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UAE Oil CEO Sultan Al Jaber Uses His Role as U.N. Climate Summit President to Push Fossil Fuel Deals

Written by on 30/11/2023


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Dubai, which is hosting the United Nations climate summit known as COP28, Conference of Parties, that starts Thursday, after a year that’s likely to be the hottest ever recorded. This is expected to be the largest summit yet, with some 70,000 delegates, and world leaders and senior officials from nearly every country coming to the United Arab Emirates.

President Biden has attended the last two COP summits, and just this month he called climate change “the ultimate threat to humanity.” But it has recently been announced he won’t be attending this year.

Pope Francis was set to be the first head of the Catholic Church to attend, but will instead join remotely due to health concerns. Doctors say he has the flu. Hundreds of Catholic institutions worldwide, but none in the United States, the world’s top oil and gas producer, have announced plans to divest from oil, gas and coal since the pope called for a break with fossil fuels in 2015.

The president of this year’s climate summit is also head of the UAE oil giant Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, or ADNOC. Sultan Al Jaber is the first CEO to be a COP president.

SULTAN AHMED AL JABER: We in the United Arab Emirates take this task of hosting COP28 with humility, with a deep sense of responsibility, and we also understand and fully appreciate how urgent this matter is. It has become a top priority for our leadership. I want everyone to know that we have the full political will to support a successful COP28.

AMY GOODMAN: But leaked briefing documents obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting reveal how the COP28 president — and CEO — planned to use his role in order to strike oil and gas deals with 15 countries. For China, the documents showed ADNOC said its, quote, “willing to jointly evaluate international LNG” — that’s liquefied natural gas — “opportunities” in Mozambique, Canada and Australia. Documents also outline plans to tell Colombia that ADNOC, quote, “stands ready” to help develop its oil and gas reserves.

For more, we’re joined by Ben Stockton, investigative reporter at the Centre for Climate Reporting, where his new exposé is headlined “COP28 president secretly used climate summit role to push oil trade with foreign government officials,” with a related piece, “Inside the Campaign That Put an Oil Boss in Charge of a Climate Summit.”

Ben, this is great reporting. Thanks so much for joining us. Well, why don’t you start off by talking about how the head of one of the largest oil companies in the world has become head of the U.N. climate summit, the largest one ever held? Democracy Now! will be there all next week in UAE covering this climate summit. How did this all take place? And then talk about the leaked documents.

BEN STOCKTON: Sure. So, I think what’s really at the heart of this latest controversy goes back to the beginning of this year, which is when the UAE chose Sultan Al Jaber to be COP president. And like you say, he is not only the president of this year’s U.N. climate summit, but he is also the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. He is a man who is actually very interesting. He’s someone who wears many hats. Not only is he COP president and ADNOC CEO, he’s also chairman of a UAE state-owned renewable energy company called Masdar, and he is also a UAE cabinet minister. So he really has many, many roles that he fulfills alongside his climate envoy role, which is why he is, you know, currently serving as COP28 president.

And I think what really led to this position — and what we looked at in our piece with The Intercept was really how we got to the point where not only a CEO, but a CEO of a fossil fuel company, became COP president. You know, he is someone who over the past 15 years has really worked to push his international image and his green credentials. He has worked with major PR agencies to help shape that image, perhaps no more important than the American PR firm Edelman, who has worked with Al Jaber since the mid-2000s and continues to work today on COP28. So, it has really been a long-term, meticulous, really, campaign that has led us to this point.

And the point that we arrive at today is with these latest revelations that we worked on. We obtained more than 150 pages of internal COP28 documents. And they are briefings that are prepared for Al Jaber ahead of bilateral meetings with foreign governments. And I think the remarkable thing about these documents is that many of them include talking points that have been obtained from ADNOC and Masdar, the two companies that Al Jaber is involved in running. And we’ve obviously seen these revelations really spark a controversy, and many, many news outlets have picked up on this story. We worked on this initial story alongside reporters from the BBC, and we’ve seen, yeah, this piece just really spread around the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben, in terms of some of the most shocking aspects of these communications with some of the major, major countries in the world that are producing fossil fuels, could you talk about what most surprised you?

BEN STOCKTON: Yeah. I think that those examples that Amy picked out about China and about Venezuela were particularly interesting. And that’s something we picked out in our reporting. A number of the documents mention the value of the sales and trading that ADNOC does with these countries. This can, you know, stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars.

And like Amy said, there’s mention of strategic partnerships, of potential opportunities for further international fossil fuel projects. As well as those Chinese and Venezuelan briefing documents, we also saw a document for a briefing — for a meeting with the Brazilian government. And what that showed is that it appears that Al Jaber planned to ask about a deal that was ongoing where ADNOC had actually made a bid for a Brazilian petrochemicals company called Braskem.

So, the specifics of these documents, I think, is what is really interesting. It does get into some kind of quite minute detail in terms of the business interests of ADNOC and Masdar in various countries around the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And can you talk about the involvement of advisers like Mohammed Al-Kaabi and Oliver Phillips in COP28 and their ties to the national oil company?

BEN STOCKTON: Sure. So, Al Jaber has quite a large team around him, and some of those people appear to be people who he has worked with across the course of his career. What we’ve been told previously by the COP28 team is that staff from — staff for COP28 are independent. But, actually, when we started asking about one particular individual, Mohammed Al-Kaabi, as you mentioned, he is registered as the director of government affairs for COP28, but some of the internal records that we’d seen seem to suggest that he had some ongoing role at ADNOC, which we thought was very interesting, given those previous statements that the COP28 team had given us. So, when we went back to them asking questions about Al-Kaabi, they actually told us that he was somebody who worked across Al Jaber’s entire portfolio. And like I said before, Al Jaber is someone who has many different roles, and seems to at least raise questions about the independence of the COP28 team from other entities in the UAE, particularly the oil company.

Oliver Phillips is another man that we’ve written about before. He has played a key role in steering the PR efforts around COP28. And he also at least previously had a role at the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. When we approached COP28 for comment on Phillips some time ago now for that Intercept piece, they told us that he was “now working full-time” on the conference. But they didn’t tell us when that employment with the oil company ended and when his employment with the COP28 team started. Our evidence at least would suggest that there was at least some crossover between his role at ADNOC and his role on the COP28 team.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben, just before we went to broadcast, we saw a press release that said Al Jaber had stepped down as head of the COP [sic], not head of the Abu Dhabi oil corporation. And then there was a news conference, actually. But it turns out this is all fake.

BEN STOCKTON: That’s right. So, I think there has actually been quite a bit of misinformation around this conference. It’s something that some other outlets have written about quite extensively. There was an instance earlier this year where the UAE was accused of, essentially, using fake Twitter bots online to defend Sultan Al Jaber and the COP28 — and its role as host of COP28. I’ve also kind of looked a little bit at some of the movements online to boycott COP28, which seem to be associated with some fake Twitter profiles. So there really is quite a lot of misinformation around COP. And this latest press release that I’ve heard about going around this morning certainly seems to be part of that misinformation campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, this fake news — this fake press release said he had stepped down as head of ADNOC but would still head the COP. But again, this apparently is fake.

I also wanted to turn to what you reported in September on the United Arab Emirates’ plans to counter and minimize criticism of the UAE’s human rights abuses at COP28. This is a clip of leaked audio you obtained from an exploratory meeting between senior UAE officials and the country’s COP28 team. We hear the COP’s head of communications, Sconaid McGeachin.

SCONAID McGEACHIN: It came up with Qatar with the World Cup. And, you know, we need to look at — they will use this opportunity to —

UNIDENTIFIED: Yeah, to bring into the issue. Absolutely.

SCONAID McGEACHIN: — attack the UAE. And at the end of the day, we’re, you know, hosting the COP28, and we’re acting on behalf of the presidency, but we need to preserve the reputation of the UAE and to look at how can we protect that and enhance the reputation and to try and minimize those attacks as much as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Stockton, can you talk about the significance of this?

BEN STOCKTON: I think it points to some of the accusations that the UAE is using COP28 as a chance to kind of boost its international reputation and improve particularly its president Sultan Al Jaber’s — or, the COP President Sultan Al Jaber’s international standing.

Like you said, we obtained this recording between — of a conversation between COP28 staff and senior UAE government officials. And what that recording showed was basically the UAE attempting to deflect, or at least setting plans to deflect, criticism of its human rights record, which we know the spotlight will be on during this conference. A number of the human rights groups have spoken out about political prisoners in the UAE and a record of human rights abuses in the country. And I think it really talks to — this recording really talks to the issue of how the country might look to actually just not engage on those issues at all over the next couple of weeks, much to the annoyance, I’m sure, of the human rights groups who will be watching.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben, how do these revelations affect the credibility of the entire COP process? And what’s been the response of experts and U.N. figures like António Guterres?

BEN STOCKTON: Yeah, I think it’s been a reaction of astonishment, really. We’ve heard from a number of senior people who have said that, obviously, these revelations do call into question the integrity of COP28. We’ve also heard from former Vice President Al Gore, who has been someone who has raised concerns about the conflicts of interest surrounding the COP presidency with Sultan Al Jaber’s role as both COP president and CEO of an oil company. And he described these revelations as really the realization of some of those conflict of interest concerns that had been raised, you know, back in January, when Al Jaber was first announced as COP president.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ben, are you going to be going? And are you concerned about reporters who are there — I mean, there are going to be 70,000 people there — but who step into these forbidden realms of questioning?

BEN STOCKTON: I’m not going to be attending. I’ll be staying in New York during the course of COP28. Like you mentioned, there are various concerns about digital surveillance and kind of invasive practices, media freedom particularly. From what I’ve seen so far at COP, it does seem the reporters are absolutely free to ask questions. There has been questions about our revelations earlier this week. But like I said, I’m planning to stay here in New York for the duration of COP.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Stockton, investigative reporter at the Centre for Climate Reporting. We’ll link to your exposé, “COP28 president secretly used climate summit role to push oil trade with foreign government officials,” and your other pieces. And Democracy Now! will be there all next week in the United Arab Emirates covering the largest U.N. climate summit ever. Stay tuned.

Coming up, we look at the crisis in Sudan as Human Rights Watch documents new mass ethnic killings in Darfur as fighting continues between rival military factions. Stay with us.



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