Saudi Arabia’s role in the fight against climate change may seem perplexing. Following the two-week COP26 summit in Glasgow starting on October 25, which aimed to phase out fossil fuel usage and move towards cleaner energy sources, Riyadh pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach net zero by 2060. On the other hand, the kingdom is the second largest oil exporter in the world and relinquishing this vital profit source could threaten the Saudi royal family’s survival.

Around two-thirds of the Saudi workforce are in the public sector and receive fossil fuel-funded salaries, while around 60 percent of Saudi Arabia’s budget comes from the kingdom’s national oil company Saudi Arabian Oil Co. (Aramco). Without oil wealth, Saudi Arabia would therefore struggle to maintain its socio-economic order and placate its population.

A third of carbon emissions between 1965 and 2017 came from just 20 companies, five of them were state-owned oil firms from the Middle East. Among the biggest culprits was Aramco.

Consequentially, Saudi Arabia’s dependency on such fossil fuels places it among the world’s worst polluters. The Middle East Eye reported that while a third of carbon emissions between 1965 and 2017 came from just 20 companies, five of them were state-owned oil firms from the Middle East. Among the biggest culprits was Aramco, which alone contributed to four percent of emissions in this period.

Disruptive measures

During the COP26 summit, Saudi delegates moved to block negotiations taking place over the creation of the “cover decision” for the final text, according to a report discovered by Greenpeace and published by the BBC. The cover decision was significant as it signaled the conference’s outcome and therefore constituted a key component of the summit’s potential successes.

“The cover decision is the top line message coming out of a COP that signals what the final outcome means for the world and is a vital part of any successful summit,” wrote Greenpeace in its Press release.

A Saudi oil ministry’s advisor reportedly insisted that “phrases like ‘the need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales…’ should be eliminated from the report,” according to the report.

Greenpeace International Director Jennifer Morgan said Riyadh’s move “was a textbook effort to strip ambition from the final text, while the move to dilute substance on the adaptation goal was designed to ensure vulnerable countries don’t get the support they need and therefore can’t sign up to a meaningful agreement.”

When questioned about these accusations, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman al Saud slammed them as “a false allegation, and a cheat and a lie.” However, Saudi Arabia has secretly worked to thwart past UN talks on climate change, while Aramco has collaborated with American oil giants to influence US energy policies and support climate change denialism.

Aramco has collaborated with American oil giants to influence US energy policies and support climate change denialism.

Moreover, despite its pledge to reach net zero by 2060 and publicly supporting the COP26 summit, Riyadh announced its intentions to increase oil production from 12 million barrels per day to 13 million barrels per day by 2027, demonstrating its intentions to pursue its reliance on oil revenues.

Green initiative: a public relations stunt?

Facing continued scrutiny for obstructing climate change reforms, Riyadh also announced the Saudi Green Initiative Forum in Riyadh on October 25, which allocates 39 billion riyals (US$10.4 billion) for an investment fund and clean energy projects to help reduce regional carbon emissions.

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While aiming to present the kingdom as eco-friendly, the proposal has attracted skepticism from analysts and other activist groups, partly because of its infeasibility. Moreover, doubts linger over Saudi Arabia’s sincerity over substantially reducing its fossil fuel dependence. Indeed, the Saudi Energy Minister confessed “the kingdom’s economic growth is driven by export of its energy sources. It’s no state secret.”

“The Saudis and especially the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) have realized that [the Green Initiative] is also a good thing for improving their reputation,” Tobias Zumbrägel, a researcher for the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient in Bonn, Germany, told Inside Arabia.

“Since there is a global green trend, particularly appealing in Europe, it can also be used for image polishing and improving relations with Western state leaders that have deteriorated over some of the Saudi leadership’s foreign adventures,” Zumbrägel explained. “Of course, both reasons go hand in hand. This was observed when Riyadh announced its circular carbon economy in light of G20 leadership in 2020 and when MBS announced his Saudi and Middle East initiatives this year.”

Saudi Arabia certainly seeks to deflect criticism from Western countries and the European Union, particularly as its bellicose actions such as the war on Yemen and the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 have dented its global reputation. In line with its Vision 2030, wherein it aims to diversify its economy away from oil and refashion its global image to attract global investment and tourism, its green plan project is clearly another means to consolidate these ambitions.

Yet, Saudi Arabia has also looked for loopholes in its commitments to become more eco-friendly.

Yet, Saudi Arabia has also looked for loopholes in its commitments to become more eco-friendly. Under international standards, continued oil exports will not refute Saudi Arabia’s plans to achieve net zero emissions, as these exports would only be considered emissions by the government that imports the oil, rather than Riyadh itself.

Even though Saudi Arabia may hope to prioritize more renewable energy sources, Zumbrägel suggested these could be more about Riyadh’s own self interests.

“If Riyadh can develop a major share in renewable energy sources, they can even ‘make their dream come true’ to become a major exporter for green hydrogen to Europe. But there is competition as UAE and Oman have similar plans,” he said.

“Besides the prospering sector of renewable energy sources, there is the idea that the Saudis can continue their hydrocarbon path dependency, but in a cleaner way. Therefore, they spend a lot of money on carbon capture and storage. Another way is to offset emissions, for instance by planting billions of trees,” Zumbrägel continued.

“In a nutshell, they want to control and limit the emissions stemming from combustion and processing fossil fuels, not the export quantities of fossil fuels.”

“However, all these pledges are overly optimistic, and it is not clear whether Riyadh will be able to achieve them. They must overhaul much of their previous energy sectors and systems and invest incredible sums in renewable energy sources and further decarbonization efforts.”

The dangers of short-termism

Should Saudi Arabia fail or rebuff its claim to shift to cleaner energy sources, the Gulf peninsula would be one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change. A study by the Saudi think-tank Aeon Collective, whose early findings were reviewed by Arab News, noted that the Gulf states face deadly heat waves, the emergence of new unknown diseases, and deeper atmospheric pollution from global warming.

The Gulf states face deadly heat waves, the emergence of new unknown diseases, and deeper atmospheric pollution from global warming.

It could particularly threaten the annual Hajj pilgrimage, the study added. Academics have often sounded the alarm that the Gulf countries may even become uninhabitable later this century due to rising temperatures. Therefore, one would expect the Saudi kingdom to take more robust action if it is truly committed to the area’s long-term survival.

Meanwhile, a February 2021 article in the scientific journal Heliyon argued that rising temperatures may worsen socio-economic conditions and may trigger domestic conflicts within the region, as rising temperatures would take their toll on the more vulnerable economies.

In the end, while the Saudi royal family is currently set on upholding its dynasty, such short-termism could deliver unforeseen harmful consequences for the kingdom and the Arab World in years to come.