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LIFE IN THE TROPICS : Venezuela Serves Up a Culture Shock for Visiting Saudi Oil Minister


Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Rafael Ramirez (left) and Saudi Arabia’s Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi pose for a photograph that first appeared on the Venezuelan minister’s Twitter feed.

PORLAMAR, Venezuela—With hours-long delays followed by hours-long “coffee breaks,” oil officials from Saudi Arabia on a rare trip to Venezuela this week are getting a crash course on how things work in this “socialist workers’ paradise”: Almost nothing ever runs on time.

Lack of organization is nothing new for people familiar with Venezuela, where long lines, bureaucracy and chaotic traffic are part of daily life. The World Bank recently ranked it 182 out of 189 countries in terms of ease of doing business.

But for Saudi officials attending a climate conference here on the Venezuelan resort island of Margarita, it’s all been a bit of a culture shock.

“When we say 9 a.m., we usually mean 9 a.m.,” 
said one Saudi delegate, stunned—at around 11 a.m.—as he waited for the conference proceedings to open on Tuesday.

 He had just spent an hour looking for an English translator who could help him get ID tags printed for his country’s delegation.

He wasn’t comforted when an attendant told him that his oil minister Ali al-Naimi, probably the single most powerful figure in global oil markets, would need to get in the queue and receive his name tag in person. The attendant eventually gave in and printed some of the IDs, but told the Saudi official to come back the following day to get Mr. al-Naimi’s pass. Some press handlers did not know who Mr. al-Naimi was.

Delegates said logistics problems began early when, less than a week before the start of the summit, the Venezuelan government moved it from Caracas to the island, forcing them to leave behind hard-to-find hotel reservations in the capital.

The confusion is symbolic of a vast difference between the two OPEC members that’s also found a parallel in their respective policies toward the steep decline in oil prices since the summer. The slump is putting a huge strain on Venezuela’s public finances, whereas Saudi Arabia—with its low public debt—has a budget that can cope with lower oil prices for longer.

Venezuela this week hosted preliminary climate discussions between environmental groups, NGOs and government officials in the run-up to the annual U.N. climate conference scheduled to take place in Peru next month. In addition to attending the summit, Mr. al-Naimi was also asked to attend a private meeting with Venezuela’s foreign minister and lead OPEC representative, Rafael Ramirez, where they talked about oil prices.

Mr. Ramirez says he and Mr. Naimi discussed ways to rid the oil markets of “speculation,” which he blames for the commodity’s fall. But he declined to offer more details on their 45-minute chat.

It’s Mr. Naimi’s first trip to the South American country in some eight years, but organizing his private encounter with Mr. Ramirez on Wednesday was not easy. Diplomats familiar with the matter said they had been given no indication of the time and location of the meeting until just a couple hours before.

While some Saudi officials focused on the meeting with Mr. Ramirez, others participating in the climate summit were treated to periodic presentations by mid-level Venezuelan government officials discussing the virtues of socialism and the evils of capitalism, not to mention its effect on the environment.

“Venezuela’s position on climate change is that the capitalist system is unsustainable for the life of the planet,” 
Mr. Ramirez told delegates this week.

There’s no shortage of irony, however.

Venezuela is the biggest oil producer on the continent, the region’s leader in CO2 emissions and, thanks to a generous fuel subsidy, sells gasoline for less than a penny a gallon. As a result, domestic consumption has soared in recent years to around 700,000 barrels a day, meaning Venezuela dedicates about a quarter of its crude production to supply its population of 30 million.

Venezuela’s government, which often expresses solidarity with progressive groups, had invited green activists to this year’s preliminary climate talks in what it said was a bid to get their voices heard at the U.N. 

But during an open forum with environmental organizations, Venezuela’s top official on climate matters, Claudia Salerno, refused to allow talk of cutting the use of fossil fuels to be included in the final draft of a resolution to be presented to the U.N., something that left many participants feeling dismayed.

“The whole framing of the discussion was lost,”
 said Mauro Fernandez, a climate campaigner from Argentina working for Greenpeace.

Held in a heavily air-conditioned hotel that was expropriated by the late leftist leader Hugo Chavez from Hilton five years ago, the climate talks end today. 

Mr. al-Naimi next heads to Mexico, where Mr. Ramirez flew to a day earlier for meetings with that country’s foreign minister and energy secretary.

Hopefully the Saudis have no trouble flying out.

Write to Kejal Vyas at

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