Saudi Aramco is a massive contributor to climate change and at the same time, actively thwarts international efforts at mitigation.
While attention has focused on the United Nations (UN) General Assembly meeting this week and how various nations, including the US and EU states, have responded to Iran’s alleged attacks on Saudi Arabia's Aramco facility, another concurrent UN summit also implications for security in the Middle East: the UN’s climate change summit.
The US was not part of the formal proceedings as Trump has deemed climate change a “hoax” and withdrew from the Paris Agreement, the United Nations climate accord. He eventually crashed the meeting, receiving a death stare from Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.
Would Greta have done the same if Mohammed bin Salman crashed the meeting? She probably would, yet MBS did not participate in this meeting for several reasons.
First, Saudi Aramco, a state-owned oil conglomerate, is one of the world’s greatest producers of petroleum and greenhouse gases. Second, Saudi Arabia has had a long history of resisting climate change mitigation. Third, rather than seeking to lead regional initiatives to manage scarce water on the Arabian peninsula, it has weaponised neighbouring Yemen’s water supplies
Ironically, Saudi Arabia has pursued these policies when it may be the most vulnerable to climate change.
A NOC vs. the UN
In terms of international politics, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco serves as an example of what is termed a National Oil Company (NOC), opposed to an international oil company (IOC) like Exxon-Mobil.
During the Cold War IOC’s like Exxon-Mobil had their own foreign policy, akin to states, and conducted their own diplomacy vis-a-vis nations in the Middle East and around the world. This dynamic has not changed in the post-Cold War world. With regards to global politics as of the end of the Cold War, Aramco is an example of a NOC trying to affect the policies of an intergovernmental organisation, like the UN.
According to a recently released investigative study, Saudi Arabia has stymied UN efforts to mitigate the climate crisis and funded climate sceptic lobbying groups in the US.
As Aramco prepares to launch a public offering it is worth reminding international investors that it has released more than 40,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases between 1992 and 2017.
Nonetheless, it has launched a greenwashing campaign in the lead up to the UN climate summit that obfuscates this fact, with slick videos on Twitter and YouTube and reports promising to achieve “global net-zero emissions.”
Yet for nearly thirty years, as climate change came to the attention of the international community, Saudi Arabia has sought to obstruct global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, which would hurt its primary source of income as a rentier state.
Resisting science and solutions
The study reveals a discrete Saudi strategy to undermine climate change mitigation policy at the intergovernmental level at the UN as well as at the domestic level in the US, with the purpose of preserving Aramco’s profits.
Joanna Depledge, a research associate at the University of Cambridge has summarised Saudi Arabia’s obstructionist policy as “striving for no” in climate negotiations.
For example, during the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCG) meeting in Madrid, Mohammad Al Sabban, a Saudi ministry of petroleum official, claimed that the science around climate change was not settled, challenging an American scientist. The confrontation was emblematic of a politician doubting the scientist and the science.
During the failed 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen for a climate accord, Al Sabban proclaimed again that “there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change.”
At the most recent 2019 UN conference on climate change in Katowice, Depledge said that “Saudi Arabia was picking at point after point” in the IPCC's latest report.
While now no longer working in a government capacity, Al Sabban recently tweeted to an American journalist: “Trump will be in the office for another term to kill all of your nonsense climate lies.”
While he’s only one individual, his comments are significant as he is one of the few vocal Saudi climate sceptics in what is an otherwise opaque lobbying campaign, whether in the UN or US.
Saudi Arabia has funded American climate scepticism directly and through front organisations within the Washington beltway and throughout the country. One example includes funds to the Heartland Institute, a think tank that sponsored a billboard campaign conflating climate change concerns with the Unabomber and Osama bin Laden.
Weaponising water scarcity
Yemen’s water crisis predated the 2015 Saudi air war, a result from the mismanagement of water under its former leader Ali Abdallah Saleh, as well as diverting water for the cultivation of the water-intensive narcotic, qat. These political-ecological factors put Yemen on a path of “water bankruptcy.”
All sides in Yemen’s civil war have sought to manipulate, withhold and hoard water supplies during sieges. What has exacerbated this problem since MBS’ air war is that Yemen’s water infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed during the bombing campaign.
Reservoirs and sanitation infrastructure have been hit during air strikes, the latter leading to a renewed cholera epidemic. Margaret Suter of the Atlantic Council has termed this disturbing trend as “the weaponisation of water.”
The future of the Arabian Peninsula
Climate change has and will affect the Arabian peninsula, particularly its water supplies and increases in desertification. Saudi Arabia and its neighbours are some of the most “water-stressed” countries in the world.
This summer’s heatwave that led to some of the hottest temperatures on earth—up to 55 degrees in central Saudi Arabia—portending a trend where parts of the country will become uninhabitable.
Rising sea levels have flooded the Red Sea port city of Jeddah and will threaten Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province on the Gulf, where much of Aramco’s oil facilities are located, ironically enough.
There is no doubt that oil raised Saudi Arabia from the sand in the twentieth century in what can be deemed the world’s “petro-century.” While it reaps profits in the short-term from Aramco, the oil that built Saudi Arabia could lead to its demise in the long-term.
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