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Brazil, hoping to increase South America’s trade with the Arab world, held the first ever South American-Arab Nations Summit on May 10-11, which gathered representatives from 34 countries.

Trade between Brazil and the 22-member Arab League will nearly double to US$15bn in three years, according to Luiz Fernando Furlan, Brazil’s trade minister, at the summit.

Among the 22 Arab and North African leaders were Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, the Algerian president Abdulaziz Bouteflika and the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas.

Trade between Brazil and the Arabs increased almost 50% to US$8.1bn last year from US$5.5bn in 2003. Only 1% of all imports made by Arab countries come from South America, according to Furlan at the event.

Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, which comprise the Mercosur bloc, signed a preliminary agreement to create a free-trade zone with the Gulf Co-operation Council, made up by Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

A referendum in Bolivia prevented president Carlos Mesa from attending the summit. Alfredo Palcio, who recently replaced Ecuador’s ousted president Lucio Gutierrez, missed the event due to the turmoil in his country.