Last week’s events in Syria reminded me that I promised to conclude a series of articles I started last year looking at the Middle East. Those articles were prompted by my presentation in July 2016 to the Open Campus of the University of the West Indies in St Vincent. It was titled The Middle East Crisis: Political, Economic and Religious Implications for the Caribbean.
In closing off my presentation in Kingstown, I sought to examine linkages between the Caribbean and the Middle East. It was my wish to present the possibilities that existed and were beneficial to Caribbean nations.
The Middle East is generally seen as a place of perpetual turmoil. Historical events leading up to the present day conflicts and troubles in that part of the world tend to lead many to the conclusion that this region should be avoided for travel. The recent horrendous chemical attacks on civilians and the US response of targeted bombing of Syrian Air bases reinforce that imagery of the Middle East.
I made the point in my earlier articles that “for all intents and purposes, the Middle East can be described as the playground for the superpowers of world. During the Cold War, it was a battle between the US and the Soviet Union as to who would control the countries of the Middle East. Today that battle continues with the US and Russia still vying for political and economic control.”
And that point is even more evident in recent days in Syria with Russia and the United States being involved in this very deadly conflict. But I also made the point that the Middle East is a vast region made up of many different countries spread over a large area of that part of the globe. Not all countries of the Middle East are in turmoil or conflict. Several still enjoy good stability and prosperity.
In very recent years, the Caribbean people’s association with the Middle East has been tainted by those from Trinidad who have journeyed to join the ISIS terror group. It is regrettable that any discussion on persons going to or coming from the Middle East today is in some way linked to concerns over ISIS influence. That narrative corrupts over a century of interaction between the Middle East and the Caribbean.
From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, you find Arab migration to the Caribbean. This migration originated in the region previously known as Greater Syria which comprises of present day Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. These Arabs migrated to the Caribbean from as early as 1904 in an attempt to escape persecution and economic hardship in their native countries.
Migration continued over the years and today there are descendants of these migrants living in several islands of the Caribbean including Barbados. The reverse also occurred where several Caribbean nationals travelled to the Middle East in search of better economic prospects. That finding of job opportunities in several Middle Eastern countries continues until this day.
I am well aware of many Caribbean families that have benefitted significantly by one or more family members securing well-paying jobs in Arab countries. Even our local media have highlighted some of these success stories of Barbadians who have taken up jobs in that region. Some months ago, Barbados TODAY highlighted a young female Barbadian who was working in Qatar.
Some Caribbean governments have taken the logical steps of establishing diplomatic relationships with Arab governments and have actually stationed diplomats in those countries. The United Arab Emirates have been among the leading Arab countries promoting these ties. A news story out of Grenada in 2014 reported as follows: “CARICOM countries have been invited and urged to move with alacrity and purpose to establish a diplomatic mission in the United Arab Emirates, with the seat in Dubai. This invitation was extended to representative Caribbean Ministers of Foreign Affairs by Minister of State in the UAE, Her Excellency Reem Ebrahim Al Hashemy, and assertively endorsed by Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, in meeting with the Caribbean Foreign Ministers in Dubai on Wednesday, May 7.
“Honorable Nickolas Steele, Grenada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Business, spearheaded the proposal to establish a diplomatic presence in the United Arab Emirates. Minister Steele has engaged other Ministers of CARICOM in the drive for closer ties, believing that the region’s interests and engagement with the UAE will be best served if the countries move forward as a bloc, than going it alone… Among those is the provision of strategic assistance in much of the Caribbean’s key developmental agenda areas: health, education, housing and infrastructure…”
Significantly, in Barbados , Minister Dr David Estwick has been very vocal in promoting ties with the UAE. He has been advocating for some time the idea of Barbados looking at these avenues for debt re-financing. The Latin American and Caribbean Economic System (SELA), a regional intergovernmental organization that groups 27 Latin American and Caribbean countries, has also been encouraging the establishing of ties with Arab countries. In its ‘Relations between Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East: Status and Areas of Opportunity Report of 2012’, SELA stated:
“The Middle East has had a rapid population and economic growth that makes it an ideal place for the countries of the LAC region to seek to develop business relationships… Furthermore, the Middle East export platform is still dominated by oil. The Middle East is well-known for being a source of capital as a result of the accumulation of foreign currencies generated by its oil exports. Companies of a number of countries in the region have already made investments in different sectors, but especially in services. One way of promoting trade and exports is precisely through the promotion of reciprocal investments between the two regions. Productive investments can have a positive impact on trade flows, which are still low.”
SELA went on to list a number of Area of Opportunities for LAC countries in establishing relations with Arab countries.
It is heartening that some Caribbean governments, businesses and individuals have taken the bold move of exploring these opportunities and have benefitted significantly from doing such. In my opinion, tourism which is our mainstay can be bolstered by marketing in these non-traditional markets. This was also pointed out by SELA in its report which recognized, however, that air-lift was the major problem. It stated:
“However, tourism between Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East is still low and one of the main challenges is to provide greater dynamism in the connectivity, for today the lack of direct air and sea connection between South America and the Arab countries renders the rapprochement difficult. There are virtually no trips, both ways, without stopping in Europe. Despite the difficulties and the lack of interest from tour operators, new air routes have been established that can promote holiday tourism in addition to business travel.”
Having interacted with that part of the world over the years, I appreciate there are several challenges Caribbean nationals and governments may face in the pursuit of better relations and economic opportunities. However, I believe that the several success stories bear testimony to the possibilities that exist and can be harnessed to the benefit of our Caribbean people.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)