Sultan Al-Jaber: The oil magnate who surprised the COP28 climate summit

Industry minister, CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and pioneer in renewables: this is the president of the summit that ended with the first call to transition away from fossil fuels

COP 28
Sultan Al-Jaber, president of COP28, on Wednesday at the summit headquarters in Dubai.MARTIN DIVISEK (EFE)
Manuel Planelles

With manners more fitting of a CEO of a large multinational than a diplomat, Sultan Al-Jaber has led the Dubai climate summit, COP28, towards what some countries and he himself have called a historic agreement. While the word historic is often overused, it is true that in the last three decades of climate negotiations, no agreement has ever mentioned the origin of the crisis: fossil fuels. But in Dubai, representatives of the nearly 200 countries at COP28 agreed to a text that calls for a transition “away from fossil fuels.” Just a month ago, such a feat seemed like science fiction.

The text is not as ambitious as many nations wanted. These ambitions faced the open and frontal opposition of several oil-producing countries, led by Saudi Arabia, and the OPEC itself, which expressed their opposition to any mention of fossil fuels.

But to the surprise of many, the summit presided by Al-Jaber has been able to find a middle point between two very distant positions, and this involved the unexpected call to leave fossil fuels behind.

But who is Al-Jaber? On paper, judging by his resume, the oil magnate could be considered as one of the worst villains of the fight against climate change. In addition to being the United Arab Emirates’ Minister of Industry, he is the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the eighth-largest oil company in the world.

In fact, when it was announced that Al-Jaber would preside the summit at the beginning of the year, 450 environmental organizations sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, calling on him to block the appointment — a move he could not take as it is the countries of each region that designate where climate summit will be held, and this one was in the Asia region. “No COP overseen by a fossil fuel executive can be seen as legitimate. COP presidencies must be free and independent of fossil fuel influence,” said that letter in January, which has not aged well.

But when the criticism started, John Kerry — the U.S. special envoy against climate change and one of the architects of the Paris Agreement — came to Al-Jaber’s defense. The American politician recalled that Al-Jaber was “an experienced diplomat and businessperson,” who had led several summits before. Kerry also stressed that, in addition to being the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Al-Jaber was the president of Masdar, a state-owned company dedicated to renewable energies.

Al-Jaber, who is not part of his country’s royal family, was tasked back in the early 2000s with diversifying his country’s energy investments, which until then depended exclusively on oil and gas. And he was put in charge of Masdar.

Despite this other side to his curriculum, there were still serious doubts and suspicions about his appointment as the climate summit’s president. These suspicions increased further when, a few days before the start of COP28, the BBC published a series of documents that suggested that the United Arab Emirates planned to use its role as host to strike oil and gas deals, a move which clearly contravenes U.N. rules for these summits. When questioned about the allegations. Guterres told reporters: “I can’t believe it’s true.”

In a pre-summit press conference, held on Wednesday, November 29, Al-Jaber responded to the BBC report. “These allegations are false, not true, incorrect and not accurate,” he said, adding: “Do you think the UAE or myself will need the COP or the COP presidency to go and establish business deals or commercial relationships?”

Tempers calmed down, but fossil fuels were front and center of the negotiations. “We cannot save a burning planet with a fire hose of fossil fuels,” Guterres warned at the opening of the summit.

But once again there was controversy. The Guardian broadcast a talk in the middle of the summit in which Al-Jaber claimed there was “no science” indicating that the world needed to phase out fossil fuels to meet the most ambitious objective of the Paris Agreement: to limit global warming to 1.5ºC. Furthermore, in that talk recorded a few days before the start of COP28, he claimed that the ending of fossil fuels would “take the world back into caves” — an argument that is often used by the fossil fuel industry. “Please help me, show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves,” he said in the talk, adding “I am the man in charge [of COP28].”

Al-Jaber was forced to explain his comments in another press conference. He stressed that “phasing down fossil fuels is inevitable,” which he also argued in the talk reported by The Guardian.

For COP28, he surrounded himself with a powerful team of experts and former climate negotiators with a lot of experience at summits. The team was headed by the former head of the International Renewables Agency (IRENA), Adnan Amin, who was the CEO of COP28. IRENA’s headquarters are incidentally in Adu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. As part of its effort to diversify its investments and sources of income, the United Arab Emirates made a big effort to ensure IRENA kept its headquarters in the country.

Despite the controversies, COP28 started with good news: the summit agreed to set up a fund for vulnerable countries struggling to cope with loss and damage caused by climate change.

But that did not stop fossil fuels from taking center stage at COP28; on the contrary, they were increasingly the focus. On Monday, the presidency presented a draft agreement, but it had only a weak statement on fossil fuels, sparking widespread criticism from environmentalists and many countries. The COP28 presidency assured that it was just the starting point, and that now it was aware of the red lines.

The negotiations continued, the text was toughened and, finally, to the surprise of many, the first call to leave fossil fuels behind was approved at Dubai. “He is a very smart guy,” acknowledged a negotiator who has been seeing Al-Jaber at summits for years. “And perhaps he is one of the presidents who know the most about the issues that matter most in a COP.” Perhaps that’s because he has one foot in the fossil fuel sector and the other in renewable energy.

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