Saudi Arabia’s expanding relationship with China signals its attempts to emerge as a mid-level international power, but that shouldn't threaten the partnership with Washington.
In March, Dubai hosted the first Middle East and North Africa Climate Week, a United Nations event aimed at strengthening discussions about climate change and climate action among a wide range of regional stakeholders. Regional climate weeks are a new engagement mechanism encouraged by the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact to accelerate regional collaboration. So, it was noteworthy that the Middle East and North Africa held the first regional event, given the region’s recent transformation from an obstructionist negotiation bloc to a group of countries with ambitious climate goals.
Just a few months ago – ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow – the region caught the world by surprise with announcements targeting carbon neutrality by the middle of the century from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Additionally, Qatar, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan strengthened their pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. By the end of 2021, it became obvious that much of the regional leadership wanted a seat at the climate table in order to shape the new world economy.
In addition, Saudi Arabia – the leader of the Arab Group climate negotiation bloc and the power behind the region’s only climate collaboration initiative – has recently introduced the Circular Carbon Economy, a new framework for managing greenhouse gas emissions. While the framework supports Saudi Arabia’s decarbonization efforts, it is also being introduced as an alternative to the current global approach of energy efficiency, electrification, and renewables. That the region is hosting the next two rounds of negotiations in Egypt (COP27) and the UAE (COP28) confirms the view that the Middle East and North Africa region has jumped on the climate bandwagon. Yet the region’s expanding ambitions also suggest that it is trying to wrest control of the steering wheel to steer the global economy in a direction that better suits its interests.
Two Approaches and Two Climate Summits
That said, there is more than one set of regional interests to work toward. The heterogenous Middle East and North Africa region exhibits significant socioeconomic and environmental diversity, so it is unsurprising that the climate strategies adopted by its countries have also been diverse.
Nonetheless, regional climate action can be separated into two loose groups:
- A high-ambition, high-emission group of oil and gas exporters. This group includes countries with a high carbon footprint per capita but also with high ambitions to reduce their emissions in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal. Its members include Gulf Cooperation Council countries; its climate actions are self-funded; and its climate policies are occasionally used as a tool of its public diplomacy.
- A low-ambition, low-emission group of mainly developing countries. This group includes countries from the Levant and North Africa with a low carbon footprint per capita (and an equally high carbon footprint per dollar of gross domestic product) and low aspirations for climate change mitigation. This group’s climate policies often prioritize adapting to climate change over carbon emission reduction, and its climate change mitigation targets are often conditional on receipt of financial support.
These two loose groups are likely to coalesce and become more distinct during the next two climate summits, which are hosted by representatives of each group.
The Egyptian presidency of COP27 – to be held in the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh in November – has set priorities that represent the demands of African and developing countries with low greenhouse gas emissions at risk from climate change. It also set an agenda that focuses on climate change adaptation, climate finance for developing countries, and providing loss and damage compensation for countries already affected by climate change.
Egypt itself is a representative example of the low-ambition, low-emission group. Despite being the host of the U.N. climate summit, it does not have any decarbonization plans, and its pledge under the Paris Agreement doesn’t include any carbon reduction targets, conditional or unconditional. At COP26 in Glasgow, Egypt also did not join the voluntary commitment to phase out oil and gas, cut its methane emissions, or even prevent deforestation.
Thus, despite the recent assessment by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the warnings by the U.N. Secretary General regarding the urgent need for deeper and faster cuts in carbon emissions, COP27 is not expected to prioritize this. The summit’s presidency has already announced it will focus instead on the implementation of commitments made so far. In other words, there will be fewer demands on countries to commit to further carbon reductions and more demands on them to deliver on existing promises.
The subsequent climate summit – which is planned for Abu Dhabi in 2023 – is already being billed as the solutions COP. The UAE is representative of the high-ambition, high-emission group and of oil and gas exporters. Its most ambitious decarbonization goal is a solution-oriented approach to climate action that sees the global economic transformation required as an opportunity rather than a challenge. Its presidency is expected to use the full power of Emirati diplomacy to advance decarbonization and advocate for climate technologies, such as renewable energy, green hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, efficient desalination, and agri-tech. It is also expected to recognize the new circular carbon economy framework as an alternative approach to reach regional decarbonization goals.
Despite differences among the Middle East and North Africa’s countries, the future of the region is being more uniformly shaped by two trends that could affect its energy and climate policies.
The first trend is the rising pushback to climate action by natural gas proponents. During both upcoming summits, natural gas is expected to be promoted heavily as a transition fuel and a critical part in stabilizing the energy market, especially considering the Russia-Ukraine war and plans by some regional countries to expand exports to Europe to replace Russian exports.
Both Egypt and the UAE are open to this message, especially since fossil fuel exports do not contribute to a country’s calculated carbon emissions. The UAE’s official position is that, in a future with less oil and gas production, priority should be given to producers with the lowest production cost and carbon footprint, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE. Egypt, on the other hand, is a rising gas exporter and a potential hub of eastern Mediterranean gas trying to access European energy markets.
Another emerging panregional trend is rising collaboration. This cross-cutting cooperation is demonstrated by the improved negotiation coordination within the Arab Group at climate summits and the Saudi-led Middle East Green Initiative.
Regional civil society groups are also expected to play a bigger role than ever at the two summits, despite media concerns over the last few months about civil society’s participation and integration into the negotiations.
Beyond Climate Summits
Ultimately, the hosting of negotiations in the region has energized and captured the attention of many in the region especially when it comes to climate action and climate solutions.
The climate summits have particularly captured the imagination of regional youth, with some planning to volunteer in exchange for access. Even assuming a worst-case scenario of tokenized civil society participation, regional stakeholder engagement and capacity building is expected to reach new heights over these two years. The impact of these summits will be felt across the region and will only drive the climate agenda forward in the years that follow.
Post-COP 27, Gulf countries have the opportunity to demonstrate a net-zero world is possible through leading by example and bringing together two competing visions of how to get there.
With the fluctuations of oil and gas prices creating shocks to their economies, Gulf states may want to rethink the peg to the U.S. dollar.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More