DUBAI — High-level meetings between Saudi Arabia and Venezuela that began in Jeddah on Monday including with the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, demonstrate the kingdom’s next diplomatic wave seeking to balance between the traditional East versus West political blocs and gain greater freedom of movement on the global stage.
The visit coming hours before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s arrival in Jeddah on Tuesday, is a signal to Washington that has imposed sanctions on the struggling Latin American country for more than 15 years. The Biden administration, however, has relaxed some of these sanctions and has a direct negotiating channel with the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Maduro arrived in Jeddah early Monday, after visiting Turkey, along with a delegation that included First Lady Cilia Flores, Foreign Affairs Minister Yvan Eduardo, Minister of Oil Pedro Rafael along with other key ministers, according to official statements. They met with the Saudi Crown Prince along with a number of ministerial counterparts.
Venezuela’s oil exports have been stumbling due to old refineries, and sanctions. They fell 14% in May from the previous month as crude upgraders at its main oil region produced less exportable grades and state-run oil firm PDVSA struggled to replenish inventories, Reuters reported.
Monday’s visit was the first for Maduro to the kingdom since 2015. Venezuela’s government is seeking commercial exchange with the kingdom to promote its Bolivarian Economic Agenda established in 2016 that aims to gain financial independence and bypass the effects of the US blockade, Vtv reported.
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— واس الأخبار الملكية (@spagov) June 5, 2023
The country’s Minister of Foreign Relations Yvan Gil said on Monday that cooperation projects in oil and gas, petrochemicals, infrastructure, agriculture and tourism were addressed in addition to culture, science and technology. Enhancing bilateral trade is not Saudi Arabia’s main goal of increasing Venezuelan diplomatic ties, according to experts.
Ryan Bohl, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the Risk Assistance Network + Exchange, said that the kingdom’s priority is to send a global message.
“Saudi Arabia is trying to send these diplomatic signals both to the United States and the West and internationally that it has its own independent foreign policy, working with actors as it sees fit,” he told Al-Monitor. “They are showing that this is an American adversary, it’s heavily sanctioned, and that it’s not going to stop them from meeting who they want to meet with.”
“If Washington wants Saudi Arabia to stop this behavior, they need to start thinking about ways to assuage their security concerns, they need to do more than just the maritime patrols, and they need to step up their game, so to speak, so that Saudi Arabia doesn’t have to go look for alternative partners,” he said.
This is not meant to antagonize the United States, explained Bohl, but to encourage it to change its behavior toward the kingdom and improve cooperation. The OPEC leader doesn’t want energy being used as a weapon upon it by Western governments when the kingdom doesn’t perform in their interests, as they have done with sanctions on Syria, Russia, Iran and also OPEC founding member Venezuela. When Saudi Arabia decided to cut oil exports by 2 million barrels per day in late 2022 against the request of the United States, it led US President Joe Biden to vow consequences as a result.
To strengthen its security globally, Saudi Arabia has taken major steps to improve its global partnerships in a series of normalization agreements with countries including Iran, Syria, and Canada — all this year.
The kingdom also approved a decision to join the geopolitical body, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in March. Along with Venezuela, it is currently seeking to join the emerging national economy group BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to expand its economic and geopolitical bridges with the Global South.
Saudi Arabia’s greater cooperation with Venezuela is also seen as a step in the kingdom’s no single-alignment movement to guarantee greater security from Iran, despite normalizing relations in March.
“There is a drive for them [Saudi Arabia] to want closer relations with Venezuela, if that reduces and either loosens ties with Iran,” said Bohl. Iran and Venezuela — oil producers taking on heavy US sanctions — signed a 20-year cooperation agreement in June of last year, which includes defense deals.
Sean Yom, associate professor of political science at Temple University, said these moves by Saudi Arabia are incremental and thoughtfully strategic steps preparing it for a post-US hegemony global landscape.
“It’s a world where there is more geopolitical uncertainty due to growing Chinese involvement in the Gulf and increased Russian willingness to leverage security relationships,” he said about the growing multipolar landscape, where the United States is a capable but no longer reliable guarantor of regional order.
This does not mean that the US military will be absent from Saudi Arabia and the region, or that defense sales are gone, he told Al-Monitor.
Saudi Arabia, the second-largest global arms importer from 2018 to 2022, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, received most of its arms imports from the United States, the world’s biggest arms exporter.
Improving relations with Venezuela during Maduro’s visit to Jeddah, Yom said, is a testimony to the mindset that every source of risk must be alleviated with prospected action using diplomacy and trade. In the past, he added, Saudi Arabia’s security risks could be “shucked downstream” to the United States, such as Iranian threats against the Gulf littoral — but that’s not the case anymore.