‘I wasn’t the obvious choice’: meet the oil man tasked with saving the planet

When Cop28 starts next month, Sultan Al Jaber will be front and centre. He is the United Arab Emirates’ choice to head up the climate talks – and he also happens to be head of the national oil company. What’s the problem with that, he asks

Expo City, near Dubai, rears out of the desert like a housing estate designed by Disney in a fever dream. Built for the Expo 2020 global fair, identikit skyscrapers surround a vast dome, with a sprinkling of giant steel-and-silicon mushrooms stretching towards the blinding sun. There is a forest of glass needles, a “surreal water feature” like a mini Niagara Falls in black marble, a giant metal falcon and sculptures of running horses. The effect is both beautiful and bewildering.

It’s here, amid the imported palm trees and concrete flowers, that the most important meeting yet on the future of the global climate will soon take place. Cop28 will gather the heads of state and government from a potential 196 countries to draw up an escape plan for a world on fire. Global heating has been increasing in severity for years, but this summer there were impacts no one could ignore.

Temperatures in July were the highest they had been for 120,000 years. New Yorkers choked on smoke from Canadian wildfires, tourists fled Greek islands, workers suffered heatstroke in India and Hawaii blazed. As land temperatures broke records, the seas reached hot-tub heat around Atlantic coasts, killing fish and bleaching coral, in a marine heatwave of unprecedented intensity. Antarctic ice is failing to re-form and there are signs that part of the Gulf Stream system may be weakening. Scientists warn we have entered “uncharted territory” for the climate, and people around the world can see the results with their own eyes. “The era of global boiling,” as the UN secretary general put it, “has arrived.”

And yet, despite more than 30 years of intensifying climate talks, last year the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions reached record levels. We are still hurtling in the wrong direction.

If the surroundings of Dubai’s Expo City appear surreal, the circumstances of the conference stretch credulity. Dubai, like the rest of the United Arab Emirates, is built almost entirely on fossil fuel wealth. UAE is the world’s seventh biggest oil producer with the fifth largest gas reserves. And the man UAE has chosen to preside over Cop28, charged with changing the world’s course before it is too late, is the chief of the country’s national oil company, Adnoc. Sultan Al Jaber, who is also UAE’s minister for advanced technology, is the most important person on the planet right now, as far as the climate crisis is concerned, and he rarely gives interviews. Most of his public appearances in his Cop role have been tightly scripted affairs, long on aspiration but short on substance, taking no questions and repeating the same few messages: “Climate change is the common enemy, we must unite to fight it.”

Campaigners have been scathing. Greta Thunberg called it “completely ridiculous” for Al Jaber to take the role. A fellow youth climate justice organiser, Eric Njuguna from Kenya, called it “a stab in the back for poor countries to have a fossil fuel CEO on top of efforts to constrain the climate crisis”. Campaign groups around the world called for Al Jaber at least to resign his Adnoc post during his Cop presidency.

I have come to UAE to meet Al Jaber and his close-knit Cop team, to see the preparations and try to discover for myself whether the criticisms are justified. Unpromising though it seems, there is a bizarre logic to his role. If fossil fuels are at the heart of the problem, then perhaps a man at the heart of the fossil fuel industry is uniquely equipped to break the global impasse.

I interviewed him at length on three occasions, twice in London, once in Abu Dhabi, and observed him at other meetings, including at Buckingham Palace, where he met the king. Some were on the record and some – frustratingly – not, which the Guardian reluctantly accepted, given the delicate nature of Cop negotiations. On these visits, I also met most of the senior members of Al Jaber’s team, about 20 of those working on Cop28, as well as speaking to whistleblowers who have left and to diplomats from more than 30 countries, developed and developing, who will attend Cop28.

Over lunch in Abu Dhabi, and Arabic coffee in the UAE embassy in Belgravia, London, Al Jaber (known as Dr Sultan to his team) gives every appearance of relishing confrontation. On our first meeting, in London, he strides ahead of his aides to whirl me through a succession of well-appointed embassy parlours before deeming one suitable. “Is this to your liking?” he asks, jokingly. “No, this one isn’t good enough.” Something over 1.9 metres (6ft 3in) with a dark, carefully trimmed beard, he towers over me and his staff, talking rapidly and with emphasis, cocking an eyebrow to make sure I’m keeping up.

Does he know many people were sceptical of his presidency? He makes a wide gesture, to indicate his openness to criticism. “I am here promoting inclusivity for Cop28, I want everyone to be heard,” he says. “So I travelled the world and met even with those who attack me publicly. I made it a point to see them – ‘Guys, I’m here. Tell me. Help me. Guide me. I am here to listen.’ I am not saying or claiming that I have all the solutions. The best feedback and advice I got was the uncensored feedback that I received from NGOs and civil society.”

Did they tell him to resign? “I stood my ground, when I thought, OK, I know what I’m talking about.” Can he understand why people might question the idea of a fossil fuel executive in charge of climate talks? He smiles at me, eyes wide behind large, expensive-looking glasses. “Never in history has a Cop president confronted the oil industry, let alone the fact that he’s a CEO of an oil company,” he tells me. “Not having oil and gas and high-emitting industries on the same table is not the right thing to do. You need to bring them all. We need to reimagine this relationship between producers and consumers. We need this integrated approach.”

But the world needs to get away from fossil fuels, and Adnoc is planning a massive expansion, as the Guardian revealed earlier this year. “We might use it for helping bridge the gap in the market. Investing in our reserves here, it’s investing in our economy.” Plus, Al Jaber is eager to tell me, Adnoc’s fuel is lower in carbon than oil and gas from other sources. That is because UAE has invested heavily in modernising its drilling and refining operations, plugging leaks and upgrading equipment. That should make Adnoc’s products the preferred option, he insists, while we still need oil and gas. He seems aggrieved that Adnoc’s efforts are not recognised. (There are also doubts among some industry experts over the extent of the carbon savings claimed.)

But oil and gas that has been efficiently extracted is still oil and gas, therefore adding to carbon overload in the planet’s atmosphere, I note. He quotes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which found that a small quantity of oil and gas could still be used in 2050, when the world must reach net zero. With that in mind, he says, “We should allow for the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel to be part of the mix. Whether we like it or not, the world will continue to need this source of energy.”

Temperatures this year may have already topped 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – the totemic limit set out in the 2015 Paris agreement, beyond which climate chaos will ensue. The fossil fuel juggernaut shows no sign of stopping, and last year its profits globally were an estimated $4tn (£3.28tn). Will we stay within 1.5C?

“I’m not in a position to answer that, honestly speaking. I would be misleading you. What I’m saying is that I and the next [Cop] president and the one after him should stay laser focused and give it our best possible shot. Because that’s the deciding factor, and we must stay on top of it. Anything we do, under the sun, on this planet, should be towards achieving that target.”

This is not exactly reassuring, from the man charged with leading the planet to safety. “My focus is to phase out emissions from everything. Regardless of where it comes from.”

At times, Al Jaber – who is courteous and cheerful under my questioning, beaming and friendly but never uncomfortably so, making little jokes about the food, the coffee, my shorthand, inviting me to visit his home in Abu Dhabi after Cop finishes – seems puzzled that the world is not more delighted at UAE’s taking on this role. He is concerned people have not recognised the country’s desire to make a change. Take Adnoc’s extra production. “There is a complete misunderstanding. We are not expanding production, we are expanding capacity. All we’re doing is adding another 600,000 barrels of capacity, which can be produced only if and when the market needs it.” If that capacity turns out not to be needed for fuel, he suggests, hydrocarbons could be turned instead to plastics. He gestures to the carpet, the curtains, his white dishdasha robe. “This is made from oil, that is made from oil – everything around us is made from this finite resource. We have to accept that.”

You can’t ask me to believe that UAE’s high-grade hydrocarbons will be made into textiles, I tell him. But he’s off again, talking about low-carbon solutions, massive investments in renewables, in hydrogen, in carbon capture and storage. Consumers need to shift their habits, too, he points out. “It’s the consumer who contributes to increasing CO2 emissions, not the producer.” I point out that this is the logic of a drug dealer. Al Jaber brushes this off with a gesture. “What I’m calling for is a new model of engagement. I want it to be more of a creative partnership between producers and consumers, rather than it being what it is today.”

Repeatedly, I ask Al Jaber about the phase down and phase out of fossil fuels required to reach net zero, and the attempts by more than 80 countries to push Cop into agreeing a phase-out. Repeatedly, his answers suggest he believes that fossil fuel extraction can continue, even while the climate crisis unfolds.

At what point will we have phased out fossil fuels? “You and I and no one on Earth knows the answer to this question. It all depends on whether we get the world to unite on a very serious accelerated programme of decarbonisation across the board.”

Al Jaber has an answer for every question, delivered with rapid-fire enthusiasm, thick with detail, facts and figures. He’s constantly in motion, leaping up from the table to the window, to point out his electric car outside; leaning forward over the coffee table, jabbing the air for emphasis. His aides nearly have to run to keep up as he leads us down the corridor to lunch, the skirts of his dishdasha swirling about him. (I’m surprised to find, when I check his age, that he’s nearly as old as me, having celebrated his 50th birthday in August. I had taken him for much younger, and remarkably young for the head of a major oil company.)

There’s only one point when he’s nonplussed. Does he intend to put Adnoc out of business? He stops still and turns to stare at me in astonishment. “Why would I want to do that?” Because that’s the logic of fixing the climate crisis. Fossil fuel companies will have to stop producing oil and gas. He shakes his head in disbelief. “We are a very progressive, advanced energy company,” he tells me, as if I have failed to understand. “We’ve transformed, we’ve decarbonised, and this came at a cost, but we did it because of our commitment to transformation and decarbonisation, ensuring that Adnoc is fit for the future.”

Everything Al Jaber says is true. But the problem is it only goes so far. Yes, the IPCC has found that the world will still need some fossil fuels, even when reaching net zero. But the amount needed will be tiny, much smaller than the world’s current production.

Yes, fossil fuels that are more efficiently extracted are better for the planet than those carelessly extracted with large leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. But that ignores the fact that they’re still fossil fuels, and burning them at the rate we are doing will kill the planet.

Yes, scientists agree that some carbon capture and storage facilities will be needed, along with technology to draw down carbon from the air. But these will be relatively small in scale and chiefly to deal with the emissions that are hardest to get rid of, from industries such as cement-making. All the scientists I speak to, from the chiefs of the IPCC down, are clear that it is neither technically nor economically feasible to use these technologies at a large scale to remove the emissions of the fossil fuel industry and give it a continued licence to operate.

Al Jaber’s fluent rhetoric serves to obscure a single obdurate fact: the world cannot go on with a burgeoning fossil fuel industry. Oil and gas companies, and the petro-states they prop up, must refocus themselves on renewable energy, or go out of business. Or we will fry.

* * *

Just a few miles from the techno-architectural wonders of Expo City stands a remarkable structure. Here, too, it’s as if an alien civilisation has colonised a swathe of the desert: row upon geometric row of shining black sheets, set a few feet above the sand, as far as the eye can see. The managers who show me round point out how the panels tilt slowly to follow the sun, and are periodically dusted by a phalanx of robots.

This is one of the world’s largest solar farms, owned by the UAE government-backed renewables company Masdar, and it is where Al Jaber started his career. Born in 1973 in the smaller emirate of Umm Al Quwain, without royal connections, and not from one of the major merchant families, Al Jaber studied engineering at the University of Southern California, then Coventry University. Before he was chosen to head up Adnoc in 2016, he was invited to be co-founder of Masdar in 2006. Photos from the time show Al Jaber cutting a much bigger figure – a close associate tells me he has lost a considerable amount of weight, and when we lunch he eats sparingly, mainly salad, fruit and yoghurt.

Al Jaber sees his background at Masdar as key to his role at Cop28. One of the main pledges he is trying to extract from governments at the conference is for the world to triple its renewable energy capacity. This is one of the few areas of climate action that give a reason to be cheerful. Prices for solar panels have plunged in the past two decades, though there are still concerns over the future supply of some components, and the number of installations is rising far beyond predictions.

It was a surprise when, in 2016, Al Jaber was plucked from Masdar to head up Adnoc. “I wasn’t the obvious choice,” he tells me. “The reason [the president of UAE] selected me is simply because he wanted disruption. I was sent to transform Adnoc, to decarbonise Adnoc and to future-proof Adnoc. I was not sent to Adnoc to maintain business as usual.”

People familiar with the top echelons of UAE society tell me it is unusual for someone from a relatively obscure background to be chosen to head up anything major by the government, let alone such high-profile gigs as the national oil company, the country’s single most important business. While the country is diverse – with 9 million foreign-born expats and about 1 million citizens, who encompass “everything from the ultra-conservative to people who are wokey-pronouny”, one local tells me – the upper class tends to be tight-knit.

Al Jaber benefited from an early friendship with Khaldoon al-Mubarak, who is thought to have been a major influence in landing Al Jaber his roles in Masdar, Adnoc and Cop28. Al Mubarak was the son of UAE’s ambassador to France, who was assassinated in Paris in 1984, when his son was eight. The boy was taken under the wing of the royal family, and now chairs Manchester City football club and is chief executive of the sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala Investment Company.

More than one person who has worked with Al Jaber (I spoke to several who have left) report that he can be tempestuous, scathing and intimidating. Midnight, early morning and weekend phone calls are common, with unstinting demands for work to be delivered instantly. Al Jaber’s own team say he is simply committed. He admits to being passionate, and if the team are working all hours, this is unsurprising given what’s hanging on the summit.

UAE’s Cop28 team has also gone through some turmoil. Several PR companies auditioned for contracts, but none were chosen. At least three senior appointments of outside experts fell through. David Canzini, a pugnacious former adviser to Boris Johnson who advocated for more oil and gas in the UK, joined in May. One former team member told me Tony Blair was closely consulted on all Al Jaber’s major Cop28 announcements, though Blair’s institute and the UAE say that is not the case. The launch has been mired in controversy: the Guardian revealed Adnoc shared an email server with the Cop28 team, and many apparently fake social media accounts applauded the country’s hosting of it. Cop28 spokespeople told the Guardian the servers had been separated, and the fake accounts were “generated by outside actors unconnected to Cop28” and were “clearly designed to discredit Cop28 and the climate process”.

Two former insiders tell me Al Jaber wants to hold on to his Adnoc job to ensure there can be no boardroom coup while he concentrates on Cop28, although another well-placed Dubai observer says it is unlikely he would lose his job if Cop28 turned out badly. Within such a tight ruling clique, looking over one’s shoulder is the only sensible position. UAE has strong ties to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil producer, which has a long history of trying to wreck global climate agreements. Diplomats from other countries involved in Cop28 speculate that Al Jaber’s pronouncements are vetted or subject to scrutiny by Saudi interests. A close aide rejects this and characterises the Saudi relationship as being “like brothers”, where familial disagreements and rivalries are common.

More than once in our interviews, Al Jaber makes some strong statements on Cop that would be headline-grabbing. But these are in off-the-record segments and on reflection they are toned down by his office.

Several of the diplomats I speak to express private reservations about Al Jaber and UAE’s Cop presidency. None want to go public because they need to encourage him to face down the wreckers to produce a strong outcome in Dubai this December. “He’s the only one we’ve got, we need to work with him, to prevent him being undermined at home, or by Saudi,” says one, expressing a common view.

Holding the climate summit in an oil-rich state was always going to be a gamble. Oil industry executives poured into Cop27, last year in Egypt, and the outcome was far from what campaigners had hoped, as countries tried to unpick previous commitments to the 1.5C goal. Al Jaber argues that, as a businessman, he is best placed to swing the oil industry, and he may be right. But it’s far from clear that his plans are ambitious enough. He points to a promise made by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, then crown prince of UAE, now president, in 2015. “In 50 years, when we might have the last barrel of oil, the question is: when it is shipped abroad, will we be sad?” Bin Zayed asked. “If we are investing today in the right sectors, I can tell you we will celebrate at that moment.”

Fifty years, according to scientists, will be decades too long to wait for decisive action. The world must halve greenhouse gas emissions within this decade to prevent temperatures rising more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, from about 1.2C today, and must reach net zero emissions by 2050.

As I leave Expo City Dubai, a handful of visitors are watching their children splashing at the foot of the massive artificial waterfall, giggling under the cascades, a welcome respite from the burning heat. I try the same, hobbling across almost unbearably scorching pebbles to paddle in the cooling stream. It’s a shame we are not here in the evening, my guides tell me. At night there is a spectacular light show in which carefully concealed spotlights are manipulated, to give the miraculous impression that the water is flowing uphill.

Contributor

Fiona Harvey

The GuardianTramp

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