Cuba-Saudi Arabia: The Threads of a Relationship of Convenience

October 16, 2017 |

By Jorge Gonzalez  (Cafe Fuerte)

Ricardo Cabrisas, the vice-president of the Council of Ministers and the minister of Planning and Economy of Cuba, along with the vice chairman and managing director of The Saudi Fund for Development (SFD), Yousef Ibrahim Albassam. Photo: granma.cu

HAVANA TIMES — The relationship between the Saudi monarchy and the Cuban regime continues to grow. In this equation, Raul Castro’s government benefits from soft loans in the face of its short financial solvency, while the Al Saud family receive Cuban doctors and a political boost.

Faisal Muslat Gasab Almandeel, the Saudi ambassador in Havana, has stated that bilateral ties have been reinforced greatly ever since embassies were open in both countries, according to the pro-government weekly newspaper, Trabajadores.

Cuba opened up its embassy in Riad in 2007. Four years later, Saudi Arabia established its own in Havana.

According to the Arab diplomat, the Kingdom has contributed towards the development of Cuban infrastructure by giving loans via the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD).

[Curiously, many pro-Cuban government detractors of US foreign policy on human rights often use Washington’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia as a sign of hypocrisy.]

Millions in soft loans

The newspaper didn’t mention the sum that had been given to Cuba, but its several million dollars in soft loans.

The most recent Saudi contribution was valued at 26.6 million USD, which became a reality with an agreement signed by both countries last May at the SFD’s headquarters. This money was to be invested in the Havana Historian’s Office’s Rehabilitation and Construction Program.

In July 2016, both countries signed another agreement, for a sum of 50 million USD, which revolved around Saudi exports to the island. Five months later, the SFD allocated another 122 million USD to four projects in Cuba, three of them relating to the restoration of hydraulic networks in Havana, Camaguey and Cardenas.

Cuba’s hydraulic network infrastructure is highly deteriorated throughout much of the country, the reason behind the many leaks and overflows that affect water supply in the domestic sector.

The fourth agreement was signed in November of last year with the aim to provide technical equipment to Cuban hospitals.

The country in the Persian Gulf also pays Cuba to send highly-specialized doctors. According to the latest figures published, there are around 220 Cuban doctors working in Saudi Arabia. [The amount the Cuban government receives and what the doctors get is not public.]

Although the presence of these professionals isn’t huge like it is in the other countries like Venezuela and Brazil where Havana exports its human resources, they are highly valued for their level of specialization in areas such as gynecology, brain surgery and intensive care.

Money for a country in debt

In the middle of the financial crisis that Cuba is tackling, which has been exacerbated by the crisis in Venezuela, its main political and trade partner, as well as its inability to meet targets established in agreements with international creditors, Saudi loans are a lifeline.

[In the same way, Saudi purchases of hundreds of billions of dollars in weaponry from the United States boosts the US economy. Business is business the pragmatic’s say.]

Last July, at one of the unproductive sessions that Cuban Parliament holds twice a year, the Economy minister Ricardo Cabrisas recognized the fact that Cuba is having a hard time getting commercial loans because it’s unable to pay its suppliers back in time, who are reluctant to continue building up their debt.

In August of 2016, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, met with Cuban ambassador Enrique Enriquez, who would soon conclude his period in that country. Photo: Cuban Foreign Ministry

Saudi loans aren’t subject to political matters. Of course, the Al Saud family isn’t in a position to demand change in any country in exchange for its millions.

Plus, their repayment terms are very generous. Even though the amount of time Cuba has to pay the Saudis back hasn’t been leaked, the SFD’s loans have a 50-year repayment term, plus a 10-year grace period, depending on the sum and the country where this investment has been made.

Cuba is the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean that has received financial aid from the SFD ever since this institution began to operate in 1975.

A mosque in Havana

While Cuba receives this capital injection, Saudi Arabia is benefitting in exchange by receiving political support in the international arena. The Al Saud family knows that the Cuban regime doesn’t get involved in human rights affairs, unless the violation happens in the US or in Europe.

Cuba can’t throw stones at its neighbors roof in this matter either, as its own roof is made of glass.

Therefore, the theocratic monarchy can discriminate against women, behead homosexuals, the blasphemous and women charged with adultery. Likewise the Saudi government can put on trial  atheists, dissidents and human rights advocates recurring to a law that classifies “any act”, violent or non-violent, that attempts to damage the kingdom’s reputation, affect public order or disturb the safety of society as terrorism.

Cuba won’t raise a finger at international organizations to condemn these practices.

It seems ironic that these two countries would sit together on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Both mutually supported the other in the nomination process to become members of this organization, whose mission is to boost the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.

Meanwhile, the mosque building project in Havana continues, which has been funded by Saudi Arabia.

Silence in official press

None of the complaints made against Saudi Arabia because of its systemic violations of human rights appear in official Cuban press.

Last December, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, H.E. Mr. Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, received in the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Mr. Orlando Requeijo Gual the new ambassador from Cuba. Photo: Cuban Foreign Ministry

Every year, the Foreign Affairs Ministry (MINREX) meets up with representatives from the national press, and gives them updates about what the government’s projections and interests in diplomatic affairs and stresses the international matters that should be covered and how the analysis of these should be focused.

There is one principle that always guides these meetings: never criticize the countries that have good diplomatic relationships with Cuba. In order to do this, MINREX uses the principle of non-interventionism in internal affairs that apply to its international relationships.

Once, as a result of articles that appeared in Cuban press criticizing the role of Saudi Arabia in the Syrian crisis or in sending troops to Bahrain to crush anti-government protests in this neighboring country of theirs, the Saudi embassy asked the ministry whether this news coverage was Cuba’s official policy.

MINREX assured the Saudi embassy that the journalists’ opinions weren’t the State’s own, and it later sent instructions to national media outlining how news relating to “Cuba’s friend” the monarchy, should be dealt with.

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  • Nick

    I would have no issue at all with a mosque being built in Havana.
    Would only hope that such a mosque would not preach the ultra-conservative version of Islam that is unfortunately common in Saudi funded places of worship.
    It is interesting to note that the Cuban Government seems to be following the likes of the US and British Governments in kow-towing to the powerful oil rich Saudis. But I guess unlike the USA and us (British) the Cubans don’t have pages of a weapons export book to fill.
    Their angle is a different one altogether.
    It may be worth pointing out that one of The Revolution’s ‘proudest achievements’ is the strides forward in gender equality.
    Wonder if they mentioned that to The Saudi contingent??

  • Dan

    Like Nietsche said “Erst kommt die Fressen, dann kommt die moral”. Principals are fine, but is poor Cuba to cut diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, when the rich West does not ? Cuba’s human rights record is vastly superior to the Saudis’, and Cuba is benefiting from infrastructure loans, not sweetheart deals like Bush and the Carlyle Group. Lastly, Cuba is obviously not, as the US does, providing political and military support to the Saudi government.