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Weak climate agreement

Ruby RussellSeptember 3, 2015

Saudi Arabia is being accused of trying to water down the climate agreement at international talks in Bonn this week. But the Middle East is vulnerable to the effects of climate change - and awareness may be growing.

A flame from a Saudi Aramco oil installion known as "Pump 3" is seen in the desert near the oil-rich area of Khouris, 160 kms east of the Saudi capital Riyadh. MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Image: M. Naamani//AFP/Getty Images

Delegates meeting in Bonn, Germany, this week are under pressure to hash out the details of a global climate agreement, with a December deadline looming. With so much riding on the Paris summit, the days in which to pin down the final text are numbered.

But some countries are still resisting the tough agreement experts say is needed to curb CO2 emissions. Among them are oil-producing countries of the Middle East - as such a climate agreement challenges their operating model, of generating revenue through oil export.

Saudi Arabia in particular is being cast as seeking to prevent a strong agreement.

"There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia's position is harmful," Greenpeace's Jens Mattias Clausen told DW. "We need strong long-term goals and an agreement to phase out fossil fuels - Saudi Arabia is fighting against this tooth-and-nail. And they have a lot of influence, especially on other oil-producing countries."

The Saudi Kingdom has used that influence within the Like Minded Group of Developing Countries, or LMDC - which includes major players like China and India, and other Middle East oil economies including Algeria, Iran and Iraq - as well the Arab Group.

"Saudi Arabia is able to use such groups to increase division," said Wael Hmaidan, director of the Climate Action Network. "It is good at finding arguments that appeal to these countries."

Hmaidan believes some Persian Gulf States - such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - are genuinely there to find a solution. But dynamics of the Gulf region, which is dealing with the threat of Islamic State and conflict in Yemen, means climate change is a low priority, with political alliances on other issues far more pressing.

"It's a very delicate situation. Negotiators are very worried about appearing to take a different position from Saudi Arabia," Hmaidan said.

A derek pumps in a oil field January 15, 2003 near the Saudi Arabian border, Kuwait. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
For oil dependent-economies of the Middle East, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is anathemaImage: Getty Images/J. Raedle

The politics of oil

And on the surface at least, there are strong economic incentives for these countries to stand together against climate mitigation. Around 80 percent of Saudi Arabia's government revenues come from oil. Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, Bahrain and UAE have similarly fossil fuel-dependent economies.

Oil revenues allow the rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia to pay out generously on welfare and subsidies, which underscores their mandate to rule, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring.

"Telling Saudi Arabia it has to leave its oil in ground is tantamount to saying we support a revolution in your country," said Jim Krane, an energy research fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute in the US.

Others argue that for Saudi Arabia, oil's greatest value is as a strategic weapon. Without an oil market, the Saudi Kingdom would lose its geopolitical power and special relationship with the United States.

Climate action in Gulf region's interest

Still, a closer look at the implications of a tough climate agreement suggests that Saudi Arabia's aversion might be misplaced.

Climate impacts to the Gulf region may cause hotter and dryer conditions, resulting in shortages of freshwater, which would also contribute to security problems. For example, a link between climate change-related drought and conflict has been established in Syria.

Three camels in the Oman desert (Photo: HandmadePicture)
The already arid Persian Gulf region may experience freshwater shortages as a result of climate changeImage: Fotolia/HandmadePictures

In addition, experts say of all fossil fuel reserves, it would make the most sense to leave coal in the ground - which emits far more carbon dioxide than oil. Beyond coal, the more expensive, unconventional reserves - like American shale oil extracted through fracking - would be targeted before cheap Saudi oil.

"My recommendation to the Saudis would be to that strong climate action would be in their interest," Hmaidan told DW. Targeting the more expensive, polluting fuels would "reduce competition and boost the strategic importance of Saudi oil."

But the House of Saud hasn't listened to such counsel. The real problem, observers say, is that climate change is just not on the agenda there.

"I don't think the Saudi royals think about climate change or take the issue seriously at all," said Hmaidan.

Dawning environmental awareness

One recent development, however, indicates the tide may be turning. In August, leading Muslim scholars from around the world issued their Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, framing climate action as a religious duty.

"The mandate of the royals in Saudi Arabia is a religious mandate. If anything should make them pay attention, it's the Islamic duty to fight climate change," Hmaidan said, adding that he hoped this would be the start of a wider movement.

Ali Shaaban, head of Green Gulf - an environmental campaign group based in Saudi Arabia - says environmental awareness has started to emerge in the country, aided by social media campaigns. But they have so far been limited to issues like the destruction of agricultural land and the health impacts of pollution.

"The climate negotiations just aren't part of public awareness," Shaaban told DW. "People are just becoming familiar with the term 'climate change,' but they still don't really understand the problem."

Shaaban reports that greater public engagement is present in other Gulf states, like Bahrain.

Meanwhile, UAE's Federal National Council approved a "green growth strategy" earlier this year, and institutions in the UAE and Qatar show a growing interest in the idea of circular economy. Glada Lahn, who specializes in Energy, Environment and Resources at Chatham House, says in spite of cynicism in Europe, Qatar's role hosting climate negotiations in 2012 had a positive influence on debate in the region.

Even in Saudi Arabia, there have been moves to diversify the economy to reduce dependency on the volatile oil market. And officials have at least paid lip service to a greener future: Earlier this year, Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi suggested the country could phase out fossil fuels by mid-century.

Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
International observers question the conviction behind Ali al-Naimi's suggestionImage: Reuters

Weaker agreement sought

But back in Bonn, there is no sign of a softening of the Saudi position.

Experts following the talks say the country's large team of negotiators is made up of highly skilled professionals, well-versed on the debate, adept at horse-trading on key issues to shore up support and selling their position to other nations and developing countries in particular.

DW's inquiries to Saudi Arabian delegate members were not answered.

But Hmaidan argues that these negotiators actually have very little power.

"I don't think that the heads of state and high decision-makers [in Saudi Arabia] are following the negotiations," he says. "The negotiators have no political mandate to act, because there is no engagement from their heads of state."

Experts also point out that although Saudi Arabia is attempting to water down the treaty as much as possible, it will be likely in the end to sign whatever comes out of Paris, since on the geopolitical level, it does not want to be an isolated player.

Yet environmentalists fear that the even if the first shoots of a green awakening in the Gulf are beginning to appear, they won't blossom in time for a strong deal in Paris.