Dr Al Jaber, who participated in the 10 previous UN Cop Summits, has also served as the UAE’s climate envoy.
The appointment of UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology Dr Sultan Al Jaber as President-designate of Cop28 has generated worldwide headlines and not necessarily all of them are of the kind one would hope for. The controversy stems from him being the chief executive of Adnoc, the world’s 12th largest oil company by production. However, for the UAE, appointing anyone else other than Dr Al Jaber to this position might have seemed as though it is paying lip service to the monumental task ahead and not giving it the serious consideration it deserves. What Dr Al Jaber presents, as head of an oil company, is the opportunity to confront the serious matter of energy transition and climate head-on.
In an ideal world we human beings would shut off all polluting industries overnight, but we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in one where there are major developmental inequalities across the globe. For instance, according to a report by the African Development Bank, “about 10 -12 million young Africans enter the labour market each year where only 3 million formal jobs are available”. The energy sector is crucial for all aspects of life and in particular offers many jobs in less developed parts of the world. What the world should not neglect to do is to strike a fair balance between energy equity, whether for producers or consumers, and sustainability.
There is also the slight matter of western double standards, when it was to their own advantage Europe cast away the energy and free market economics playbook. Recently, Germany extended the lives of nuclear reactors, effectively abandoning its “nuclear exit” policy. Only over the past few months, US liquefied natural gas exports to Europe have skyrocketed from less than 20 per cent to 60 per cent. In the free market economy of Europe, energy firms have been nationalised and gas hoarding accelerated, filling reserves to 96 per cent, further driving up gas prices. The European Commission, moreover, has enshrined a strategy that allows for accelerated permitting and “overriding public interest” to fast-track projects such as wind farms. And let us not talk about the re-emergence of coal as an energy source for Europe.
The truth is that no one owns a monopoly when it comes to finding solutions to global problems and a vital debate such as climate action and the future of this planet needs the input of all key stakeholders. We need the energy activists, the environmental experts, the scholars and academics, and the sceptics who push the agenda and goals further. But we also need the government officials, the financiers and the oil executives too if serious steps are to be taken. The appointment of Dr Al Jaber will turn into an opportunity to have someone speak with senior energy executives rather than at them.
Dr Al Jaber proved his mettle in 2009, in the lead-up to the UAE hosting the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena). Back then there was similar scepticism about whether an oil-producing country should host such a global organisation. Dr Al Jaber, then the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar), was part of a carefully selected team that traversed the globe, lobbying, committing and speaking as equals to African, Asian and Latin American capitals that were not only underestimated but talked down to by western states for the past decades. In the end, the UAE beat competition from two European cities to host Irena. Building on such commitments, in January 2022 the UAE launched a programme titled Etihad 7 aimed at supplying clean electricity to 100 million people in Africa by 2035.
Dr Al Jaber’s tenure as the head of Adnoc since 2016 has seen him take over a legacy firm and streamline it. Difficult decisions were taken such as cutting down jobs and merging of subsidiaries but also the introduction of one single entity for registration and pre-qualification to eliminate repeated tendering for the same goods and services and a scorecard system to ensure meritocratic and fair employee performance management. These steps ensured that Adnoc would become a well-managed firm that can help further accelerate Abu Dhabi’s position as a global player in the energy industry.
Dr Al Jaber, who participated in the ten previous UN Cop Summits and has served as the UAE’s climate envoy, knows that the spotlight will be not only on the UAE to deliver but also on the team he will lead to ensure success. Coming from the same industry as many of the key stakeholders including oil executives, Dr Al Jaber can play a leading role in convincing them of the magnitude of this task on which all our futures depend. In the end the UAE and Dr Al Jaber will be judged on the Cop deliverables. The Arab Gulf States have over the past years repeatedly proved critics wrong whether it was through the hosting of Expo 2020 Dubai or the recent World Cup in Qatar. We’ve delivered before, we’ll deliver again.