[The UAE and other Gulf states are major oil producers. They developed in concert with the US and EU, and while the climate impact of the US, EU, Canada, and other Global North oil-consuming (and producing) states is higher than that of the Gulf's in terms of stocks, the region has a major role in producing flows of carbon emissions. The COP 28 currently taking place in Dubai is an opportunity for the UAE and other regional oil and gas producers to promote themselves as environmentally conscious states that promote sustainability. This ambition is also manifest in their investment in the regional sustainability shift, and they are key players in renewable energy projects across the Middle East and North Africa. This image, however, obfuscates other realities. Gulf oil producers remain committed to the extraction of fossil fuels and their green transition entrenches their highly unequal relations with the rest of the region. Their commitment to renewable energy is less an impetus for environmental responsibility and more a result of their motivation to modernize their social metabolism. Although it is often assumed that their arid ecology makes them highly vulnerable to climate change, in reality their capital gives them an opportunity to implement adaptation projects that surpass the rest of the region.
Christian Henderson's chapter, excerpted below, is part of the book Dismantling Green Colonialism: Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region (Pluto Press, October 2023). In it, he attempts to elucidate these realities and thus offers an analysis that diverges from the dominant discourse. The chapter and the rest of the book are available for download here.]
In recent years the buzzwords of “sustainability” and the “green economy” have been used in the Gulf states as much as they have been anywhere else. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are keen to portray themselves as eager participants in environmental change. This is most apparent in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, the three countries that are the focus of this article. These countries have promoted their investment in renewable energy and have publicized a program of environmental modernization, including plans for “decarbonized oil and gas,” a circular economy, vertical farming, and an array of technology-based solutions. However, these conceptions obfuscate an actuality that is very far from the principle and practice of environmental sustainability. In reality, these countries have no intention of curbing their oil production and have articulated their commitment to expanding production for as long as there is demand. In this sense, the Gulf’s position is completely aligned with that of most other hydrocarbon exporters and oil companies.
This position has been explicitly stated by Gulf officials. In the summer of 2021, the Saudi Energy Minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al-Saud, communicated it with crystal clarity. According to a Bloomberg report, at a private meeting the prince commented on his country’s intention to continue producing and selling oil no matter what. “We are still going to be the last man standing,” he said, “and every molecule of hydrocarbon will come out.” This sentiment has also been echoed by other officials in the region. In 2022, the UAE Minister of State for Climate and Food Security, Mariam Al Mheiri, stated that “for as long as the world needs oil and gas, we're going to give it to them.” This intention to protect the value of hydrocarbon assets and meet demand is mirrored in the plans of every single Gulf state to ramp up its production of oil and gas.
In light of this unwavering commitment to oil and gas, how do renewables fit into the energy policies of the Gulf states? Firstly, it should be underscored that present progress on the transition to renewable energy within the Gulf states remains very slow. In 2019, the UAE had the largest production of renewable energy within its energy mix, out of all GCC states, with a figure of 0.67 percent of the country’s total national energy consumption.This is far lower than many other non-GCC countries. However, some Gulf countries have said that they intend to change this. The UAE has announced a commitment to meet fifty percent of its electricity demand with “clean energy,” using a combination of renewables, nuclear and “clean coal,” by 2050. Saudi Arabia intends to achieve the same target by 2030.
These are highly ambitious policies and they should be treated with some skepticism. Making such declarations allows these countries to present the appearance of pursuing environmental sustainability. The commitment to the transition to renewable energy is thus part of a broader apparent commitment to environmental sustainability, which is also manifested in public exhibitions, such as Dubai’s Expo 2020, which was pervaded with narratives about sustainability. Narratives about ecological consciousness also underpin major developments, such as Neom, the new futuristic city that is planned for Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. According to the promotional material, Neom will be a “blueprint for tomorrow in which humanity progresses without compromise to the health of the planet.” In some cases these public relations campaigns result in pronouncements that are patently false. The organizers of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar claimed that it was the first carbon-neutral tournament in history, an assertion that was quickly debunked by journalists and activists.
Irrespective of the questionable and superficial nature of these claims, this hyperbolic greenwashing serves an important purpose. It helps to obfuscate the reality of the Gulf states’ function as major producers of oil and gas in the global economy. It allows these countries to maintain their legitimacy on the international stage and ensure that they are central actors in debates over energy politics. On the one hand, the commitment to oil and gas will ensure that the GCC states will retain their control over energy markets, manifested in the leading role of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). On the other hand, the image of sustainability and environmental consciousness portrays the Gulf states as important stakeholders in renewable energy markets and a lower-carbon future. One example is the next United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP), COP28 in 2023, which will be held in Dubai. These global climate summits, which have been taking place for three decades, are intended to lead to an international agreement that will result in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that could curb climate change. However, in the UAE, the negotiations at the COP 28 will be presided over by the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), a move that one activist described as “putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.” This obviously presents a contradiction, but it is one that characterizes sustainability politics everywhere.
Aside from politics, however, it is likely that the Gulf states will eventually take steps to increase the level of renewables in their domestic energy mix. They may not attain the rapid transition that they have pledged to achieve, but renewable energy is likely to take hold in the heart of world oil extraction. In order to understand this, we need to look deeper into the configuration of the region’s energy economy and the requirements of social metabolism in a hot and arid ecology. These countries have very high levels of domestic power consumption. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have some of the highest levels of electricity consumption per capita in the world, and all of the GCC states have consumption per capita that is higher than the average for high-income countries. One cause of this high usage is the domestic consumption of energy for air conditioning, a demand that has been exacerbated by subsidized energy, although this support is now being rolled back by many GCC governments. Another cause of this demand arises from the production of desalinated water, which accounts for the majority of domestic water consumption in most Gulf states. The desalination of water is a highly energy-intensive process. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it accounts for around twenty percent of energy consumption. One estimate suggests that desalination plants in the Gulf states account for 0.2 percent of the world’s electricity consumption. As a result of economic and demographic growth, this energy demand has expanded in recent years. In Saudi Arabia, for example, consumption of energy has more than doubled from 1,335 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2000 to 3,007 TWh in 2021. Similar increases can be observed elsewhere in the region.
This huge level of energy consumption is becoming a costly hindrance for the Gulf economies. Electricity in the Gulf countries is mostly provided by oil and gas-fired power stations. As a result of the increasing domestic demand, increasing amounts of oil are being diverted away from export to global consumers, who pay market rates. The internal demand for oil shows no sign of abating and some estimates suggest that the domestic consumption of oil could continue to increase by as much as five percent a year. One study suggests that by 2030 the internal consumption of oil in Saudi Arabia could match the amount that is exported. These trends are spurring the expansion of renewable energy production in the Gulf states. In these countries the green energy shift is actually impelled by the need to retain oil for export: it is motivated by a commitment to fiscal sustainability, rather than environmental concerns.
A New Market
Aside from the need to reconfigure domestic energy production, the Gulf states also view renewables and fuels such as hydrogen as a new market opportunity. Green energy is an investment asset class for the GCC’s surplus capital. The sector is relatively low-risk: it receives support from development finance institutions and guarantees from host governments. As a result, Gulf conglomerates are active in the sector. New energy companies have emerged that often receive a degree of state backing and funding. One example is Masdar in the UAE. Owned by the state of Abu Dhabi, Masdar initially became known for its plan to build a city in Abu Dhabi that would be based on the principle of sustainability and that would utilize renewable energy. The company also has a large investment arm that owns around $20 billion in renewable energy assets in a number of markets across the world.
An additional example of the extent to which money from the GCC is embedding itself in the future of renewables and resource governance in the region is a proposal that has been signed by the UAE, Israel, and Jordan. These three states have agreed on a plan for UAE’s Masdar to invest in a solar energy facility in Jordan that will sell all of its electricity to Israel. In return, Israel will sell desalinated water to Jordan. If it proceeds, the deal will illustrate how UAE capital and Israeli technology can gain a greater foothold within the region. This deal will also normalize and deepen Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and the system of apartheid that it imposes on the Palestinian population. It is an illustration of how these types of projects can have highly uneven results. Power from a solar farm constructed on Jordanian territory will be diverted to the Israeli market. Networks of water and electricity production will be delivered to wealthier consumers, while excluding deprived populations who are subjugated by military occupation.
A Region of Inequality
How are the Gulf states using their hydrocarbon revenues to safeguard their future in light of the risks of climate change? The resources and capital of the Gulf states place them at the top of the regional political and economic hierarchy, which is characterized by increasing polarization. There is immense inequality between the poor countries of the region and the wealthy ones. For example, GDP per capita in Yemen is $701, while in the UAE it is $44,315. Other examples of this differential can be found elsewhere in the region: GDP per capita in Syria is $533, while in Qatar it is $66,000. As a result of this imbalance, countries in the Middle East and North Africa do not share the same prospects in terms of the effects of climate change. The political and economic power of the Gulf states means they have more capacity to manage the problems of a warming climate. This ability is in contrast to that of other countries in the region, such as Yemen, Lebanon and Syria, which are suffering from a combination of economic collapse, suffocating public debt, conflict and internal instability.
The status of the Gulf states’ food security is one example of this regional inequality. The GCC states are highly reliant on food imports, and between eighty and ninety percent of commodities are imported. This creates a vulnerability to geopolitical disruption that could affect logistics and supply chains. The Gulf countries have used their capital to mitigate this risk. They have invested heavily in transport and storage infrastructure. This means that they can import food from a number of different global locales, thus ensuring that they have a diversified source of commodities. Gulf countries import food from all global regions and they have also acquired land in North Africa, the Black Sea region, the United States and Latin America. They have also established large food processing, poultry and dairy operations. These facilities serve Gulf markets and provide some self-sufficiency, but they still require the import of raw commodities, such as cattle feed. More recently, the Gulf states have begun investing in agri-tech capabilities that allow them to grow food in fully controlled indoor environments. These projects are energy intensive and they benefit from a subsidized supply of electricity and other inputs from Gulf governments.
Another dimension of regional inequality is storage capacity for food grains, which creates a buffer against price spikes and supply shocks. This is particularly important for Arab countries, given their reliance on imported food and the potential for climate and market shocks. The Gulf states have invested heavily in grain silos and food stores, and this infrastructure has been included in port and airport projects in these countries. As a result, their storage capacity far outstrips that of other countries in the region. For example, Saudi Arabia has a grain storage capacity of around 3.5 million tons, for a population of thirty-five million, whereas Egypt’s grain storage capacity is around 3.4 million tons, for a population three times larger than Saudi Arabia’s, at around 105 million people. Qatar’s storage capacity is around 250,000 tons, for a population of 2.6 million, while Yemen has a similar capacity, for a population of thirty million. This contrast also exists in other comparisons with countries around the region, particularly with those societies that have been hit by war and disasters. For example, the devastating Beirut port explosion in August 2020 destroyed the harbor’s 100,000-ton grain silos.
The Gulf and the Just Transition
The social and economic principles that are inherent to a just transition in the Gulf are at odds with the energy and trade policies. By investing in renewable energy, agribusiness and infrastructure upgrades, the Gulf is pursuing a capital-intensive and technological program of environmental modernization. This involves techno-fixes and accumulation by dispossession in the name of “sustainability.” These methods are primarily motivated by profit and security considerations, with environmental sustainability being a secondary concern. This approach places little or no emphasis on equality, justice and universal basic needs. It is premised on the idea that environmental sustainability is a technocratic issue, one that can be dis-embedded from the highly political questions of the distribution of wealth and resources, consumption, and the extraction of profit.
This is a propensity that has regional ramifications. As described above, the influence of the Gulf states is patent in renewable energy investments in economies such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan. Through their investments, state-led GCC conglomerates are entrenching themselves within the regional renewable energy transition. However, this influence is also present on a broader level across the region. Aid and investment from the Gulf states helps underpin a number of Arab governments, such as those of Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia: the Gulf states provide loans that finance these governments and prop them up. In addition to financing, the Gulf states also steer regional politics in other ways. Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched a military intervention in Yemen, and Qatar and Saudi Arabia have supported reactionary proxies in Syria. These interventions foreclose the democratic space that is required for a truly just transition; they hinder the emergence of social movements that can demand a more equitable and sustainable use of national resources. Furthermore, as discussed above, the use of large areas of land for renewable energy production and agribusiness enclosures often relies on the dispossession of other land users, appropriation that is achieved through authoritarian and repressive forms of governance. In order for a just transition to be achieved within many countries in the Arab area, the question of social and environmental justice must consider this regional dimension. The path of revolutionary and social change cannot be only understood as involving struggles that are determined by class conflict at the national level: the weight of Gulf influence within the regional political economy must also be included in the equation.