Tuesday, 11 May 2021 12:57 GMT

Osmar Chohfi becomes president of Arab Brazilian Chamber

( MENAFN - Brazil-Arab News Agency (ANBA))

São Paulo – The Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce (ABCC) has a new president. Diplomat Osmar Chohfi (pictured above) took over on Thursday, 22, from businessman Rubens Hannun. A well-known name in foreign affairs, Chohfi was secretary-general of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and headed the embassy in Quito, Ecuador when Brazil coordinated the diplomatic process for peace between the country and Peru.

A son of Syrian-born Michel Chohfi and Syrian-Brazilian Olga Abud Chohfi, the diplomat comes from a family with a long tradition in leading Arab entities in Brazil. His father, a businessman in the textile industry, was a founder of the ABCC and the president of Club Homs. His mother was a board member of the Syrian Sanatorium Association, which created the HCor Research Institute, and of the League of Orthodox Women. His brother Michel Chohfi Filho was president of Lar Sírio Pró-Infância, a non-profit organization that assists children and youth in need.

The routine of the ABCC is nothing new for Chohfi, who has worked as its vice president of Foreign Relations since 2015. When he was secretary-general of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chohfi led two official missions to Arab countries that had him working closely with the ABCC. 'I was able to see how the ABCC could help us in diversifying Brazil's relations with the Arab countries,' he told ANBA.

By taking over as president, Chohfi takes on many challenges such as increasing Brazil-Arab trade, including more value-added products in exports, expanding Arab investment in Brazil, helping remove trade barriers and moving forward with his predecessor's efforts to modernize the ABCC. 'We must be ready to join economy 4.0,' he says.

To achieve these and other goals, he relies on his extensive background in diplomacy, a career he has retired from. Chohfi was an ambassador in Spain, the Principality of Andorra, and Ecuador; consul general in New York; chief of staff to ministers; and Chief of Ceremonial of the Brazilian Presidency, among several other positions. He was also Brazil's permanent representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), whose Permanent Council, the main political body of the organization, he came to chair.

Helping consolidate the peace between Ecuador and Peru and participating in discussions in energy cooperation within La Plata Basin Treaty are some of the landmarks in Chohfi's diplomatic career, which was always based on strengthening relations between South American countries, something he's a firm believer in. 'Whatever good may happen in South America will be good for Brazil, and whatever bad may happen in South America will be bad for Brazil, and vice versa,' he told ANBA.

Read the interview feature below:

ANBA – You have been a member of the ABCC board for six years now and have now become its president. How did you become close with the organization?

Osmar Chohfi – The ABCC has always been part of my family life as my father was one of its founders. When I was working as the Brazilian secretary-general of Foreign Affairs, I had the opportunity to work closely with the institution as I headed two official missions to the Arab world. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) and Foreign Affairs minister Celso Lafer found it necessary to strengthen our relations with the Arab world. So, I headed one mission to the Gulf countries, visiting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and then another to Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. On those occasions, I had the chance to see how the ABCC could help us diversify Brazil's relations with the Arab countries as it already played a major role in promoting trade. The ABCC's presence in missions helped with many of the connections I made across the Arab world, particularly in the business-economic field.

Participating in Arab-Brazilian organizations is in my DNA. I was very, very glad to accept the invitation that was made to me during the Marcelo Sallum administration (2013-2016) to participate in the ABCC board as International Relations vice president from 2015 on. I'd retired from my diplomatic career in 2011, and the ABCC gave me the chance to get back to work, which made me very glad.

What is your Arab immigration story?

Both my mother's family, Abud, and my father's family, Chohfi, arrived in Brazil over 100 years ago. My father, Michel Chohfi, was very young when he arrived with an uncle in 1920, and my grandparents Daud and Wassila arrived one year later. My grandfather Salim Abud, who was married and had four children in Syria, came in 1906 and worked as a travelling salesman, then he went back for my grandmother in 1912. They had six other children in Brazil, including my mother.

The two families, both Abud and Chohfi, devoted themselves to commerce. I'm very proud of my ancestors, as moving to a faraway country in a different continent without speaking the language or knowing the local customs was a real achievement. Nothing I could have done in my life compares to that challenge.

Was there an Arab cultural universe in your family?

There was a very strong Arab universe, as I was very close to my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother. My other grandparents had died earlier. My maternal grandfather spoke a little Portuguese but not very well. He had been a travelling salesman and had traveled widely around the countryside. He liked to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes. He had a small knife; he'd roll up his cigarettes and then smoke them. He was an extraordinary figure, and I really liked him.

My paternal grandmother lived with us since I was born until I was 18. She was a remarkable person. She didn't speak Portuguese very well, and she taught my brother and me to speak some colloquial Arabic. Then, when I was a teenager, a Lebanese tutor taught us classes. Born in 1872, [my grandmother] used to tell us stories about Syria and everything she experienced during the difficult years of the World War I.

Arab culture was very present in our life, because we would participate in activities at the Syrian Sports Club and Club Homs, and we would read Revista Oriente, a magazine about the activities of the community that would feature a lot of Arab culture. We would also eat lots of Arab food at home. These elements of a wider culture were very present in our lives, including the Arab cuisine, which is now part of Brazilian cuisine, too.

Your family devoted itself to commerce and business. How did you come to choose diplomacy within this universe?

In my family, no one had joined public service. I was the first. Since the end of high school, my favorite subjects were History and Geography. I really liked languages, too. My father used to have a subscription to O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, and back then the first page always brought news on international politics – the Indochina War, the Geneva Agreements, the various conflicts, the role of diplomacy and the UN. When I graduated from high school, I decided to study Law as it opened many doors. In 1960 I got into the Law School of the University of São Paulo. All international negotiations, those great meetings, the idea that one could work for the world peace, all this interested me. I was involved in many assemblies in Law School at a time when the student movement was very strong and very present.

At that time, my father was a partner in a construction company, and I worked as an intern there. Then I worked as an intern at a law firm. But deep down I always wanted to be a diplomat. I studied Law because I thought it could open doors to my becoming a diplomat, which turned out to actually be the case. In my senior year, I took the entrance exam to the Rio Branco Institute. Prior to that, I’d had a conversation with my father. To achieve what I wanted, I needed my father as I didn't have an income of my own. He fully supported me to achieve my goal.

As a diplomat, did you get a chance to work in Arab countries?

My career was heavily focused on Latin American affairs. One of my first assignments was at the Embassy of Brazil in La Paz, Bolivia. When I arrived in La Paz, in 1974, the agreement whereby Bolivia would supply gas to Brazil was in discussion. I served as head of the commercial sector at the Embassy, and that gave me a very clear picture of the priority ascribed to South American countries in Brazilian foreign policy. Whatever good may happen in South America will be good for Brazil, and whatever bad may happen in South America will be bad for Brazil, and vice versa.

From La Paz, I was transferred to the Embassy of Brazil in Buenos Aires, where I served as head of the political sector. Our relations with Argentina were very tense at that point, due to the ongoing Itaipu power plant project. I also served, for instance, in the Southern America I and II Divisions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; at the Organization of American States (OAS); the Embassy of Brazil in Caracas; and the Embassy of Brazil in Quito, Ecuador in an ambassador capacity. The latter was an extraordinary experience. Brazil coordinated the diplomatic process for peace between Ecuador and Peru, and I was an active participant in that process. It was one of the best diplomatic experiences I had, because a final peace treaty was reached. There is no loftier task when it comes to diplomacy.

In 2001, I was invited to be secretary-general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That was when I delved deeper into Arab affairs, because I took the trips that I told you about earlier, and two good things came of that: I grew closer to Arab affairs and to the ABCC. Those trips were highly advantageous to Brazilian-Arab relations. This rapport towards the end of the FHC administration grew even stronger in the administrations that ensued.

How do you see the history of Brazil's relations with the Arab countries?

The ties have grown stronger and stronger over time. Since late into the FHC administration, relations have intensified for several reasons. A tighter connection came about on the political front and, above all, in economy and trade, and that lent much substance to Brazilian-Arab relations. Political relations are important, because they provide an institutional backdrop without which nothing gets done in diplomatic relations. Once that institutional structure is in place, it facilitates trade, economic cooperation, investment, cooperation in science and technology, cultural connections, everything that gives substance to relations between nations.

A case in point are the Brazil-Arab Countries economic forums organized by the ABCC. In 2018, we had president Michel Temer join our forum in São Paulo. In October 2020, the forum – which went virtual due to the pandemic – was joined by president Jair Bolsonaro. Both events also saw relevant involvement from ministers and prominent businesspeople from Brazil and the Arab world. This represents a recognition of the credibility and the relevance of the ABCC's work on Arab-Brazilian relations, which are very rich these days. The fact that Brazil is a relevant country to the food security of Arab countries is not without meaning, because it endows relations with a strategic component. The process of rapport-building with the Arab countries has been an ongoing, ever-more-solid construction. Former president Michel Temer recently visited Lebanon to deliver humanitarian aid from Brazil. As a fact of great significance, we must highlight the visit of president Jair Bolsonaro in 2019 to the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, on which occasion relevant agreements were reached. Additionally, Arab and Brazilian authorities at the highest level have been in permanent and frequent contact.

Amid the pandemic, we’ve introduced fresh elements into these relations. We’ve overcome many challenges in order to keep close without in-person meetings. We succeeded in each and every one of them. It was a merit of the ABCC to have been able to keep Brazilian-Arab relations going at an intense pace. That was the result of the efforts of this board whose term is ending now, led with great competence and creativity by Hannun, and supported by the directors who have been with him throughout this term. The webinars and the fully virtual economic forum have been a technological effort that worked out extremely well. The fact that Brazil has managed to keep trade with the Arab world going steady even at the hardest of times in international trade was important, and it demonstrates that our relations, from an institutional standpoint, are very well structured, allowing these contents to develop in an easier, more solid way.

Does the global context pose challenges to relations between Brazil and Arab countries?

There are objective elements due to which these ties and exchange are important to both sides. That will not change in a constantly evolving world where many assumptions have become outdated. The world order is shifting, with the rise of China and Asia, the reformulation of the United States' presence in the world brought about by the Joe Biden administration, the evolution of the European Union, the repercussions of the pandemic on international trade and national economic policies. Both Latin America – especially Brazil – and the Arab world will need to adapt to these changes.

Brazil's relations with the Arab world will not be negatively impacted, because they are structurally important in terms of food security in the Arab world and the importance of the Arab market to Brazil's agribusiness industry. But that's not all. Cooperation in energy can increase, as well as investments. After all, despite all its shortcomings, Brazil has an extraordinary potential and will always be an attractive market to international investment. Arabs look to invest in sectors that can yield good results to their sovereign funds. All these things give strength to Brazilian-Arab relations, allowing them to successfully withstand the occasional negative impact.

What do you envision as your major challenges as president of the Arab Chamber?

The challenges are many. One is to consolidate growth in Brazilian-Arab trade and economic relations. We are going to go from roughly USD 16.8 billion in bilateral trade (2020) to more than that. I will not name a number, but we will try to increase that, to make the Chamber a relevant player towards that goal, and above all to diversify trade. This trade already includes value-added products, but we need to increase their relevance. Another challenge is to bring more Arab investment into Brazil.

I also find it necessary to increase exports from Arab countries to Brazil. In order for that to happen, we must promote more free trade agreements along the lines of the Mercosur-Egypt one. This will allow us to eliminate obstacles, to further facilitate deal-making, and to add variety to exchange. Promoting double taxation agreements should also be a goal.

Another challenge is to move forward with our modernization efforts. We must be ready to join economy 4.0. We must create a robust technological structure, and we are already doing that. We have created the Ellos digital platform and the Blockchain project within that context. We have the ABCC LAB, which will be a space for Brazilian and Arab startups to interact. Our strategic plan – with ten-year targets we have moved ahead to a five-year timeframe – provides us with a safe script of clear-cut, achievable targets.

We will enhance our institutional relations with the Arab countries directly, and through the Council of Arab Ambassadors in Brazil. The Council is a key partner of ours in building institutional rapport, but that is not all. We will continue to work on our connection with the Union of Arab Chambers, which considers us a reliable, safe, creative partner; with all the chambers in the 22 Arab League countries; and with all other binational chambers. We will strive to sustain fluid institutional relations with Brazilian as well as Arab authorities, and with the business communities of the Arab world and Brazil. This is something we do really well, and we will keep working on it.

Another significant goal is regionalization, which was set in motion with the opening of our office in Itajaí. We will open an office in Brasília soon, as well as create contact points in other states of Brazil for tighter relations with the Chamber. As for internationalization, we have had great success with our International Office in Dubai. We will set up offices in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and in Cairo, Egypt as soon as the pandemic allows. We also plan to work on our relations with other institutional partners, such as the Association of the Mediterranean Chambers and the African Union, which will give us projection in other areas.

Are you considering building closer ties with the Arab community?

The Arab Chamber and its sister Arab organizations in Brazil have a big role to play in creating networks within the Arab community in Brazil, which, as we have seen in the survey commissioned by the ABCC last year, numbers at 11.6 million. This, by the way, is one of the projects I find very important, and it connects with other initiatives, such as our agreement with the USEK (Holy Spirit University of Kaslik), in Lebanon, to retrieve the history of immigration. The creation of the Arab House, which will treasure the heritage of Arab-Brazilian culture and social integration, is another example. Knowing our history and what we represent in the wider Brazilian society will allow us to contribute ever more actively and with our own expression to building the Brazil we want.

Translated by Guilherme Miranda & Gabriel Pomerancblum

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