Cuba’s Look to the Arab World

While Venezuela is bogged down with its internal political and economic crises and Washington hardens its stance against Cuba’s regime, Havana has essentially no choice but to seek new partners, prompting the island nation’s leadership to look to the Arab world. But how pressure from Washington impacts Arab governments’ assessments of doing business with the one communist state in the Americas is unclear.
Cuba’s Look to the Arab World
Photo by: Guille Alvarez

Since the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed the U.S. embargo on Cuba in 1960, the island nation has had to rely on its closest hydrocarbon-rich ally of the day to meet national energy needs. During the first several decades under communist rule, Cuba’s economy benefitted from selling the Soviet Union its sugar at high prices and purchasing Soviet oil at low prices. With the fall of the Soviet Union, however, Cuba’s economy stalled before securing support from Venezuela in the 2000s. In exchange, Cuba assisted Venezuela in sectors including health, sports, and national defense.

Trade fell from $7.2 billion in 2014 to $2.3 billion in 2017, contributing to concern in Havana about excessive economic dependence on Caracas. Matters have gone from bad to worse.

Yet, Cuban-Venezuelan trade has decreased significantly since oil prices fell almost five years ago. Trade fell from $7.2 billion in 2014 to $2.3 billion in 2017, contributing to concern in Havana about excessive economic dependence on Caracas. Matters have gone from bad to worse. Since the ongoing political and economic crises began plaguing Venezuela, Cuba has been extremely worried about how Venezuela’s chaotic affairs could further harm the Cuban economy, which already suffers from stagnation, food shortages, and reduced allocations of fuel and electricity.

One Cuban economist estimates that if economic agreements with Venezuela wind down, Cuba’s gross domestic product could shrink 4 to 8 percent, and if all accords are annulled because of Nicolas Maduro’s regime falling, the impact could be far more severe. Given these possibilities, officials in Havana are looking elsewhere for new partners to help the island nation meet its energy requirements.

Cuba now has its eyes set on the oil- and gas-rich Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region where Havana has long pursued a largely ideological foreign policy, closely aligning with governments that shared the Cuban regime’s anti-US attitudes. Now, determined to find Middle Eastern exporters of hydrocarbon resources and investors to work with more closely, Havana has spent 2018/2019 looking to several MENA states for deeper relations.

Last month, Havana’s Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmiera visited Qatar and Algeria to discuss Cuba’s economic challenges and energy requirements. In turning to these MENA region nations, Cuba is looking to Arab countries whose governments have long valued close ties (and in Algeria’s case a historic Cold War era alliance) with Havana. In addition to Qatar and Algeria, Cuba’s leadership has also signaled its determination to deepen its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Iran too.

Qatar: A “Friendly Country” to Cuba

Malmiera met with Doha’s Prime Minister and Interior Minister, Abdullah bin Nasser Khalifa Al Thani and other high-ranking officials in the Qatari capital on February 18. The bilateral relationship between Cuba and Qatar, which the two states officially established in 1989, has shown signs of deepening in recent years.

In 2015, Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met with Raúl Castro in Cuba and the two heads of state likely discussed coordination in the health sector as well as Qatari investment opportunities in the island nation. Tourism has been another important component of this bilateral relationship, with Cuba being a popular vacation destination for Qataris. In 2012, a Spanish-speaking, Cuban-run hospital opened in Qatar and, four years later, Qatar National Bank became the first bank from a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member state to open a representative office in Cuba.

Last year, Cuba’s ambassador to Doha said that construction of hotels and marinas in the Caribbean country, in addition to a range of sectors in Cuba’s economy including agriculture, oil exploration/production, renewable energy, mining, transportation, finance, and real estate offer “unlimited opportunities for Qatari investments.” He attributed the positive reputation that Qatari investors have in Cuba to the Gulf state being a “friendly country” with “serious” and “respectful” businessmen who are “able to deliver on commitments.”

Algeria: Cuba’s “First Love in Africa”

On February 19, Malmiera began his three-day visit to Algeria, one of Africa’s resource-wealthiest and largest countries, to strengthen an already strong alliance. The two countries’ decades-old alliance is largely rooted in their historic experiences of resisting Western colonialism and foreign domination as well as dramatic, high-profile revolutions that occurred in roughly the same period: 1959 and 1962.

Since gaining independence from France, Algiers has consistently supported Cuba, largely within the framework of the Non-Alignment Movement, supporting Havana against the U.S. economic boycott and aligning with Cuba against Morocco in the Western Sahara conflict.

Since gaining independence from France, Algiers has consistently supported Cuba, largely within the framework of the Non-Alignment Movement, supporting Havana against the U.S. economic boycott and aligning with Cuba against Morocco in the Western Sahara conflict. The Marxist/socialist regimes that have ruled both countries were quick to establish close relations early on in the Cold War, leading to a U.S. State Department intelligence report from 1964 identifying Algeria as “a congenial second home for traveling Cubans, and an all-important base for extending Cuban influence in Africa.”

Building on this historic alliance, Malmiera’s visit to Algiers this month was part of the 22nd meeting of the Joint Intergovernmental Commission on Economic, Commercial, Scientific, Technical, and Cultural Cooperation to discuss numerous issues pertaining to the health sector such as digitalization of patient records, biomedicine, and pharmaceutical products.

Malmiera’s trip also included visits to important institutions in the Algerian capital such as the Pasteur Institute and the National Center for Pharmacovigilance and Materiovigilance. With Cuban doctors already working in Algeria in ophthalmology and OB/GYN, greater coordination in the health sector may bring the two countries closer at a time in which Havana could significantly benefit from greater help from Algeria.

To state the obvious, Algeria’s future is uncertain. The North African country’s domestic political arena is undergoing drastic change. The daily protests that commenced on February 22 have culminated in President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announcing on March 11 that he would not seek fifth term and that this year’s elections would be delayed, raising major questions about Algeria’s path ahead into the post-Bouteflika period.

In any event, based on Havana and Algiers’ historic alliance, Cuba will view Algeria as an important partner in the global arena and one that can help the Cubans offset the Venezuelan crisis’ impact on their country. Doubtless, Havana is a major stakeholder in Algeria’s upcoming transition occurring smoothly without the country returning to the violence of the “black decade” that followed the military’s usurpation of power in 1991.

Saudi Arabia: A “Relationship of Convenience”

Last year, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir paid a two-day visit to Cuba where he met with Raúl Castro. Riyadh’s top diplomat said that he and Cuba’s then-leader discussed the kingdom and Cuba’s “unified and firm stance against extremism and terrorism.” That meeting followed talks in Jeddah in 2017 between King Salman and Cuba’s Deputy Prime Minister Ricardo Cabrisas.

Al-Jubeir’s trip to Havana was largely aimed at advancing Riyadh’s interest in weakening the bonds between Iran and Cuba, which have been strong since Fidel Castro welcomed Iran’s new clerical leadership following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that Cuba’s leader hailed as a major achievement in the struggle against imperialism.

Fearful that Trump’s anti-Cuba policies would push the Caribbean state closer to Tehran (which has already been a consequence of Washington’s tough stance against Cuba in the Trump era), Saudi Arabia has sought to push back against Iran’s increasing geopolitical footprint not only in the Middle East but also in the Western hemisphere with Cuba being an overlooked flashpoint in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry for influence. Saudi Arabia has gained some influence in Cuba through soft loans that the kingdom has given the island nation amid its short financial solvency. In exchange, the Cubans have sent their doctors to care for members of the Al Saud family.

Since Cuba and Saudi Arabia opened embassies in their countries, which occurred in 2007 and 2011, Havana and Riyadh have strengthened relations with the Saudi Fund for Development, granting Cuba $80 million in loans that have helped the Caribbean country rehabilitate and develop its Soviet-era infrastructure.

Trump and the “Troika of Tyranny”

It is legitimate to ask how having more Arab members/former members of OPEC step up their support for Cuba would play out in Washington. As the Trump administration identifies Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as Latin America’s “Troika of Tyranny,” the U.S. is reversing its diplomatic opening to Havana from Barack Obama’s presidency and taking harsh economic measures against Cuba.

Intent on maximizing pressure on the sole communist regime in the Americas, the Trump administration’s policies are set to harm Cuba’s foreign investment climate and tourism sector. This month, the administration announced its plans to activate a dormant law that will subject firms and individuals to lawsuits if they expropriate Cuban property, while also mulling the idea of placing Cuba back on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Already, the Trump administration’s Latin America agenda appears to be creating conflicts of interest between the U.S. and its Arab allies.

Already, the Trump administration’s Latin America agenda appears to be creating conflicts of interest between the U.S. and its Arab allies. For example, the United Arab Emirates’ decision to purchase Venezuelan gold in euros (cash) in January caught the attention of Republican Senator Marco Rubio who tweeted a warning about the reach of Washington’s sanctions. Doubtless, similar support from MENA states for Cuba risk irking Washington as the American establishment’s perspective is that Cuba and Venezuela form an anti-American bloc and support for one necessarily entails backing the other too.

For Washington’s geopolitical adversaries—Russia, Iran, and China—support for Cuba can almost be expected, as underscored by Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing’s firm defense of Maduro against the backdrop of increased U.S. pressure on his government in Caracas. Helping Havana stand strong in the face of the Trump administration’s anti-Cuba policies would represent not only opportunities for these states to gain greater clout in the Caribbean Basin but also to undermine U.S. hegemony in Washington’s immediate “strategic backyard,” further challenging the historic Monroe Doctrine.

For GCC members, which are close allies of the U.S., and depend on the sole superpower’s security umbrella, concerns about backlash from Washington may prompt their governments to act with caution when it comes to deepening relations with Havana during Trump’s presidency. Unquestionably, if the Venezuelan crisis escalates further with more direct intervention in the country’s internal affairs on the part of the U.S., GCC states may come under mounting pressure from the Trump administration to avoid collaboration with Cuba and the other two states in the “Troika.”

In applying such pressure on its allies to support the US’ tough stance against Havana, however, Washington is doing more to demonstrate its own isolation on the issue of Cuba’s embargo than it is doing to harm the island nation’s global reputation. From the perspective of virtually all Arab states, Cuba is a benign and friendly power, which offers invaluable investment opportunities, as opposed to a North Korea-like pariah state. Unquestionably, the MENA region’s OPEC members—the Gulf Arab monarchies, Algeria, and Iran—could make a major difference in Cuba’s future.

If these gas- and oil-rich states manage to enable Havana to offset the economic costs that Cuba pays for its reliance on Venezuela by successfully diversifying their energy suppliers, these MENA governments will be seen by the Trump administration as undermining its agenda of squeezing Havana into making changes that align with Washington’s interests. Yet, given the risks of creating another source of tension with Washington, the extent to which America’s GCC allies will engage Cuba remains to be seen.