Book Review: The Gulf and Latin America: An Assessment of Expectations and Challenges

By W. Alejandro Sanchez, COHA Senior Research Fellow

Edited by Alejandra Galindo
Gulf Research Centre Cambridge

A rock-ribbed truism is that the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and there are fewer nations every year that can be described as isolated from the rest of the international community (i.e. North Korea or Turkmenistan). Nowadays, Latin America has pluralized relations with several regions, even those that are geographically distant from the Western Hemisphere. The Gulf and Latin America, published by the respected Gulf Research Centre-Cambridge at Cambridge University, addresses relations between Latin America and various Gulf nations, such as Iran and the member nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (i.e. Saudi Arabia).

Well-researched and archly professional, this book is meant for specialists interested in the growing inter-connectivity of nations from all corners of the world, including Latin America and the Gulf states.

A Strong Set of Contributors

The Gulf and Latin America is separated into six different chapters, each of them drafted by a different author, which discuss diverse aspects of Gulf-Latin America relations. Four chapters address Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela, with their diverse set of national interests and how they have approached Gulf nations.

The other two chapters discuss the book’s overall theme but from another point of view. Namely the chapter titled “The Role of Latin America in the Foreign Policies of GCC states,” explains where Latin America falls in the spectrum of priorities for member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The other chapter analyzes how Iran, a persisting complicated and controversial international player, has approached Latin America in a unique fashion in order to counterbalance U.S. influence.

The Gulf and Latin America: An Assessment of Expectations and Challenges

Each chapter is tightly researched, and their respective reference sections are quite comprehensive. It was a pleasure to see that each author took the time and patience to consult sources in more than one language, like Spanish, Portuguese, French and English. The authors also utilized healthy amounts of both older and modern sources. The chapter on Mexico-Gulf relations that cites a 1984 essay on Mexican foreign policy depicts the overall level of research and intensity that was carried out by the multiple authors. The eclectic and well-balanced historical sources implant more academic weight and historical depth to The Gulf and Latin America.

Finally, a word must be offered regarding the contributors of The Gulf and Latin America. This group of high-caliber scholars and policymakers includes a renowned Mexican scholar and columnist, an official of Venezuela’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a professor at the University of Brasilia; meanwhile the editor is Professor Alejandra Galindo from the Universidad de Monterrey in Mexico, who previously has offered us insightful analyses about Mexican foreign policy, oil diplomacy and fast-moving Arab Gulf geopolitics.

Educative Analyses

The chapters of The Gulf and Latin America provided a strong review of Gulf-Latin American relations, including a comprehensive account of the historical relations between the two regions. It may sound surprising to someone who is not a historian that these two regions did not discover each other within the past decades: their relations, in fact, date back centuries. Case in point, Mexico’s chapter explains how “Mexico has had formal relations with the land then known as Persia since 1889, when the government of Porfirio Diaz (1884-1911) designated Sebastian Bernardo de Mier (ambassador to Britain) to be the representative to Iran,” (P. 123).

Moreover, Latin American-Gulf relations were pivotal to the creation of the most important and influential Arab-led multinational bloc: the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This volume explains to the reader how,

Cooperation in the realm of global governance between the Arab monarchies of the Gulf and Latin American countries goes back several decades, even before the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council. One of the most important outcomes of this cooperation was the creation, in 1960, of the OPEC. This organization was first proposed by Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, minister of energy of Venezuela, and Shaikh Abdullah Al Tariqi, oil minister from Saudi Arabia … (P.32)

Additionally, The Gulf and Latin America discusses the national interests and foreign policy objectives of the Latin American and Gulf governments. For example, when discussing the summits involving South American and Arab countries (ASPA), Erick Viramontes, a Mexican columnist, explains,

While most Arab leaders saw ASPA as an opportunity to improve their position on issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian question, and the Middle East policy of Western nations, the GCC states saw it as a means to strengthen their foreign assets acquisition strategy and to engage on issues of global governance. (P. 34)

Such explanations could not be more important in highlighting the different policy objectives of various Gulf governments.

Likewise, Mexico’s chapter also has insightful facts about Mexico City’s priorities. For example, Viramontes acknowledges that, “the relationship with the countries of the Gulf and in the Middle East in general, is more of a product of the initiative of the countries from those regions than from Mexico itself.’ (P. 122). Additionally, as an appreciated dividend, there are also a string of interesting anecdotes sprinkled throughout the chapter; like for example when the deposed Shah of Iran spent months in Mexico on a tourist visa thanks to the intervention of Henry Kissinger. (P. 124).

Additionally, this book is helpful in highlighting issues such as how domestic actors and events that manage to influence a country’s foreign policy in small ways as well as large. For example, the chapter “Chile and the Gulf: Identifying Channels of Cooperation” discusses the role of the Arab diaspora in Chile and how it influences relations between the South American nation and the Gulf (P. 182). Additionally, various chapters address the role of Latin America in the 2003 Iraq War, i.e. Chile. (P. 197). It is particularly worth noting how the chapter on Mexico associates Mexican political issues and that war, namely “when the crisis in Iraq was take for consideration by the UN Security Council […] it coincided with [Mexico’s] domestic elections to the deputies’ chamber.” (P.130) The essay explains how “political parties and some sections of society came out to demonstrate against the war on Iraq.” (P. 130)

Outstanding Issues

While The Gulf and Latin America is admirably well-written, there are subjects raised that would make a revised version even more compelling. One suggestion is that the book lacks a concluding chapter. It would have been an ideal development if Professor Galinda had written a final chapter that once again brought together the theses and various arguments of the book in order to attempt to predict the future of Gulf-Latin America relations.

The Gulf and Latin America is a strong piece of work in regards as it provides historical reviews and contemporary analyses of modern Gulf-Latin American relations. This makes it ideal as an academic offering, but, as previously mentioned, the book could also benefit from further analysis of what could happen in the future in order to make it a must read for policymakers in Latin America, the Gulf or in Washington (which has strong interests in both targeted regions).

Additionally, there are some statements or facts that are not fully discussed or outlined. One prominent example is in the chapter “The Role of Latin America in the Foreign Policies of GCC States” which explains how in July 2010, Kuwait’s then-Prime Minister, Shaikh Nasser Al Ahmad Al-Sabah, embarked on a nine-nation tour of Latin America and the Caribbean. The chapter explains that “Shaikh Nasser visited Antigua and Barbuda – which caused some controversy in the Kuwaiti Parliament,” and then goes to enumerate the other countries that he visited (P. 37). The problem here is that there is no further discussion or clarification as to why the Kuwaiti Parliament could object to the Prime Minister travelling to said Caribbean nation. Unless the reader is something of an expert on relations between St. John’s and Kuwait City, the issue is not properly explained nor is it addressed again in the essay.

Furthermore, there are a couple of issues that could have been better clarified, or require updating given recent events. For example on the chapter regarding “Iranian Policy towards Latin America as a Countermeasure against US Hegemony,” the author highlights the 1992 and 1994 attacks “against Jewish targets in Buenos Aires, Argentina,” which Iran is widely suspected of orchestrating. (P. 49) It is important to stress that in January 2013 Iran and Argentina agreed to create a very controversial joint “truth commission” to investigate the 1994 bomb attack against the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association (AMIA), in which 85 people died. This move has been criticized precisely because the Iranian government is accused of having carried out attacks, so it seems contradictory to achieving justice if Buenos Aires provides the prime suspect of this terrorist attack the ability to pass judgement on itself.

Finally, the sub-section of Iranian-Bolivian relations within the Iran-Latin America chapter correctly notes that “Nicaragua and Bolivia have not seen much of the millions of dollars of promised Iranian aid, although some projects are being funded.” (P. 59). One incident that would have been worth mentioning in this section occurred in mid-2011 when Iran’s Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi visited Bolivia. The Iranian policymaker was forced to leave the country earlier than planned as Buenos Aires and “contacted Interpol’s offices in Bolivia to demand Vahidi’s arrest as soon as Argentina became aware that he was in South America.”[1] Vahidi is currently wanted by Interpol for his alleged role in the 1994 attack as at the time he was the commander of a special unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard known as the Quds Force. The official left the landlocked Andean state, and issued a hasty apologetic statement. It is surprising that the author on the Iran chapter for The Gulf in Latin America did not choose to mention this incident as it highlights how Tehran’s history with Latin America affects its current diplomatic initiatives with the region.

An Updated Version would be Invaluable

The Gulf in Latin America is another piece of the puzzle that helps provide a more complete picture of how Latin American nations are becoming more active members of the global community, as they approach nations as geographically distant as the Gulf. While some arguments and examples require greater clarification and analysis, the contributors of this book have done a very efficient job at explaining how nations like Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela, among others more briefly mentioned, have approached Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council. There is a diverse list of issues that can serve as a catalyst to bring the two regions further closer. This is the type of work that rightfully deserves a second, expanded edition.

At the time of this writing, the violence in the Middle East continues, namely between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. As a sign of protest to ongoing Israeli military operations and to demonstrate solidarity with Palestine, several Latin American nations (i.e. Brazil and Peru), have recalled their ambassadors from Tel Aviv. Even if this diplomatic move will have little effect on Tel Aviv’s security policies, it does stress how Latin America is becoming more interested in Middle East geopolitics along with Arab affairs. Recent developments stress the need for more in-depth academic projects like The Gulf in Latin America.

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[1] Robin Yapp, “Iran defence minister forced to leave Bolivia over 1994 Argentina Bombing.” The Telegraph. Bolivia. Available: