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Arabs in the Caribbean – Small in Number but Big in Power

Arabs in the Caribbean are most often from Syria and Lebanon [1].

The Arab community in the Caribbean is definitely in the minority; less than 1 percent. However, they wield a tremendous amount of economic power.
Arabs have made many Caribbean countries their home – Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Dominica, Curacao, Aruba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are all homes to Arabs.

The Last Group of Immigrants to the Caribbean

The Caribbean is home to many groups of immigrants – Europeans, Africans, Indians and Chinese. The Arabs, specifically immigrants from Syria and Lebanon, are considered the last group to arrive to the Caribbean.

Syrians and Lebanese arrived in the Caribbean at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century [2].  Cuba was one of the first Caribbean countries to see these Arab immigrants. Many settled in Havana.  However, they were unhappy in this environment and eventually move to Jamaica.

Syrians and Lebanese arrived in Jamaica in 1891. In Jamaica, the earliest Lebanese and Syrian immigrants worked in the banana industry – an industry that began to decline at the beginning of the 20th century [3].

Why did Syrians and Lebanese come to the Caribbean?

Like most waves of immigration, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants came to the Caribbean in order to escape economic hardships, civil unrest and religious persecution. They were mainly Christians.

Lebanese and Syrians mostly worked in the retail sector, both buying and selling. They were also door to door salesmen.  Some also operated wool and silk factories, as textile traders also came to the Caribbean.

Arab Immigrants Spread Across the Region

With the Arabs coming to the Caribbean and succeeding, this was an incentive for others to follow. Thus developed more and more small communities of Arabs across the Caribbean region. Haiti, Dominica, Curacao, Aruba among the Caribbean states that became homes to Syrian and Lebanese immigrants.

In Trinidad, Syrians and Lebanese were the last ethnic group to arrive. Like other Caribbean countries, at the time ruled by the British Empire, Trinidad was considered a wealthy British colony and an ideal place to move to in the early 1900s . The promise of prosperity brought the Lebanese and Syrian to its shores.

The Minority that Owns the Majority

In most Caribbean countries, Arabs usually make up one percent or less of the population [4]. But this minority runs owns and operates the majority of large businesses and franchises in the Caribbean. People of Syrian and Lebanese descent are at the top of the food chain in many Caribbean islands.

Take for example, Gilbert Bigio, the wealthiest Haitian, and Haiti’s only billionaire. His family moved to Haiti from Syria in 1896. Then there is Antoine Izméry, is a famous Haitian of Palestinian descent, who was among the wealthiest people in Haiti. Izméry was one of the most prominent backers of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and helped finance his election campaign.

Gilbert Bigio, the wealthiest Haitian and Haiti's only billionaire.

In Jamaica, Don Wehby was the CEO of GraceKennedy; Joseph John Issa is Jamaican businessman and philanthropist, founder of the Cool Group that consists of more than fifty companies. Lisa Hanna, holder of the Miss World title in 1993 and a politician, is another Jamaican of Lebanese descent.

Lisa Hanna - Miss World 1993. Current Jamaican MP.

The Matouks, Sabgas, Hadids, Abouds, Hadads, are all prominent business owners in Trinidad and Tobago. The Matouk family is responsible for processing and distribution of many local products under the family name Matouk’s. Jimmy Aboud, known as the ‘Textile King’, is a well-known fabric merchant since the 1940s, continues to run a successful operation today. HADCO Ltd., run by three brothers, is another large group of companies owned by persons of Syrian/Lebanese descent.
Even tiny island of the commonwealth of Dominica, with a population of 70,000, has influential people of Arabic descent, for example the Nassief family of Lebanese descent. Philip Nassief, visionary entrepreneur and his sons, Gregor is an award-winning hotelier and Yvor was the Minister of Tourism for Dominica between 2005 and 2007.

Holding Prominent Positions in Politics

Edward Seaga
The Honourable Edward Seaga, Prime Minister of Jamaica (1980-1989)

In addition to being prominent business owners, there are many Syrians/Lebanese in high-powered positions. One of Jamaica’s most notable persons of Lebanese descent is their fifth Prime Minister, The Honourable Edward Seaga (1980-1989). Haiti’s fifth Prime Minister, Robert Malval (1993-1994) was also of Lebanese descent. Emily Saïdy de Jongh-Elhage, of Lebanese descent, was the last Prime Minister of the Netherlands Antilles from 2006 until their dissolution in 2010.

The Syrians and Lebanese have made long lasting success in their ventures across the Caribbean.

Other Influential Arabs in the Caribbean

Another Haitian Lebanese is Andre Apaid Jr. well-known for leading the Group of 184, a coalition that forced Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 2004 through a coup d’état in collaboration with the United States. Considered one of the richest men in Haiti, Apaid Jr. is a leader among the community of Middle Eastern descent that currently dominates the Haitian economy [5]. He is among the likes of Haiti’s upper class, also of Arab descent, Gilbert Bigio and Reginald Boulos.
Other well-known Caribbean people of Arabic descent include Emilio Estefan (husband of Gloria Estefan), a Cuban musician and producer with Lebanese grandparents, and Jossy Mansur, a Papiamento Editor from Aruba born to Lebanese parents.

Emilio Estefan (Arab Cuban) and Gloria Estefan

How have Arabs contributed to the Caribbean?

In addition to their astute business influence, the Syrians and Lebanese in the Caribbean have also contributed to the Caribbean cuisine. One of the most popular street food items in Trinidad and Tobago is the gyro, a wrapped pita bread filled with meat and veggies, that was brought to the Caribbean by the Arabs. There are also numerous gyro outlets in Trinidad and many Arabic fast-food outlets in the Caribbean, especially since Assad’s Syrian Civil War (2010-present) . In addition to gyros, the Syrian and Lebanese community has introduced the Caribbean to dishes such as Fattoush, Kibbies, Kebabs, Tabbouleh and Falafel. There are also restaurants in Trinidad that are specifically Lebanese cuisine that has introduced locals to many more flavours, and cookbooks too!

Why have Arabs done so well in the Caribbean?

The Syrian/Lebanese communities in the Caribbean have done tremendously well for themselves. Like the Chinese and Indians, they seem to have been blessed with amazing business acumen. The ability to sacrifice, work hard, save and invest, appear to be the common denominators among Chinse, Indians and Arabs . But there are also other critical factors at work.

They Stick Together

The Syrians/Lebanese, like the Jews, are known to ‘stick together’.  They rarely marry outside of their own race/religion, with the result of keeping the wealth within a well-knit and tight community or clan.  Incest (cousins marrying cousins) is often practiced in order to strengthen the family and not share its wealth with outsiders. It is all about family and keeping wealth within the family.

They do Business with Each Other

Syrian/Lebanese businesses often complement, rather than compete with each other. Brothers and uncles ‘corner’ different sectors of the economy. They buy and sell from each other, producing a virtual circle of wealth-creation in and among themselves.

Helping Their Own

The Syrians/Lebanese do not only help and support and strengthen their own blood families.  They help their own clan as well as persons of the same ilk/religion and culture. A great deal of support has been extended by the local Syrian/Lebanese community to Syrians trying to escape their oppressive regime in Syria.  This has the added advantage of increasing the limited 1% ‘pool’ of their genes.

They are Here to Stay

Syrians and Lebanese people accepted the Caribbean as their new home, especially as it produced their wealth and looked after their welfare for many generations. Whereas many other immigrants saw the Caribbean as a ‘stepping stone’ to emigrate and live somewhere else, Arabs have truly made the Caribbean their home. This is important, because there has not been fear or shortage of investments in the countries that they have made their homes.

Strong Networks

Then, there are the networks. Like the Jews, the Syrians/Lebanese build solid trade links and networks across the islands and across the world – for trade, for family connections, and for sources of family enlargement and sources of spouses.  This means the circle of wealth creation goes far beyond the boundaries of individual islands. These networks provide strong competitive imperatives of history, community and trust, that are often impenetrable.

Political Prowess

Perhaps the people that best understand Politics and Democracy in the Caribbean are the Arabs. In a two-party system, it is easy to place your bets on one or the other party. No other betting game gives you a 50:50 chance of winning!  Therefore, no other ‘gamble’ gives you a more certain and better return on your investment, than investing in a political party.  Dick Cheney understood this only too well [6].  And the Arabs too! Arabs may not be in the majority when it comes to votes; they may not be visibly in charge; but they operate effectively behind the scenes as the ‘king makers’.  And of course ‘who pays the piper calls the tune’, or simply put, get the contracts.

Stable Religious and Community Values

Arabs of Syrian and Lebanese descent that came to the Caribbean may have been persecuted for their religion; they may have been driven from their homes and in search of a better life. But they were not enslaved; not robbed of their families, their religion their culture or they dignity. They continued to be whole human beings, united in their religious cause and their survival and business instincts. And there has been enormous strength in their small numbers and their sticking togetherness. There has never been any doubt about their identify, who they are; and what their value and religion and culture is.

What can we Learn from the Arab Presence in the Caribbean?

The Chinese that came to the Caribbean probably saw the Caribbean as ‘temporary’; as a ‘stepping stone’ to so something better and greater; a stepping stone en route to the USA and Canada.  Many Chinese that arrived in the Caribbean thought they were going to America.  In fact, many of the still ‘pure’ Chinese sought to migrate to North America, mainly Canada.  Many of the half-castes (like my father) stayed behind.

Indians that came to the Caribbean, came in their numbers, and both sexes came. They were generally able to ‘stick together’, especially as the British drilled into them that they were superior to Africans, who, they were told, would rape their wives and children.  Indians were also entrepreneurial and also did well in business.  However, still having their culture and religions intact and a comfortable, worthwhile ‘motherland’ to dream about, they never developed the global trade networks that the Jews and Arabs did.  While Arabs in the Caribbean saw the Caribbean as their homes, many Indians still yearn for somewhere else – in India or anywhere except the Caribbean.  Some even tried to become British and eschewed their Island past. For wealth Indians, somehow, the Caribbean was never seen as a final destination.  Perhaps this nis changing today. 

Some Indians were also more prone, open(or could not help) mixing with other races, particular Africans, and even Chinese, providing a new category of  half-castes in the Caribbean, referred to as Douglas (an ethnic mix of Africans and Indians) in Trinidad and Tobago.

Africans in the Caribbean, as indeed in the USA and elsewhere, seem to have fared far worse. This is understandable after 400 years of slavery that deprived Africans of their wives, their lives, their children, their families, their languages, their culture; their religion and their dignity. For Africans, it is clear that there was nowhere else to go; no idyllic ‘motherland’ to go home to; no NETWORK of Africans all over the world to help each other; no single religion to unite everyone.  So it was clear from the start that the Caribbean was ‘HOME’ for Africans.  While already disadvantaged by a treacherous system of slavery, the ‘divide and rule’ policies of colonial masters that pitted one African against the other [7], strangled hopes of unity and collaboration.  Further, the development of a system of ‘betterhood’ based on colour – the lighter your skin colour, the ‘better’ you are, sealed the fate of Africans in the Caribbean.  And by this stroke of pure LUCK, and ‘betterhood’, Arabs, Chinese and lighter-skinned Indians were immediately superior to Africans.

The Future

It is about time that the fairer, more wealthy and more educated elements of Caribbean societies start seeing ourselves as being tremendously LUCKY. We happen to be the product of an evil system, and have luckily, come out on the winning/profitable/educated/talented end.
We need to appreciate the fact that the Caribbean is an amazing place to live, work and play, precisely because of our tumultuous history and awesome diversity.

And while celebrating and gorging on our pure LUCK, it is critical to remember that:
1. unequal societies are not sustainable, aim for inclusivity;
2. imbalances need to be redressed
3. diversity is a hard-won value that needs to be cherished and fought for;
4. empathy and dignity needs to replace arrogance, superiority, selfishness and egocentricity in order to create a better place for us all.

It is important that we all develop a sense of community – to work together, stick together, respect each other, uplift and support each other; build networks, alliances, capabilities and competencies at home and around the globe; build strong families; respect women and children and more!

Above all it is even more critical that we do these things – work together, stick together, respect each other, uplift and support each other; build networks, alliances, capabilities and competencies at home and around the globe; build strong families; respect women and children because it is the right thing to do. Our supportive actions need to go over and beyond our own religion, creed, clan or race! We need to act because it is the right thing to do. When we do the right thing, we can never go wrong!

[1] Fawcett, Louise, and Eduardo Posada‐Carbo. “Arabs and Jews in the development of the Colombian Caribbean 1850–1950.” Immigrants & Minorities 16, no. 1-2 (1997): 57-79.

[2] “Syrian Lebanese.” NALIS.

[3] Al-Najar, Yasmin. “Caribbean Futures: How Lebanese and Syrian Migrants Forged New Beginnings in Jamaica.” The New Arab.

[4] Nicholls D. (1985) No Hawkers and Pedlars: Arabs of the Antilles

[5] Engler, Yves et al. “Racial Capitalism and the Betrayal of Haiti.” Canadian Dimension.

[6] Dick Cheney served as the 46th vice president of the United States from 2001 to 2009 under George W. Bush. He paid the Piper (George W. Bush) and called his tune (WAR).  He cashed in both from the War and for the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. He did well for himself. Can’t say the same for the country or the people that lost their lives.

[7] In the horrible system of slavery where the few white European Planters were tremendously out-numbered by their slaves, the pure fear that ensued; the need to ‘keep negroes in check’ and avoid a revolt, necessitated the suppression of any kind of unity/community/communication/trust among slaves, even in a single plantation/geographic location, far less for within a single country, region or across the globe. 


Dr. Auliana Poon

Dr. Auliana Poon is the founder and Managing Director of Leve Global and Exceptional Caribbean.

Auliana loves the Caribbean and believes in its people. Her personal mission is to change the world; to transform our societies. And this is precisely why she has spearheaded Exceptional Caribbean – a continuing mission to elevate tourism, trade and lives.


Joie-Marie Poon-Angeron

Joie Marie Poon Angeron

Joie-Marie Poon-Angeron is a graduate of the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies. Joie-Marie is passionate about the arts and culture. She loves the multi-cultural dimension of the Caribbean – whether it’s music, film, art, food or fashion. She is the Social Media Engager at Leve Global and Exceptional Caribbean.

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11 thoughts on “Arabs in the Caribbean – Small in Number but Big in Power”

  1. Earl Plowden ( The Bagmann )

    Dr.Poon :
    I am a 73 year old Trini of African descent, who left Trinidad in 69 to reside in the USA.
    I must applaud you for such an in-depth expose on the racial history of our homeland , and its impact on the current economy / religion and cultural anomolies. Very rarely, do we find a member of the one percenters to be so unabashedly transparent. For this ,you deserve special commendation.
    I made the mistake of staying away from my island home for approximately thirty five years before returning. I must admit that I was very much disappointed by what I saw when I returned. I have since been returning on a regular basis to fill the void that was created during my absence. I write and record calypsoes for fun, as a means of re-culturization, because of this void.
    I feel your genuine love for Trinbago, and pray that your efforts for diversification meet with overall acceptance. Please continue accordingly . Your voice is needed. Once again , thank you.

    1. Thank so much Earl for your kind comments and for engaging with us at Exceptional Caribbean.. Do continue to follow us. Best regards, Auliana.

  2. Thank you do much for this valuable information! I shared much of it with my Caribbean History class. Just imagine I have been consuming Matouks jam from a child and never knew the origin of the family business! Blessings.


    1. Oh. That is so wonderful to hear Loroma. Our aim is to tell the Caribbean story and get our Caaribbean people to rediscover who we are and fall madly in love with our unique Caribbean-ness. Great that you share this article with your class.

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