Sultan Al Jaber at COP28: The Controversial Appointment of An Oil CEO to Head UN Climate Change Conference

A person standing
La Nacion
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Sultan Al Jaber at COP28: The Controversial Appointment of An Oil CEO to Head UN Climate Change Conference

The choice of the head of Adnoc, the state oil company of the United Arab Emirates, to lead the summit aroused controversy and doubts among activists and specialists.

Since its appointment, the presidency of the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) has generated a disconcerting roar among all those who have dedicated themselves to the struggle to end fossil fuels. In addition to being the president of the most important conference on climate change, Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber is the director of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), the state-owned oil company of the United Arab Emirates.

It was in Egypt, during COP27, that the world received the news. For several activists, scientists and politicians it was a definition of what was to come. "It signified a very clear direction from the oil-producing countries, and primarily the UAE, that energy security means we still need to focus on oil and gas and put less pressure to phase out fossil fuels," mentions Laury Haytayan, Middle East director of the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).

It had only been a few months since the outbreak of the war between Ukraine and Russia, which in addition to the devastation of a country, displaced people and deaths, was the main cause of a nearly $200 spike in the price of a barrel of oil and a doubling of natural gas prices.

Russia, a major fuel supplier to Europe, had turned off the energy tap, something that generated despair in the governments in power. "It was a shock to the global economy and the European economy, which was one of the main drivers of an energy transition agenda," Haytayan adds.

There was hysteria and also dozens of proposals: from sharing showers and turning off heaters to taking up abandoned oil projects and making energy transition discussions more flexible. They brought the energy security debate back to the table over the mitigation debate.

It was there that Al Jaber appeared, the flamboyant Emirati CEO who would begin a months-long journey to convince the world that, despite his position and history as an oil promoter, he would make significant progress under his presidency of the environmental summit. In his opening speech at COP 28, he spoke of open-mindedness, flexibility and, for the first time, the need to include fossil fuel energy companies in climate discussions.

"It was not easy, but today, many of these companies are committed to zero methane emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality targets by 2050 for the first time and I am grateful that they decided to join this journey, but I must also say that it is not enough and they can do much more. They can lead the way and that will ensure that others will follow," he said at the giant Expo Dubai building.

A view of the skyline of Dubai
The skyline of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with the world's tallest building the Burj Khalifa, is seen Friday, May 19, 2023. / Credit: John Grambell via AP Photo.

According to a report published Thursday by the World Meteorological Organization, 2023 is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded and also one of the years with the highest concentration of greenhouse gases.Environmental organizations and delegations from the countries most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis demanded that the world's governments phase out fossil fuels.

"That is why the appointment of the Sultan, CEO of the national energy company and great defender of the hydrocarbon industry, as president of the COP is clearly controversial", explained Rodrigo Rodríguez Tornquist, former Argentine Secretary of Climate Change, in an interview with LA NACION.

The Argentine representative was not the only one to raise doubts about the appointment of an oilman to head the negotiations for the end of fossil fuels, something that generated a wave of criticism among officials and international media, although some experts also pointed out that it could open up a possibility that was previously unthinkable.

Man at podium giving a speech
COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber speaks at the opening session of the COP28 UN Climate Summit, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. / Credit: Peter Dejong via AP Photo.

Al Jaber does not want to be remembered for being the oil president of the COP, but for managing a historic conference.

And since the opening ceremony he has demonstrated that claim: within minutes he announced the consolidation of the fund for losses and damages generated by extreme weather events and was also the first to announce a contribution of 100 million dollars to nourish it. "In less than a few hours we managed to raise more than 400 million dollars", he celebrated in a press conference, referring also to the contributions of the European Union and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent of Japan and the United States.

By the end of the conference, Al Jaber expects to have met most of the targets set. This includes the tripling of renewable energy capacity, a clear definition of the Adaptation Goals, meeting the financing debts and rethinking the new climate action goals after the global stocktaking that will be discussed in these days. For Haytayan, more than a deep conviction, the Sultan seeks to position itself and carry weight at the geopolitical level.

"They do not want to fail at COP 28, they want everyone to remember this COP as successful and not only in logistical terms. They want to be transcendental, especially in how this could shape the energy world," details Haytayan.

Group of people giving speeches at conference
COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, presides over the opening ceremony of the COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai on November 30, 2023. / Credit: Giuseppe Cacace via AFP.

From oil tycoon to climate negotiator

Al Jaber was born just two years after the United Arab Emirates, a territory controlled by the United Kingdom until 1971. "When they got their independence they had other kinds of jobs like fishermen, Bedouins, they led a very basic kind of life and with the money from oil and gas they had the development to get to where they are today," portrays Haytayan.

Al Jaber grew up with the splendor of that booming oil nation and saw a city saturated with luxuries being built in a desert. He left the UAE for several years to study chemical engineering and then business abroad. When he returned, he wanted to build his first big company in that same desert, and it had nothing to do with oil. Masdar, a company in which the Sultan still has a seat, is entirely dedicated to renewable energies.

Man talking and pointing finger
Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 president and United Arab Emirates special envoy on climate change, during the Future of Climate Week at the Museum of the Future, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. / Credit: Kamran Jebreili via AP Photo.

It is the most important renewable energy company in the region and has a presence in more than 40 countries. And it was the Sultan's management that achieved such resounding growth. "Young Al Jaber was working at the top of a renewable energy project before he went to Adnoc. The way he led this project got him recognized by the Emirati leadership. And then he got the job to lead Adnoc as well," Haytayan reviews.

In 2016, he took over at the oil company in the world's second-largest oil-producing country. And in 2020, he also got the job as the country's Minister of Advanced Industry and Technology. During his tenure, he has multiplied year after year the exploitation of gas and oil and secured treaties with dozens of countries, including China, Brazil, France and the Netherlands. Even today, he still has millionaire investments for the expansion of the company and of fossil fuels. However, he assures that he is committed to the energy transition.

"We have to understand that in the UAE there is no division between clean energy and oil and gas, it's all about energy. That's why they committed to new investments in oil and gas, billions of dollars, like $150 billion by 2027, at the same time they invest less in renewables...much less than 150″, says Haytayan.

COP presidency

From the moment he was elected, Al Jaber knew he was neither the first choice nor the ideal choice for the position. "He started off very cautious in the process, recognizing that he was not the obvious choice. He has tried to be neutral and keep in line that he is not representing his company or his country but wants his to be a presidency that listens to what countries want to say," recalls Alejandra Lopez, a specialist in international relations and climate change at the NGO Transforma.

To achieve in one day the consolidation of the loss and damage fund, he worked intensively meeting with the different parties to arrive at the COP with an expeditious decision, but also the strong push of issues such as health and climate change. "That does not detract from the fact that we will arrive at a COP where there will be massive industry participation in national delegations from other countries," adds Lopez.

Around him, it was not only news of engagement that surfaced. Several international media followed in his footsteps and discovered such subtle irregularities as changes in his Wikipedia profile, giving a more benevolent and "green" view of the Sultan; thousands of bots defending themselves from skeptics and large photographs of windmills on the oil company's website.

Man standing in front of a banner
United Arab Emirates Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and chair-designate of the United Nations climate talks known as COP28, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber/ Credit: La Nacion.

But the biggest uproar happened days before COP28 was due to start: the BBC and the Centre for Climate Reporting published a leaked document showing the Sultan's claims of securing oil deals with several countries during the conference, including Brazil, Mexico, France, Norway and Germany. The Sultan responded that the document would not influence any of the negotiations, although the coin is still in the air.

In his opening speech, Al Jaber was careful not to mention oil and gas output among the conference's objectives.

"On the one hand, talking about mitigation and particularly the energy sector, what is being raised is how to transform decarbonization into a business. And that business can be done in two main ways: the transition to renewables, and energy companies want to have peace of mind that they will be able to face that transition in a way that is beneficial for their economies. And the other business is Carbon Capture Storage, in which the majority of oil companies are involved," explains Rodríguez Torquinst.

But for the United Arab Emirates, investing in renewable energies does not mean stopping growing as an oil producer. "And just like all countries that are producers and consumers of fossil fuels, we must demand that they not only invest in renewables but also that they accompany this with the counterpart of ceasing to invest in fossil fuels," criticizes López.

There are still 11 days to go until the end of COP 28 and nothing is set in stone. Haytayan does not expect that the outcome of this conference will favor countries and oil companies more, since that depends on all parties. What can happen is a positioning of the UAE, the second largest oil producer, in future climate policy decisions.

This story was produced as part of the 2023 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published in Spanish by La Nacion on 1 December 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: President of COP28, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber / Credit: Giuseppe Cacace via AFP.

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