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South American and Arab leaders begin summit in Riyadh

RIYADH: Arab and South American leaders began a summit in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, aiming to strengthen ties between the geographically distant but economically powerful regions.

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon attended the opening in Riyadh of the Fourth Summit of South American-Arab Countries, chaired by Saudi King Salman.

State television showed the arrival of President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, whose country belongs to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries along with Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter.

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Opec’s smallest member, was also present, but other South American countries appeared to be represented by less powerful officials.

Arab presidents attending include Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt and Fuad Masum of Iraq, as well as Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.

Other rulers present include Gulf monarchs and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

They are meeting behind the Greek-style colonnades of a sprawling chandeliered and domed conference centre, under strict security that includes armoured vehicles mounted with machineguns.

Ahead of the two days of talks, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said windows of cooperation have long existed “but haven’t been open enough to take advantage of the capabilities” of both regions.

For example, Sudan has land and water “that could enable it to become the Arab and South American food basket”.

The summit between the 22 Arab League members and 12 nations from South America was first held in 2005.

The gatherings were an initiative of then Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose country hosted the first summit.

Ahead of the talks, Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi told Kuwait’s KUNA news agency that “trade between both regions has amounted to $30 billion after it was no more than $6 billion in 2005”.

Peru, which hosted the third meeting in 2012, last month became one of 12 Pacific rim countries to seal the world’s largest free trade area, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Chile is the only other South American nation included in that deal.

Saudi columnist Abdulateef al-Mulhim, writing in Monday’s Arab News, said that together, the Arab and South American regions can help bring prosperity and stability to the world.

“The whole of the continent is moving forward with many visible and modern reforms to their political, economic, social and educational systems,” he wrote of South America.

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