The News
Sunday 26 of May 2024

A Week of Arab Culture

Luis Videgaray Caso, who inaugurated the festival,photo: AP/Christian Palma
Luis Videgaray Caso, who inaugurated the festival,photo: AP/Christian Palma
Arab League nations are now in full throttle to pump up their trade and economic ties with the outside world

For the third straight year, the 12 Arab embassies in Mexico got together last week to host a seven-day festival of Islamic culture at the Mexican Senate.

The festival, which was inaugurated by Foreign Relations (SRE) Secretary Luis Videgaray Caso and Libyan Ambassador Muftah R.M. Altayar, dean of the Arab Council in Mexico, was aimed at broadening relations between Mexico and the 22 Arabic-speaking countries of the Arab League through developing a better understanding of the region and its culture.

As in previous years, the festival included a range of conferences, exhibits, gastronomic presentations and fashion shows, but the real objective of the festival was to bolster commercial and economic cooperation between the region and Mexico.

And thanks in large part to proactive policies by the Enrique Peña Nieto administration to diversify trade and a direct outreach by the Arab World to strengthen relations with Mexico, that goal is already beginning to become a reality.

Last year, Mexican exports to the Arab World amounted to $1.2 billion, up nearly 60 percent since 2010.

And combined trade between the two regions amounted to $1.7 billion.

But while Mexican exports to the Arab League countries have soared, Mexican imports from the group have shrunk, from $1.1 billion in 2010 to just over $500 million last year.

The main reason for the decline in Arab exports — not only to Mexico, but worldwide — is, of course, politics and the ongoing conflicts that have plagued the Middle East and Northern Africa since the so-called Arab Spring swept across the region in 2011.

During a lavish multinational feast of Arab cuisine at his residence to mark the closure of the festival, Jordanian Ambassador to Mexico Ibrahim Abdulkarim Mansoor Obeidat pointed out that since the civil war began in Syria six years ago, his country’s overall exports have fallen by 60 percent.

And even Algeria, the most stable country in North Africa, has felt the pinch due to declining output and the drop in international oil prices (hydrocarbons account for 94 percent of that nation’s exports).

So the Arab League nations are now in full throttle to pump up their trade and economic ties with the outside world, and they consider Mexico to be a crucial gateway to the rest of Latin America.

In the last four years, the number of Arab League countries with embassies here has increased significantly, with Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates joining the longtime chancelleries of Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Special Delegation.

Tunisia is set to open an embassy later this year, which will bring to 13 the number of Arab League countries with resident chancelleries in Mexico.

That increased presence, they hope, will lead to an uptick in two-way trade, investment and political cooperation.

“People don’t do business with regions they don’t know anything about,” said Egyptian Ambassador to Mexico Yasser Mohamed Ahmed Shaban.

“Culture is one of the best tools we have to increase awareness of our countries, and the Arab League countries have rich cultural legacies and histories.”

The Arab Week at the Mexican Senate was part of a multifaceted effort to shore up awareness and interest in the Arab League countries through culture.

And under the soft guise of art exhibits, gastronomy and fashion catwalks, one of the main messages conveyed was that, despite the ongoing political and social turmoil in the region, the Arab League nations are firmly committed to the eradication of terror and violence and the establishment of a fair and durable peace throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

“No one can prosper in a state of war, and violence and terrorism do not benefit anyone,” said Ambassador Altayar, whose country has been ravished by nonstop jihadist violence and militant gang wars since the fall of its strongman president, Muammar Gaddafi six years ago.

“The members of the Arab League want peace and prosperity for all nations.”

Not only do the Arab League countries stand to benefit from increased ties with Mexico, but so do Mexican corporations.

The Arab-Mexican Chamber of Industry and Commerce (CAMIC) has noted that not only could Mexico easily double its sales of agricultural goods (such as halal meat, garbanzo, honey and fruits) and manufactured products (such as cars and machinery) to the region, but that there are vast opportunities for Mexican entrepreneurs to invest in the region, which has a combined population of more than 325 million inhabitants.

Several Arab League countries are also looking at the possibility of investing in Mexico, particularly in the food and automotive sectors, and with at least 46 new bilateral treaties on trade, investment, energy, education, science, technology and culture signed in the last year alone, there is a strong and solid framework for joint-venture cooperation projects.

Building bridges of understanding and trade take time, but getting to know each other better through cultural exchanges such as last week’s Arab Festival is a first step.

And greater bilateral understanding and appreciation will no doubt lay the groundwork for closer cooperation in all areas.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].