UAE using role as Cop28 host to lobby on its climate reputation

Gulf petrostate hired PR firms to stress its part in next year’s climate summit before this year’s had begun.

The United Arab Emirates has been using its role as the host of next year’s UN climate conference to launder its international reputation, long before this year’s event – Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh – began.

The Emirates, which will host Cop28 in November 2023, hired public relations and lobbying agencies specifically to promote its role as the future host before this year’s conference had began, an unusual move that exceeded the promotional efforts of past host nations and suggests an increased Emirati role in this year’s Cop27 conference.

One US PR firm, FleishmanHillard, composed a series of letters to propose that Emirati ministers attend conferences or events last July, most containing the phrase “the UAE is hosting Cop28 next year and will be involved with Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh”. Another, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, contacted Republican and Democrat US politicians who were either pushing environmental policies or in favour of fossil fuels, alerting them that the UAE would host Cop28, just days after it was announced.

The UAE’s keenness to display its involvement in Cop27 and its hosting of Cop28 before either conference had begun, speaks to its outsized political influence on Egypt and its desire to portray itself as a leading global partner on environmental issues, despite being a petrostate.

The UAE sent 1,000 delegates to Cop27, the largest country delegation by far – twice as much as the next largest, Brazil. They included multiple representatives from public relations, artificial intelligence and real estate firms. 70 of the Emirati delegation are linked to oil and gas companies, according to data compiled by the organisations Corporate Accountability, Global Witness and Corporate Europe Observatory, notably Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who is both the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and the UAE’s climate envoy.

The UAE president, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, addressed the world leaders’ plenary session in Sharm el-Sheikh, and began by discussing oil and gas supplies from the Emirates. “The UAE is a responsible energy supplier, and we will continue to play that role as we pursue a transition to alternate resources and technologies,” he said. “By virtue of our geology, the oil and gas we have in the UAE is among the least carbon-intensive in the world. Nevertheless, we will continue to work towards reducing carbon emissions in the sector.”

The UAE has declared its intention to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, although the tiny Gulf nation continues to draw at least 30% of its GDP directly from oil and gas, with much of the remaining amount coming from industries heavily linked to fossil fuel consumption, such as airlines, tourism or construction. Longtime observers of Emirati policies say that the prospect of a smooth transition away from fossil fuels appears unlikely under current conditions.

Matthew Hedges, an analyst of UAE affairs and the author of a book on Gulf governance who was imprisoned for six months in the Emirates during his doctoral research, said that the Emirates’ lobbying around climate technologies, Cop27 and Cop28 “diverts the discussion away from practical outputs to simply communication”.

In his role as both the head of ADNOC and UAE climate envoy, Jaber recently said: “policies aimed at divesting from hydrocarbons too soon, without adequate viable alternatives, are self-defeating”.

Jaber has also sometimes made other public statements about the climate crisis intended to present a more positive outlook. “We need more realism about the scale of the challenge and more optimism about our capacity to solve it,” he told a conference recently, adding that the UAE sees itself as a “consensus builder” for Cop28.

The UAE’s record of mixed public statements on how to transition away from fossil fuels is reflected in lobbying efforts targeting politicians that began just three days after the announcement in November 2021 that they would host Cop28.

Filings with the US Department of Justice show the UAE contacted media organisations in order to boost the perception of its action on climate issues, while also focusing on senators and congresspeople who had vastly different voting records on legislation on the climate crisis and fossil fuels.

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld received $2.85m from the Emirates’ embassy in Washington DC for contacting politicians on both sides of the aisle to inform them about the UAE hosting Cop28 in the weeks after the announcement. This included senators with a legislative record of policies intended to curb wildfires and environmental damage caused by the climate crisis, such as Oregon senator Jeff Merkley and several other Democrats.

The lobbying efforts also targeted others with a record of policies intended to buoy the fossil fuel industries, including the Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who has said the climate crisis is “no reason to destroy the fossil fuel industry”, and senator James Inhofe who said human-made climate change was “the greatest hoax” ever perpetrated on Americans. Inhofe also labelled the US Environmental Protection Agency an “activist organisation” which he says has unnecessarily burdened farmers and fossil fuel producers.

The UAE’s efforts to lobby around Cop28 are in addition to at least $10m in additional existing lobbying and public relations contracts with firms based in the US, intended to improve perceptions of the UAE, or of political or economic ties which were active at that time.

Fossil fuel boss Vicki Hollub, CEO of Occidental Petroleum, is part of the UAE’s delegation at Cop27 in Egypt. At an event at the climate summit on Friday, she said people who call for the end of the oil and gas industry “have no clue what that would mean” and said rising climate disasters were the world’s fault, not just the oil and gas industry.

Michael Hartt of FleishmanHillard rebuffed suggestions that the UAE’s lobbying efforts stating their involvement in Cop27 and Cop28 were unusual. “Nothing was meant by the word ‘involved’ beyond that the UAE will attend Cop27 as a participant, as it has at previous Cops, alongside other government delegations, international bodies and other organisations from around the world committed to progress on climate change,” he said.

The UAE shares deep political and financial ties with Egypt, after almost a decade of support to the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who swept to power after a military coup in 2013. Abu Dhabi also stepped in to assist Sisi financially, both with an initial cash injection after the coup and more recently with a $2bn purchase of state-held stakes in Egyptian companies, intended to help the north African nation stave off a financial crisis.

A UAE government official also shrugged off FleishmanHillard’s use of the word “involved”, in its communications on behalf of the Emirates, denying that this has resulted in any kind of financial or organisational support for Cop27. When asked about lobbying efforts, they said “the UAE held a series of meetings with counterparts in and around the United Nations general assembly to discuss climate action and the UAE’s participation at Cop27 … [this] is common practice and it is not considered as lobbying. We will participate in Cop27 in the same way that other countries do.”

Yet US Department of Justice filings show that since September last year, shortly before the UAE was announced as the host of Cop28, the Emirates increased its lobbying and PR efforts around climate issues. This included at least $126,500 in agreements with FleishmanHillard intended to achieve a “general positive reputational impact for the UAE”, such as advertising claims about a Emirati government company producing some of its aluminium using solar power.

In September this year, filings show that Masdar, a renewable energy company based in Abu Dhabi which is also headed by Jaber, hired three PR strategists for an undisclosed amount “to support the UAE in its role as host country in 2023 for Cop28”.

Hedges believes the UAE is less interested in divesting from oil and finding alternative energy resources than its communications might suggest. “They can’t afford it, and the message is that: you’re expecting us to compete at the same level as developed economies, which is not possible without oil. There need to be active policies in place, but the transition away from oil is not apparent in any way, and there’s no serious intent to go further,” he said.

“Egypt can’t do a huge amount without the help of the UAE,” he added. “It’s simply another way to try to help maintain international legitimacy for both countries. It’s another platform that can be used to say: ‘Look at all the good we’re doing, not just what we’re doing ourselves, but how we’re helping our allies within the region.’”

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