Perspectives 9 - The Wind of Change Hitting the Arab Region?

Many doubted that it would be possible to achieve a strong, successful, agreement at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris in 2015. Nevertheless, COP21 ended with celebrations of what is considered a strong conclusion to the three year negotiation process. The Paris Agreement has the potential to transform our economy from one based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable energy. The Guardian newspaper has described it as the beginning of the end for the fossil fuel era.[1] One of the reasons why it was possible to achieve such a successful outcome in Paris was the determination to achieve an agreement, even if it required some compromise. More than 150 Heads of States attended COP21, making it the largest gathering of government leaders in history. However, the heads of states from the key Gulf countries: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman did not attend the Summit. Even when it came to the signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement, which took place in New York four months after the agreement had been hammered out, the Arabian Gulf countries were among the few countries in the world that did not participate.

Judging from this lack of high-level political engagement, one could assume that the oil-rich Arab countries are still not in favor of strong climate action. However, the picture is more complicated than that. All countries have shifted their positions in the climate negotiations over the past two to three years. These shifts have included the Arab oil-producing countries, led by Saudi Arabia, who had been considered ‘difficult parties,’ and accused of obstructing the negotiations. This change happened after the recent appointment of several new climate negotiators to the Saudi climate team, including the head of the delegation. This meant the replacement of Dr. Mohamed Al Sabban who had headed the Saudi team since the start of the international climate process in the late 1980s. Dr. Al Sabban had built a reputation for himself, not only for trying his best to hinder any progress in the negotiation process, but also for being an open climate change denialist.

Since the departure of Dr. Al Sabban the Saudi delegation has become less obstructionist, favoring a more diplomatic approach over the straightforward rejection of ideas. They have also become more open to talking to civil society, and during COP21 the head of the Saudi delegation provided representatives of civil society with daily opportunities for discussion. On concrete issues, Saudi Arabia is ready for a long-term goal of net emission neutrality. They fought hard against changing the 2°C target to 1.5°C, but even on this issue, they accepted the compromise language in the Paris Agreement.[2] For the first time, they pledged concrete climate action to the international community, and they did not use the issue of ‘adverse impacts of response measures’ as a poison pill, which is a strategy that they had regularly used in the past.[3]

It is not clear why Saudi Arabia has made these changes to their positions on climate change. Have the Kingdom’s leaders had a sudden realization of the impending impact of climate change? Whatever the reasons, Saudi Ministers have been making substantially more progressive and refreshing statements on these issues over the past few years. Such statements include the prediction by Ali Al-Naimi, the Kingdom’s oil minister that Saudi Arabia will phase out fossil fuel use by the middle of the century. Also, Saudi Arabia plans to sell a stake of around 5%in the state-owned oil company, Aramco, as early as 2017. It seems that the Kingdom recognizes that the age of oil is coming to an end and that it is in its best interest to benefit as much as possible from the existing situation. Keeping the price of oil low is another indication that the Kingdom is trying to get rid of its reserves as fast as possible by pushing other competitors out.

Another possible reason for the Kingdom’s change in position is the ‘blame game’ that usually takes place in the international climate negotiations. China was blamed for the failure of the climate summit that took place in Copenhagen in 2009, and the Chinese government suffered politically because of this. Since then no government has wanted to be labeled as the one responsible for the collapse of the next round of climate talks. Saudi Arabia has received a lot of negative press during the past few years, which may have acted as source of pressure, and as a potential threat if a new climate agreement was not reached in Paris. At each COP in the past, Saudi Arabia received several ‘fossil awards,’ these are daily trophies given by civil society organisations to the worst performing countries in the climate negotiations. The negative press these ‘awards’ generated may have encouraged the Saudi government to rethink its strategy, and replace Dr. Al-Sabban - who was very direct in his obstructionist approach, with someone more diplomatic and willing to engage in constructive dialogue.

Whatever the reason, what Saudi Arabia does or says on climate change policy is important for the Arab region. Saudi Arabia heads the climate discussions in the League of Arab States, and its position has long been the dominant Arab one. In the early days of the international climate negotiations, Saudi Arabia had strong support from other countries in the Arabian Gulf, who gave climate change little political importance, and deferred to the Saudi position. This has changed in the past three to five years, as several Arab countries have started to slowly move away from the Saudi position. This could be another reason why the Saudis have changed their strategy.

Due to the political attention brought by the international climate change negotiations, Arab countries have started to understand the importance of climate change; not only in terms of the effects of climate change on the region, but also because of the economic opportunities climate change could bring. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has become a world leader in the development of renewable energy, creating Masdar, a renewable energy technology research city, started in 2006, which now houses the International Renewable Energy Agency. Every year, UAE organizes the World Future Energy Summit, where top experts and world leaders discuss how to shift the global economy away from fossil fuels and towards alternative sources.

Qatar won an intense struggle with South Korea to host COP16 in 2012. Under Qatar’s leadership the outcome of COP16 provided a strong infrastructure for the Paris Agreement three years later. During COP16, Qatar also succeeds in convincing the key gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, and Bahrain) to pledge to submit concrete climate action plans in the future, and to do so in the context of economic diversification away from fossil fuels. This COP also created unprecedented awareness about climate change across the Arab world, leading to the establishment of various initiatives in the region, including civil society campaigns.

Progressive interest in climate change has not only happened in the Gulf region; Lebanon and Morocco, have both stepped up their negotiation capacity, and played a stronger role in the recent negotiations. Morocco will be the host of the next COP, COP22 in Marrakesh at the end of this year. Lebanon, with UAE, joined the ‘Cartagena Dialogue,’ which is a group of countries from around the world pushing for stronger action on climate change from everyone. On 17 April 2015, a group of countries known as ‘Friends of Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform’ launched a Communiqué which calls on the international community to increase efforts to phase out subsidies to fossil fuels. Morocco joined the communiqué, and along with the group is currently engaging governments around the world in an attempt to build momentum around fossil fuel subsidy reform. Morocco also jointly organized, with the European Commission, and with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a forum to take stock of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), the pledged climate actions, from all the countries participating in COP21. This forum was considered a key event in the lead up to COP21 in Paris.

The clearest departure from the Saudi Arabian climate position was when Morocco confronted Saudi Arabia over plans to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)  powerful greenhouse gases, during the negotiations under the Montreal Protocol in 2015. Saudi Arabia had earlier been able to secure a position from the League of Arab States that would make all Arab countries oppose a phase down of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. Shortly afterwards, Morocco worked with the African Union and secured a position in favor of phasing down of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. This means that the African Arab countries have signed up to two contradictory positions under two regional bodies.

In 2015, most Arab countries submitted their INDCs, including the oil-rich Gulf countries. The INDCs from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE were framed in the context of economic diversification away from fossil fuels, as promised during COP16 in Qatar. Having these countries commit to diversify their economies away from fossil fuels is arguably more important than their committing to a direct reduction in the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. Relying less on fossil fuels as their main economic base sends a signal that they are getting ready for a post-fossil fuel world, and that they are accepting stronger global action on climate change. This is crucial, as it signals that the region understands that oil will have to be phased out in the future. However, we have to be careful not to overstate the case, or celebrate prematurely, as these announcements need to be considered alongside Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the fossil fuel divestment campaign, which has resulted in trillions US Dollars being shifted away from fossil fuels. Here, Ali Al-Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Petroleum & Mineral Resources, opposed  the divestment campaign, stating that the oil industry has been portrayed as the ‘Dark Side’, but that it is actually a force for good.

Nonetheless, the INDCs committed to by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries still mark a significant step, and provide a strong signal to investors that even Saudi Arabia is slowly moving away from a fossil fuel economy in favor of renewable energy. Moreover, renewable energy projects are mushrooming across the region. Morocco is receiving bids to build an 850 megawatt (MW) wind energy farm at an average cost of 30 US Dollars per megawatt-hour (MWh), a record low, and making it cheaper than the average cost of any other source of energy. Morocco also set a 52% renewable energy target by 2030, despite the fact that all of its energy came from fossil fuels ten years ago. The UAE has committed to a 24% renewable energy mix by 2021, and the list continues...

As already mentioned, Morocco will be hosting the UNFCCC COP22 in Marrakesh in November 2016. It is expected that this COP will bring further attention to the issue of climate change in the region, with the hope that it will inspire stronger climate action, which is desperately needed. At the moment, there is no joint Arab initiative that could demonstrate Arab leadership during the upcoming COP. The most recent declaration by the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) on climate change did not include anything new - a missed opportunity in light of the situation and the hope of building momentum towards an inspiring COP in Morocco.

The Paris Agreement calls on all countries to strive to keep the global temperature increase to below 1.5 C, while achieving net zero emissions within the second half of the century. According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the best chance for achieving these Paris targets will require the complete phase out of emissions from the energy sector by the mid-century. This can be translated into the need to work towards 100% renewable energy by 2050. The Paris Agreement calls on all countries to formulate low-emissions development strategies that would outline the trajectory of each country towards these long-term targets.

Despite the changes in climate policy in the Arab world, the countries of the region have still not fully absorbed the implications of the Paris Agreement for their economies. Many Arab countries are still looking at fossil fuels as a key economic sector in the future: Lebanon is planning to exploit their newly discovered off-shore oil and gas reserves; Egypt has, absurdly, started investing in coal power plants, adding to the cost of its imports. It seems that the countries of the region have two opposing opinions on the matter. This discrepancy is most probably due to disconnection between Ministries, especially between those responsible for economic development, and those responsible for climate change and foreign policy.

COP22 in Morocco will be a big test for the Arab region, especially as regards the interpretation of the Paris Agreement. Morocco as the next host of the COP is expected to push for the most ambitious interpretation of the agreement. However, this is something that many Arab countries will oppose. Qatar, in COP16 in 2012, was able to gather the support of the other Arab countries, but at that time, the shape of the agreement was not signaling the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era, and a move towards 100% renewable energy. It will be hard for Morocco to make the oil-rich Arab countries swallow this bitter pill. Not doing so will jeopardize the integrity of the Paris Agreement, and cause Morocco to lose face in front of the international community. The Arab region is sending mixed messages on climate change, yet this is in itself further proof that the region is slowly changing, and slowly embracing a more ambitious response to climate change.


[2] The final text of the agreement sets the goal of: “…Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C…”

[3] ‘Adverse impacts of response measures to climate change’ is an agenda item in the climate negotiations, which aims at addressing any negative impacts resulting from actions on climate change. Under this agenda item, Saudi Arabia requested compensation for any reduction in its oil trading as a result of greater climate action. This was not acceptable to many other countries, who found it unreasonable to compensate Saudi Arabia, since the Saudis have amassed enormous wealth as a result of oil, which has contributed so much to climate change. As a result Saudi Arabia would refuse to continue negotiations under any other agenda items, until the ‘adverse impacts of response measures’ issue moved forward.