UAE’s Cop28 president will keep role as head of national oil company

Campaigners warn ‘breathtaking conflict of interest’ could jeopardise climate negotiating process

Sultan Al Jaber, the government minister for United Arab Emirates who will preside over this year’s crucial UN climate talks, will retain his roles as head of the country’s oil company and sustainable energy businesses, UAE has confirmed.

Campaigners have been angered by the decision, revealed by the Guardian on Wednesday and confirmed on Thursday by the UAE government, which they see as a clear conflict of interest, with some likening it to putting a tobacco company head in charge of an anti-smoking treaty, and warning it could jeopardise the negotiating process and hasten climate breakdown.

UAE will host this year’s Cop28 UN climate summit in Dubai. The fortnight-long talks, starting on 30 November, are viewed as vital to try to put the world on track to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, a target that scientists have warned is in imminent danger of being lost forever.

Al Jaber is minister for industry and advanced technology, but is also chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), which is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, and whose plans for new drilling will amount to the second largest expansion of oil and gas production planned globally.

A Cop28 spokesperson for UAE said: “Dr Sultan [Al Jaber] has a long career serving as a diplomat, minister, and business leader across the energy and renewables industry, including as the founding CEO of Masdar, a global renewable energy leader, and ADNOC. To deliver a just energy transition, a deep understanding of energy systems is essential. His experience uniquely positions him to be able to convene both the public and private sector to bring about pragmatic solutions to achieve the goals and aspirations of the Paris climate agreement.”

The spokesperson said: “Dr Al Jaber has helped accelerate adoption of renewables as founding CEO and current chairman of Masdar, the world’s second largest renewable energy company with clean energy investments in over 40 countries, operating three of the world’s largest and lowest-cost solar plants. As ADNOC CEO, he has spearheaded investments of $15bn over five years in decarbonisation strategy and new low-carbon solutions.”

Two other top officials have been appointed. Shamma Al Mazrui, will act as youth climate champion, and Razan Al Mubarak as UN climate change high-level champion, leading efforts to bring businesses to the summit with stringent commitments to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, who has worked closely with the UAE government in the past, welcomed the appointments.

He said: “Domestically and internationally, the UAE has shown leadership in climate investment and innovation. It is already one of the largest investors in renewables at home and abroad and is an innovator in technologies crucial to the energy transition, such as carbon capture and low-carbon hydrogen.”

He added: “Al Jaber brings deep diplomatic and commercial experience through his work as the UAE’s special envoy on climate change and as chairman of Masdar. I am confident that Dr Sultan has both the standing and the capability to offer groundbreaking leadership for Cop28.”

The Cop president plays a vital role in the annual climate talks, acting as an “honest broker” among bickering governments, and with a large degree of latitude in determining the direction of the talks and what issues are given priority and negotiating time.

Romain Ioualalen, global policy manager at the campaigning group Oil Change International, said: “This is a truly breathtaking conflict of interest and is tantamount to putting the head of a tobacco company in charge of negotiating an anti-smoking treaty.”

“ADNOC’s investment decisions in the next few years will make it the second largest expander of oil and gas production globally, despite clear warnings from the International Energy Agency and the UN that any new oil and gas production is incompatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C. ADNOC will surely tout its investments in renewable energy but the reality is that the climate talks will be run by the CEO of a company betting on climate failure. These are the worst possible credentials for an upcoming Cop president.”

Zeina Khalil Hajj, the head of global campaigning at the pressure group, said the decision risked “jeopardising the entire UN climate progress. We are extremely concerned that it will open the floodgates for greenwashing and oil and gas deals to keep exploiting fossil fuels.”

Chiara Liguori, a climate adviser at Amnesty International, urged the government to rethink. “The fact that the UAE is a major oil producer does not bode well for the outcome of Cop28, and the appointment of the head of the national oil company will heighten concerns that the UAE will use its presidency of the climate conference to foster fossil fuel interests,” she said.

“There is still time to reverse course. Sultan Al Jaber should resign from his role with the state oil company, and the UAE’s Cop28 leadership team should include phasing out fossil fuels among its priorities for the conference.”


COVER PHOTO: Sultan Al Jaber is chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, which is one of the world’s biggest oil producers. Photograph: Rashed Al-Mansoori/UAE's Ministry of Presidential A/AFP/Getty Images