Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine

Oil for Climate Action

The appointment of Sultan Al Jaber to lead the 28th climate summit this year unleashed criticism of some Western media, especially in Britain, and fueled skepticism among environmental activists. While the reaction of most environmental and climate action groups is driven by genuine concern, the organized campaigns led by major British media carried a lot of malice, not to mention certainly inconsistent with the journalistic ethics and standards they claim to revere.

Reports and articles in the BBC and The Guardian criticized the relationship of Al Jaber, alongside some of those he chose to help him run the climate summit office, with the UAE oil sector, calling this a conflict of interest. This is a highly prejudicial oversimplification, as it ignores the economic, scientific and cultural characteristics of a country in which development was based on investing its oil wealth. Had those in objection looked more closely, they would have realized that what the UAE did was to bring the oil and gas sector closer to environment and climate action, not the other way around.

It is true that Sultan Al Jaber is the CEO of ADNOC, but his appointment as President-Designate of COP 28 is not the same as appointing the head of Shell or BP, for example, to chair a climate summit in the United Kingdom. While these two companies constitute one part of the British economy, modern UAE was exclusively built on the oil sector, which was its only dependable natural resource, before the diversification drive. This sector is led by a state company, ADNOC, owned by the government. Therefore, it’s not unusual for senior officials in this young, modern country to have built their scientific and professional expertise in the oil sector and its companies, or under their umbrella. With the diversification of the economy beyond fossil fuels, the situation will certainly change, and high-level expertise will definitely have to come from different sectors.

There is no cause for shame in the UAE’s choices and Sultan Al Jaber’s background, but rather reasons to be proud. The UAE used its oil wealth in the right direction, going far beyond creating advanced infrastructure and adopting a rapid and balanced approach to economic and social development, to providing education and training opportunities for its youth. Those include Sultan Al Jaber, who studied chemical engineering and business administration in the United States, on a scholarship from ADNOC, and obtained a PhD in business and economics from Britain, before starting his work in the energy sector. His qualifications were behind his assignment in 2006 to establish and lead the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar), which he succeeded to place at the forefront of renewable energy companies in the region and the world, before becoming Chairman of its Board of Directors. Al Jaber was also the driving force behind the establishment and hosting of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi in 2009. Furthermore, in his capacity as President of the Emirates Development Bank, he led several initiatives to achieve the goals of comprehensive economic and social development in the country.
This career path, which represents a new UAE generation, was behind the appointment of Al Jaber as Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology. His success in transforming renewable and clean energy initiatives into unprecedented programs and achievements, locally, regionally and globally, was behind his appointment as the UAE’s Special Envoy for Climate Change. Therefore, Sultan Al Jaber was actually the ideal choice to lead the climate summit, after the UAE was elected, with international consensus, to host its twenty-eighth session. The UAE, this young oil-producing country, has the right to be proud of what it has accomplished on the path of diversifying the economy and balanced development, including the rapid transition to clean and renewable energy sources. And while those in the media are voicing their protests, their governments are panting after more supplies of oil and gas from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and other producing countries, to make up for the deficit caused by the war in Ukraine.

I first met Sultan Al Jaber while he was manning as a humble professional, a small booth for Masdar on his own, at an energy exhibition in Abu Dhabi, enthusiastically trying to attract interest and support. Shortly after he started his assignment in 2006 from scratch, Masdar City was established and started its pioneering work in the fields of clean energy. It soon embraced IRENA in Abu Dhabi. Years later, we collaborated on the reports of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and its conferences, with another brilliant Emirati young man, Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, who used to head the Department of Energy and Climate Change at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and represented the Emirates in IRENA, before becoming Minister of Climate Change and Environment and later Minister of State for Foreign Trade. Such people represent a new generation that believes in sustainable development rooted in safeguarding the environment, whose qualifications and achievements awarded them with well-deserved opportunities in leading positions to serve their country.

The unjust campaign against the Emirates today was preceded, for similar reasons, by a similar stance against Saudi Arabia. The huge oil wealth, which placed the Kingdom at the forefront of global energy markets, made it natural for major state and private entities to focus on oil, not only in economic and development manifestations, but also in science and research. In the vicinity of the Saudi Oil Company (Aramco), the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals was established in Dhahran, to become one of the most important centers for research and higher education in energy-related issues. It was followed by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in the vicinity of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, and the Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC) in Riyadh, which have become two world leading research centers in clean and renewable energy. Funding for these universities and research centers comes from oil, the country’s primary source of income. Oil is also the source of financing development projects in the Kingdom, programs to diversify the economy, switch to clean and renewable energy, and combat climate change by reducing emissions. The recently announced Saudi plan to produce electric cars locally, with an initial production capacity of half a million cars starting from 2030, would not have been possible without income from oil.

After all this, is it justifiable to object if Saudi experts, scholars, and negotiators come from successful universities and research centers funded by the state-owned national oil industry? Or should we rather applaud if the stances of the Saudi Minister of Energy, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, on environment and climate issues exceed the commitments of many environment ministers in other countries? Let alone that the Chief Climate Negotiator, Khaled Abuleif, who has led a new era which witnessed the largest Saudi involvement and positive turnaround in the negotiations, comes from a background of working for Aramco and the Ministry of Energy.

What is required is that oil-producing countries be held accountable for their actions in developing their societies, diversifying their economies, protecting the environment, and adhering to pledges to reduce carbon emissions to combat climate change, according to the ambitious goals they have committed to. But they are not to blame if they satisfy the world hunger for traditional energy sources which they possess, during an inevitable transitional period. Recent events showed that a transition period is inevitable before eliminating carbon emissions by enhancing efficiency, carbon sequestration, and switching to renewable energy sources.

Using oil wealth in the right direction can expedite climate action. And those who are being condemned as felons might emerge as pioneers.

Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development- AFED and Editor-in-Chief of Environment & Development magazine.