Presidente da República a Nova York, por ocasão da Reunião de Alto Nível sobre Grandes Movimentos de Refugiados e Migrantes e do Debate Geral da 71ª Assembleia Geral das Nações Unidas – Programa de Imprensa”, Bulletin no. 341, 18 September.
MRE (2016c), “Decisão do Conselho Executivo da UNESCO sobre o patrimônio cultural nos territórios ocupados”, Bulletin no. 211, 9 June.
MRE (2015), “Visita do Ministro das Relações Exteriores, Mauro Vieira, ao Irã e ao Líbano – 13 a 16 de setembro de 2015”, Bulletin no. 354, 11 September.
- These are estimations (ANBA, 2003). ↑
- Data taken from the Brazilian Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade (MDIC) website. ↑
- According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sanctions provoked a 50% drop in bilateral trade (MRE, 2015). ↑
Élodie Brun is Research Professor in International Relations at the Center for International Studies, El Colegio de México (ebruncolmex.mx).
How to cite this article