The Gulf’s stance in the global climate talks: Analysis by Gustav Boethius

The position of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which represents some of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporting nations, is a litmus test for the progress of global climate change negotiations.

Beginning on 28 November, the eyes of the world will be focused on Durban, South Africa, for the 17th annual Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Observers and analysts will be watching the United States with particular interest, though with the country severely restricted by domestic political discord and influential oil and coal lobbying, it is unlikely to play a leading role in this year’s talks. Emerging economies such as China and India, unwilling to commit to a global climate deal if the United States does not, are likely to also keep to the background, pressures from progressive European states notwithstanding.

As a result, a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol seems unlikely to be finalised this year, and it has been suggested that attention will instead be focused on expanding the established agreements from last year’s talks in Cancun. Within this multilateral dynamic, the GCC is one of the most interesting groups of players to observe.

Saudi intransigence and worries

For Saudi Arabia a global deal that curbs greenhouse gas emissions, and by extension the consumption of oil, is a very serious economic threat. Throughout the climate change negotiation process, the Saudi delegations have been outspoken against such a deal. During the Bonn negotiations in June this year, which aimed at preparing the parties for the Durban talks, Saudi Arabia argued that there was no need for a climate agreement for another 18 months. The Saudis are worried about oil being singled out as an environmental culprit, and the country has argued in the climate talks that it ought to receive compensation for any lost oil revenues a global climate deal may cause. Muhammed al-Sabban, the Saudi chief negotiator, stated publicly that Saudi Arabia considers a global deal on climate change to be a greater threat than competition from other oil rivals, and is closely following the developments in environmental legislation at the international as well as national level. Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman have played more low-profile roles in the talks, but have mainly followed the Saudi line. These countries share Saudi worries about the economic consequences of a global emissions cap deal.

The UAE’s progressive stance

The stance of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) differs quite distinctly from that of Saudi Arabia. The UAE is actively participating in the Cartagena Dialogue, an informal forum for constructive collaboration seeking to develop progressive policies on climate change. The Cartagena Dialogue was widely credited for the positive outcomes of the COP16 summit in Cancun. Out of the GCC countries, the UAE’s negotiation style is also the most forthcoming. The UAE delegation has clearly stated its environmental actions, commitments, and limitations, and has asked what others will do in return. Compared to the other GCC member states, the talks with the UAE have been much more like regular trade negotiations.

Qatar’s COP18 bid

Qatar has not been as outspoken in the talks as some of the other GCC member states, but the country has played a constructive role behind the scenes. Perhaps most significantly, Qatar is currently one of two parties (along with South Korea) bidding to be the host of the COP18 summit. Although some have criticised the bid as another high profile event for the small Gulf state to host (a sort of warm up to the 2022 World Cup), it is however likely to be more than that. As was the case with the summits in both Copenhagen and Cancun, the host government of the COP talks will receive a considerable amount of international attention. Due to its key role in organising the layout of the negotiations, the outcome of the talks will to some extent be attributed to the host nation’s efforts and skill. Qatar’s willingness to play this role, and to accept such a political risk, should be seen as a genuine effort to bridge the gap between the talks’ opposing camps in order to achieve a positive outcome.

The way forward

Ultimately, the climate change process is an economic proposition as much as a political and moral one. A central question has always been to what extent a global climate deal will affect economies. When it comes to the GCC, the level of unwillingness to curb global greenhouse gas emission appears to be directly related to the degree of fiscal dependence on fossil fuel exports. While Saudi Arabia’s oil income dependence is very high, the UAE’s economy relies to a much lesser extent on hydrocarbon exports. This is reflected in their respective stances on climate change. Qatar’s gas exports are a cleaner alternative to its neighbour’s oil, which, too, gives it more room for environmental manoeuvring. Thus, the GCC’s position in the climate negotiations is much more nuanced than might be expected.

The question remains as to how to make the GCC more climate friendly. One possible move would be to broaden the scope of a global climate deal. While the UNFCCC process has emphasised the importance of curbing emissions, it has failed to provide the hydrocarbon exporting countries with economic options. If the GCC countries are to shift their stance on energy and climate change, an alternative route to continuing their economic development must be presented.

A global free trade agreement for petrochemicals would be a start. Such an agreement is certain to act as an incentive for the GCC countries to expand this area of their economies and start their transition away from fossil fuel income dependence. This, in combination with a Sustainable Energy Free Trade Area (SEFTA), would strengthen the competitiveness of, and demand for, renewables, and would likely be an effective combination of economic and environmental stick and carrot.

These factors are unlikely to be included in this year’s talks as the involved delegations probably have enough on their plates. However, if the UNFCCC process is to produce a truly inclusive global climate deal, the concerns of all stakeholders and their interests in the current international energy system need to be addressed. Doing so would make GCC acceptance of a global climate deal easier to achieve.

Gustav Boëthius is a Researcher at the Middle East Institute. He is currently investigating the impact of the unrest in the Middle East on Asean’s energy security. Gustav holds an MSc in strategic studies from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and an MSc in chemical physics from the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include the economic and foreign policies of the Gulf states and non-traditional security with an emphasis on energy security and climate change.

This article was originally published by the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore.

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