Brazil's Bolsonaro aims to patch up with Arab nations on Gulf trip

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro arrives in Abu Dhabi on Saturday for a tour of three Gulf states, hoping to turn the page on a diplomatic storm last year with Arab nations over a proposal to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro gives a speech during the Brazil-China Business Seminar in Beijing on October 25, 2019. Madoka Ikegami / Pool via REUTERS

The plan, which would have scrapped Brazil’s traditional support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, irked Arab countries and threatened a $5 billion a year trade in Brazilian halal meat exports.

During a visit to Israel in April, Bolsonaro dropped the idea and announced the opening of a business promotion office in Jerusalem instead.

The invitations to visit the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are evidence that the issue has been overcome, said Kenneth Nobrega, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry’s secretary for bilateral negotiations with the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Nobrega said Bolsonaro will be seeking increased trade and investment from his oil-producing hosts to help jumpstart Brazil’s underperforming economy. The right-wing Brazilian president will meet with heads of state and speak to business conferences in Doha on Monday and Riyadh on Wednesday.

Bolsonaro promised evangelical Christian supporters in last year’s election that he would move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to align Brazil more closely with Israel.

But he lost an internal battle to the pragmatic generals and economists in his government who underscored the need for stronger economic ties to Arab nations, according to Oliver Stuenkel, a trade expert at Sao Paulo’s FGV think tank.

“Bolsonaro has been briefed on what he must say and what he should not say in order to repair the damage he did to Brazil’s reputation in the Arab world,” said Stuenkel.

Brazil’s ties with Arab nations are improving by the day, said the Palestinian Authority’s Ambassador Ibrahim Al Zeben, who built an embassy in Brasilia a stone’s throw from the presidential palace, much to the annoyance of Israeli diplomats.

Bolsonaro said last year that Palestine was not a country and should not have an embassy in Brasilia, even though in 2010 Brazil recognized the state of Palestine and its 1967 borders.

Al Zeben said foreign ministry officials tell him Brazil still backs a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue.

“We are trying to strengthen and diversify relations between Brazil and the Arab world based on mutual interests,” he said.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman