COP28: Reports of rift grow within Arab Group

COP28: rumours grow of rift within Arab Group
8 min read
Dubai, UAE
08 December, 2023

Every year, a kaleidoscope of positions, priorities, needs and interests collide in the conference rooms at COP, the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The climate talks aim to curb greenhouse gas emissions to limit the most nefarious impacts of climate change, which threatens to make swathes of the planet unliveable due to rising sea levels, desertification and extreme heat.

The hosts this year are the United Arab Emirates, who’ve welcomed tens of thousands of delegates representing over 190 nations in the glittering city of Dubai.

"Curbing emissions from fossil fuels is the only way to avert the worst effects of climate change, but countries have yet to agree on a timeline and target"

Countries participating in the climate talks usually belong to one or several negotiating groups, formed based on shared interests and geographies.

The largest such group is the G77+China, which includes 135 countries representing the interests of so-called ‘developing’ nations united around one message: since industrialised countries have a historical responsibility in the climate crisis, they are expected to take on a bigger share of efforts needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But a flurry of smaller groups are also active alongside the G77 to defend narrower interests. One of them is the Arab States group, a negotiating block representing Arab countries, which is supposed to play a key role this year as COP unfolds in the region.

But since COP28 launched on December 1, rumours have grown over a supposed rift between the UAE host and Saudi Arabia, the historical leader of the Arab Group.

Saudi Arabia's influence has had a noticeable effect on potential reforms [Getty Images]
Saudi Arabia's influence has had a noticeable effect on potential reforms [Getty Images]

Under Saudi influence

The Arab block is composed of 22 states, the members of the Arab League. As in the Arab League, some countries wield more influence than others over the group, including Egypt – the most populated Arab nation – and the UAE.

But Saudi Arabia is the group’s uncontested leader, speaking on behalf of the block on most major occasions.

In particular, Saudi Arabia has leveraged its leadership of the group in the past to obstruct decisions on fossil fuels, which are a leading cause of global warming through the potent greenhouse gases they emit.

Curbing emissions from fossil fuels is the only way to avert the worst effects of climate change, but countries have yet to agree on a timeline and target.

“At COP28, the countries we see opposing most prominently [a phase-out of fossil fuels] are those such as Saudi Arabia, who rely heavily on export revenues from exporting oil and gas,” Dr Natalie Jones, a policy adviser on energy at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), told The New Arab.

On December 6, Saudi Arabia – on behalf of the Arab block – motioned to delete an entire paragraph of the most important text being discussed this year at COP. The paragraph, which covers energy, is still being debated by negotiators.

Among other options, it contains a proposal to agree on “an orderly and just phase-out of fossil fuels”, an unpalatable proposal to the Saudi delegation.

A small but diverse group

Saudi Arabia’s influence over the Arab group has led many observers to consider the block as a simple mouthpiece for Riyadh.

Indeed, although the Middle East already experiences record summer temperatures and devastating droughts, the voices of those affected in Syria, Jordan, Yemen or Iraq are drowned out in the negotiations.

“I look at what’s being discussed within the COP and I look at our daily reality: there’s this disconnect. It’s absurd,” one overflow member of the Lebanese delegation told The New Arab, requesting anonymity as he is not allowed to speak to the media.

“In Lebanon there’s a war and thousands of olive trees were burned, but we’re not talking about this. There’s an issue with generators, which are polluting an entire generation in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. But it doesn’t seem to be a priority, even though when you live in the region it’s one of your biggest daily problems.”

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Climate-vulnerable Arab countries that don’t produce much fossil fuels have little in common with the UAE, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, and their priorities seem largely unaddressed by the Arab block.

“The Arab Group is a complete generalisation of issues faced by the region,” Reem Alsaffar, cofounder and CEO of the MENA Youth Network, told The New Arab.

“I would divide the region into three sub-regions: North Africa, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and the Levant and Iraq. Those countries have similar profiles, and each has their context.”

Of course, “there is a space for countries to pledge and to go into negotiations individually,” Alsaffar added. “But within the Arab Group, there’s a consensus position and Saudi Arabia plays a very big role in shaping that.”

For Alsaffar, who participated last year in the negotiation as a Youth Negotiator on the Iraqi delegation, this power imbalance is linked to the fact that not all delegations have the same technical capacity to shine in the talks, which cover dozens of agenda items.

An analysis shared by Shady Khalil, Campaigner Lead at Greenpeace MENA: “The Arab Group has seasoned diplomats, but not all delegations have the same technical capacity. It depends on the country’s economic and financial capacity to be able to secure technical delegates who are able to commit to the negotiations.”

"The UAE are clearly intent on making this COP a success, which will be impossible without a strong commitment on fossil fuels. But this time, obstruction might come from their traditional allies in the Arab block"

Divergent paths

This situation isn’t surprising: it reflects the influence that Saudi Arabia and its neighbours wield over the broader region.

“Many countries in the Arab Group are not reliant on fossil fuels, but their economies may be reliant on neighbours that are reliant on fossil fuels,” Khalil added. “Saudi Arabia is also generous when it comes to financing, aiding and relieving countries from North Africa with their debt situation.”

Meanwhile, “smaller countries like Lebanon often have differentiated positions and are trying to find their space within the larger group,” Sarine Karajerjian, the Environmental Politics Program Director at Arab Reform Initiative, told The New Arab.

“Diplomatically and geopolitically, it is important to be part of a larger block, though there are different interests. Smaller countries still want diplomatically to belong to a bigger group with the Saudis, the Emiratis, to have a geopolitical role. If you are not in this block, you are left out.”

Although the overwhelming role played by oil-producing heavyweights leaves little space for other MENA players to pursue their own priorities, there are a few exceptions.

Morocco, the 2016 host of COP26, has emerged over the years as a strong player in the climate talks, and a leader in renewable energy development who is nearly on track to meet its climate goals.

“The Moroccan delegation is very strong,” said Khalil of Greenpeace MENA. “The Egyptian delegation also plays a big role in building consensus within the group, and Qatar has a smaller delegation than the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but skilled and strong.”

A Saudi-UAE rift?

Since COP28 started, some observers have questioned the traditional balance of power within the Arab Group, which seems upset by the UAE’s leadership of the talks.

“Our impression is that there is a rift within the Arab Group, at least in what they are saying publicly,” David Tong, Global Industry campaign manager at Oil Change International, told The New Arab.

“It’s not clear whether that rift exists privately, but in public and even in some of the closed-door negotiations, there appears to be a divergence of positions which could lead to compromises.”

COP president Sultan al-Jaber told reporters this week that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 43 percent by 2030, calling a phase-down “inevitable”.

Meanwhile, “Saudi Arabia has taken every chance it can to speak out against including fossil fuel phase-out [in the COP outcome text),” Tong said.

“Saying that there is a potential for growth and prosperity outside the reliance on fossil fuels, this is a new narrative that is being introduced, and this narrative is not welcomed by Saudi Arabia,” Khalil added.

“It’s showing in their statements, in their interventions, and also within the media (…) It’s very obvious that [the UAE and Saudi Arabia] have two different visions.”

Other observers doubt there’s a real divide between the two historical allies. "It's worth remembering that COP Presidencies are not meant to take the position of the groups they normally negotiate with,” a former negotiator from a country belonging to the Arab group told The New Arab, asking for personal details to be withheld.

“The Presidencies are meant to be the custodian and mediator of the entire global COP process."

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The UAE are clearly intent on making this COP a success, which will be impossible without a strong commitment to fossil fuels. But this time, obstruction might come from their traditional allies in the Arab block.

“At this point, north African countries are in severe debt, so they see that phasing out of fossil fuels is not a possibility given their dependency,” Khalil added.

“But a lot of parties would support a commitment around phasing out of fossil fuels if we add an equity element and have a comprehensive finance package that potentially includes debt reliefs to countries around North Africa and the Levant. If we can present at this COP a comprehensive package, (…) this will make this COP historical.”

The Saudi delegation did not respond to a request for comment.

Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan

Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais