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26/07/2017 - 12:47hs
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Organization has been building trade, diplomacy ties for 65 years

The Arab Chamber was established in 1952 as a reflection of the relevance of the Arab community in Brazil. It expanded, went professional and grew into a landmark for companies, state-run bodies and embassies.



Archive/Arab Chamber

First board of directors of the then called Syrian-Lebanese Chamber of Commerce

São Paulo – The Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce was established in July 2, 1952 by local Syrian-Lebanese community members to foster deal-making between Brazil and their home countries. Located at Boa Vista street in Downtown São Paulo, it was originally called the Syrian-Lebanese Chamber of Commerce.

“The Chamber is a reflection of the evolution of Arab immigration in Brazil,” said historian Sílvia Antibas, the Chamber’s cultural director and the author of a book on its history. “When the [community’s] entrepreneurs attained a certain social, financial, economic and political status, the Chamber was a natural development,” he added.

On its way to turning 65, the organization grew and changed a lot. In its first decade of existence, its Syrian and Lebanese members split and its name changed to Syrian-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce. Later on, in 1975, at its first headquarters on Avenida Paulista, the organization adopted its current name.

Rodrigo Rodrigues

Sílvia Antibas wrote a book on the history of the organization

“Syria and Lebanon were the countries in the community’s heart, but the bulk of deals to be made were in the Gulf and North Africa,” Antibas explained. As the 1973 oil shock came, Arab oil exporting countries saw their financial power increase, and at the same time Brazil had a major need to import the commodity. “There was a gap when it came to how other Arab countries were represented in Brazil,” added the former Arab Chamber president and current Management Council member Walid Yazigi.

“That was the big move,” Antibas said. The Chamber became the commercial representative of the Arab countries in Brazil. “The organization worked as a great arm of Arab diplomacy with the Brazilian government,” the historian remarked.

This diplomatic streak grew stronger as the years passed, and now the organization sustains close ties with the embassies in Brasília, with the Foreign Ministry and with the Brazilian diplomatic representations throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

“I cannot conceive of Arab countries’ relations with Brazil without the work of the Arab Brazilian Chamber,” said the dean of the Council of Arab Ambassadors in Brazil, Ibrahim Alzeben, who’s also the ambassador of Palestine in Brazil. “We have much appreciation for the role the organization has played through all these years, and I have been witnessing that for nearly a decade now,” said he, who has been stationed in Brazil for almost ten years.

Events

Archive/Arab Chamber

Yazigi (L) besides the then Saudi Ministry of Oil, Ahmed Yamani, in 1982

The Chamber’s DNA has always entailed arranging trade missions and participations in trade shows. Yazigi mentions a trip by a 32-strong delegation of Brazilian business owners to several Arab countries back in 1983, when he was president. “Back then, Arab countries weren’t as organized as they are today. The logistics were much more involved,” he said. The Chamber chartered an Air France plane to take the group to Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia (Riyadh and Jeddah), Kuwait and Bahrein. “There was much recognition on the part of Brazilian authorities, and we were very warmly welcomed by the chambers of commerce in Arab countries,” he said. These days, the group could fly to the Middle East with Emirates Airline or Qatar Airways, which offer daily nonstop flights from Brazil.

“We went the opposite direction than the travelling salesmen who moved to Brazil to sell cross-country. We went to the Arab countries to sell Brazilian goods,” said Yazigi. He pointed out that the goods on offer then included poultry, vehicles, defense industry products, and the services of Brazilian engineering and construction firms in the Arab countries.

Archive/Arab Chamber

The then secretary-general at the Union, Burhan Dajani, signs the membership of the Arab Chamber, in 1992, besides professor Helmi Nasr, the then vice president of the Brazilian organization

"The Arab Chamber is our partner come rain or shine, and our industry’s companies see it as a landmark, be it to help out with situations in buying countries, be it in Brazil, to certify and legalize documents required to export,” said vice president and Markets director at the Brazilian Animal Protein Association (ABPA), Ricardo Santin.

The association’s members are poultry producers and exporters, an industry whose key market is the Middle East. “Our industry’s relationship with the Chamber is one of trust, partnership and maturity, a great partnership that goes back to when exports to Arab countries first began [in the 1970s] and will surely last many more years,” said Santin.

Another milestone in the organization’s history was its becoming a member of the General Union of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture for Arab Chambers, in 1992. “That meant the Chamber could now officially issue certificates of origin and export papers for Arab countries,” said CEO Michel Alaby. “Now, it is the sole chamber in Brazil to be recognized by the League of Arab States,” remarked Walid Yazigi.

Reproduction

The original version of the ANBA website, launched in 2003

By the late 1990s, the Chamber began stepping up its presence in trade shows and other events in the Arab world. Alaby recalled the organization’s first time at Index, a furniture show in Dubai, the UAE in 1998. Brazilian companies are still exhibiting at that show until this day.

In 2001, the Chamber organized a Brazil-Arab Countries business forum in Rio de Janeiro that is regarded as a watershed moment. “It was a very high-level event. Lots of dignitaries attended,” Hannun recalled.

The year of 2003 saw the first Brazilian presidential trip to the Arab world, covering Lebanon, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Libya. The Arab Brazilian Chamber was strongly involved, and since then, Brazilian trade with the region skyrocketed. Exports from Brazil to Arab nations increased continuously, going from USD 2.76 billion to over USD 15 billion in 2011, i.e. a 5.5-fold increase. Over the same time span, imports climbed from USD 2.71 billion to almost USD 10 billion, and reached an all-time high in 2014 at USD 11.4 billion.

Archive/Arab Chamber

Hannun, then vice president, heads mission to North Africa in 2007

In 2003, the Chamber also created the Brazil-Arab News Agency (ANBA, in the Portuguese acronym). “It was a groundbreaking move,” Hannun stated. ANBA runs daily news stories in Portuguese and English on business opportunities in Brazil and the Arab countries, articles on bilateral trade, information regarding the Chamber’s activities and other subjects relating to Brazil’s ties with the Arab world. The website www.anba.com.br sustains content-sharing agreements with eight different news outlets in Arab countries.

“Without mutual knowledge, relations do not evolve. That knowledge is what underpins deal-making, piques curiosities and builds connections,” stressed Hannun. ANBA fills out a gap in information about the Arab countries in Brazil and about Brazil in Arab countries, and this is an important thing,” added Alaby.

Highlights in the Chamber’s history also include the holding of the 1st Summit of South America-Arab Countries (Aspa) in Brasília, 2005, followed by a business forum with delegates from both regions held by the Arab Brazilian Chamber in São Paulo.

Alexandre Rocha/ANBA

Michel Alaby heads panel in the latest edition of ASPA, in 2015

Three other editions of the Aspa summit took place, in Doha, Qatar, 2009, in Lima, Peru, 2012, and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2015, and the Arab Chamber was always a partner in organizing the business forums that happened in the sidelines.

Professionalization

When it first moved into Avenida Paulista in 1966, the Chamber had only one part-time employee, according to Yazigi, but as the field of action and relations with Arab countries grew broader, so did the staff. “There was a crucial professionalization process,” said Hannun.

Now, the organization has a staff of 61, divided into departments with specific purposes such as Certification, Marketing, Market Intelligence, Sales, Finance, IT, HR, ANBA, and the general secretariat.

*Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum

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