Mon, Jun 17 2024 17 June, 2024

At COP28 the UAE softens, now Saudi Arabia must follow

Saudi Arabia remains a thorn in the side of COP28. Only one solution remains – that the Gulf petrostate host its own COP, and face up to global scrutiny as the United Arab Emirates has done.

Delegates chat before a plenary begins at COP28 in Dubai (Photo credit: Sophie Davies/Gas Outlook)

It has without doubt been a rocky COP28 but one thing has become clear as the U.N. talks in energy-guzzling Dubai draw to a close: that the United Arab Emirates, which at times appeared to be the antithesis of what was needed to push forward climate action, has inched towards a more moderate diplomatic position.

However its Middle Eastern peer, Saudi Arabia, remains firmly entrenched in the pro-fossil fuels camp, and has reportedly been the most forceful voice trying to block a global deal to end fossil fuels as negotiations reach a climax.

This is not wholly surprising: the oil giant kingdom has been the biggest blocker of progress at U.N. climate talks for three decades. What is surprising is that this Gulf petrostate hasn’t caught up with most of the rest of the world (China included) on recognising the need to take urgent measures to prevent global warming, especially given that Saudi Arabia has been increasingly positioning itself in recent months as open and modernized.

Saudi tactics “include inserting words into draft agreements that are considered poison pills by other countries; slow-walking a provision meant to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change; staging a walkout in a side meeting; and refusing to sit down with negotiators pressing for a phaseout of fossil fuels,” according to a New York Times article.

The Saudi line during negotiations over the weekend was to protest that: “we have raised our consistent concerns with attempts to attack energy sources instead of emissions,” a report by The Washington Post said. That’s to say, Saudi Arabia is using the well-worn argument that fossil fuels are not a problem, but that carbon emissions are to blame, and that these can be dealt with through carbon capture and removal. An argument that defies piles of evidence that CCS projects frequently underperform.

For its part, the United Arab Emirates has had a chequered COP. Before the talks even began, documents leaked to the BBC revealed that the UAE’s COP28 team had plans to discuss oil and gas deals with 15 countries and was willing to “evaluate international LNG opportunities” in Mozambique, Canada and Australia. A few days later came the blow-out revelation that COP28 President Sultan Al-Jaber had said there was “no science” to support the phaseout of fossil fuels to keep global warming below 1.5C – followed by a swift retraction of those comments.

But as negotiations glide towards their final hours, the UAE has notably softened its stance. Saudi Arabia’s obstinacy is of course embarrassing for Al Jaber — who is also CEO of the UAE’s national oil company Adnoc — and had pitched himself pre-talks as able to bring oil-rich nations and oil and gas companies on-board.

On Sunday, a diplomatic Al Jaber said: “I want everyone to come ready to be flexible and to accept compromise. I told everyone not to come with any prepared statements, and no prescribed positions. I really want everyone to rise above self-interests and to start thinking of the common good.”

“We have a unique opportunity, it is our opportunity to deliver an outcome that is based on the science lead by the science and equipped by the science that keeps 1.5C within reach,” he said, adding: “Failure, or lack of progress, or watering down my ambition is not an option. What we’re after is the common good.”

Yesterday Al Jaber also convened a ‘majlis’ of all countries, a meeting held in the UAE that takes the form of an elders’ conference.

Whether a tempered UAE is genuine or just an image it feels compelled to project as the eyes of the world scrutinise it, remains to be seen, but it is a significant shift nonetheless. The world can only move forward once Saudi Arabia has undergone the same shift, perhaps most-easily achieved by hosting a COP itself in the not-so-distant future.

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