Analysis: Emirati oil CEO leading UN COP28 climate summit lashes out as talks enter toughest stage

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The Emirati leading the United Nations' COP28 climate talks walked out on stage Monday to a room full of journalists to offer a 17-minute list of what he described as the stunning successes made so far in the summit.

Then he spent the rest of the time criticizing the media covering his contradictory remarks about phasing out fossil fuels that again raised the concerns of activists about him heading a state-run energy company that plans to increase its production of crude oil and natural gas.

Sultan al-Jaber’s comments highlight the dualities of the United Arab Emirates, an autocratic federation of seven sheikhdoms. It’s filled with modern skyscrapers but has no freedom of speech. It punches above its weight on the world stage but isn’t used to publicly answering probing questions.

And now it wants the popular support of a climate conference filled with some who want the lifeblood of the country's economy shut off.

The latest firestorm, this one over remarks he made on a recorded videoconference a few weeks ago, shows the small cracks starting to appear in the porcelain vase that is Dubai's hosting of COP28.

On Sunday, The Guardian newspaper published video from the call, which included al-Jaber off-camera sounding increasingly frustrated, at one point telling three leading women involved with climate change and gender: "I am telling you I am the man in charge.”

“You’re asking for a phase-out of fossil fuel," al-Jaber said. "Please, help me, show me for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socio-economic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.”

Responding to the remark, U.N. Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen said she lives in Kenya with solar power and clean electricity from the local utility.

“I'm not living in a cave," she added. "That's all I can say.”

Al-Jaber also said on the call: “There is no science out there, or no scenario out there that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5 (degrees Celsius) — 1.5 is my North Star. And a phase-down, and a phase-out of fossil fuel, in my view, is inevitable, it is essential, but we need to be real, serious and pragmatic about it.”

Al-Jaber previously has echoed United Nations' reports and scientists who have called for drastically slashing the world’s emissions by nearly half in seven years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial times.

Environment groups immediately jumped on the remarks, describing al-Jaber as being incapable of leading a summit that is focused on reducing planet-warming emissions.

“The recent comments from COP28 President show how entrenched he is in fossil fuel fantasy and is clearly determined that this COP doesn’t do anything to harm the interests of the oil and gas industry," said Mohamed Adow, the director of Power Shift Africa.

“These remarks are a wake-up call to the world and negotiators at COP28 that they are not going to get any help from the COP presidency in delivering a strong outcome on a fossil fuel phase-out and will need to work hard to ensure a few petro-state leaders don’t imperil the planet in their efforts to protect their oil profits."

Before the journalists Monday, al-Jaber repeated his oft-said phrases on being “laser-focused” on his “North Star" of 1.5 degrees. However, he had a long pause at one point, licking his lips, before going into a minutes-long criticism of the media — whose journalists from across the world had gathered to cover him.

“I am quite surprised with the constant and repeated attempts to undermine the work of the COP28 presidency and the attempts to undermine the message that we keep repeating when it comes to how much we respect the science,” al-Jaber said.

He added later: "I said the same many times and I said that even again in my opening remarks at COP28. But guess what? It was barely picked up. Barely. But one statement taken out of context with misrepresentation and misinterpretation, it gets maximum coverage.”

Al-Jaber at one point also complained that he said something one day before U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had but didn't get the same attention as the leader of the world body.

“Same thing. No pickup whatsoever," al-Jaber said. "The SG gets maximum coverage.”

The Associated Press asked his aides for transcripts to back up what he said, which were not immediately provided.

He did not address his remark on being “the man in charge." He also declined to describe, when asked, what his own red lines and definitions were for either a “phase-out” and “phase-down” of fossil fuel. He left after two questions.

For al-Jaber and the Emirates as a whole, facing criticism from the press at home is still unique experience. The UAE's local media is entirely state-owned or state-affiliated outlets that often republish government statements verbatim. Critics of the Emirates have been detained at the airport on arrival in the past, though many have been allowed in for the COP28 summit.

Al-Jaber still has many high-profile supporters, including U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, who has constantly huddled with him as the talks progress.

But criticism isn't just coming from the press. Former Vice President Al Gore offered a scathing critique of al-Jaber in an interview with the AP, calling him “the CEO of one of the largest and one of the dirtiest, by many measures, oil companies in the world.”

World leaders have come and gone from the $7 billion Dubai Expo City that appears like a mirage in the city-state’s southern desert reaches. Rare protests have taken place without a crackdown so far in this authoritarian nation. But the hardest part is yet to come — the actual convincing of delegates from nearly 200 countries around the world to agree to something to slow the Earth’s rising temperatures caused by climate change.


EDITOR’S NOTE — Jon Gambrell, the news director for the Gulf and Iran for The Associated Press, has reported from each of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iran and other locations across the world since joining the AP in 2006. Seth Borenstein is an AP science writer focused on climate change for more than 20 years who has covered five COP summits.


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