Divisions among Arab states on climate change

Divisions among Arab states on climate change

9 min read
26 Dec, 2016
Salaheddine Lemaizi reports from the corridors of the ‘blue zone’, the part of the COP22 village reserved for officials.
World leaders at the UN World Climate Change Conference 2016 in Marrakesh [Getty]

From 7 to 18 November 2016, Morocco played host to the 22nd United Nations Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Climate Change. But why were so few Arab countries there?

The photograph of heads of state gathered for their summit as part of the 22nd United Nations Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Climate Change (COP22), on November 15 in Marrakesh is missing 18 representatives of Arab states.

Only the Emirs of Qatar and Kuwait can be seen, alongside Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. The pariah president, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has been placed a long way from the three other Arab heads of state.

African presidents were there in force, Israel was present- eliciting anger from some Moroccan civil society organisations, but no comment from the representatives of the 22 Arab nations – but dignitaries from the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region were apparently giving the Moroccan COP a wide berth. Their pointed absence is the result of both situational and structural factors.

A more African than Arab COP

Morocco chose from the outset to make this summit an ‘African COP’. It is to some extent being punished for its on-going disengagement from Arab politics.

Last February, King Mohammed VI pulled out of hosting the ordinary summit of the Arab League. He apologised, but the decision created shock waves. It was justified by Morocco’s Foreign Minister in a communiqué that criticised the inertia of Arab countries: ‘The summit will merely be an occasion to adopt ordinary resolutions and make speeches intended to give a false impression of unity and solidarity between Arab states.’

Morocco chose from the outset to make this summit an �African COP�. It is to some extent being punished for its on-going disengagement from Arab politics

The summit was hurriedly relocated to Mauritania, but Morocco’s action has not been forgotten.

The poor representation of Arab states at the COP22 was also indicative of the lack of importance accorded to issues of climate change by the decision-makers of those nations, despite the fact that the MENA region is amongst the world’s most vulnerable to global warming, desertification and water stress.[2] 

In a key example of climate injustice, the region’s 22 countries are themselves low emitters, producing just 4.2 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases. This is compounded by an inequality within the region: 85 percent of those emissions are produced by the six members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

The shadow of Saudi Arabia

For the last two decades, the Arab League has mandated Saudi Arabia to represent it as lead partner for the Arab group at the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

One delegate from an Arab country [3] lamented ‘the irony that the oil minister is always there at the summits’.

The power of Riyadh has been criticised by the region’s civil society groups. Along with other fossil fuel producing countries, Saudi Arabia has acted as a blocker in the negotiations for the Paris Agreement that arose out of COP21.

The Saudi state, in common with most of the other large oil producers in Latin America and Africa, has long been opposed to any reduction in the use of fossil fuels. It notably blocked the reference in the Paris agreement to a curbing of global temperature increases by 1.5°C. The Arab group supported a mention of this subject, but it was not retained in the final agreement.

The Arab group countries remain divided. A member of the Jordanian delegation said ‘there’s no clearly visible Arab position in COP.

During the summits, there’s little discussion or co-operation between the countries.’ Vahakn Kabakian, head of the Lebanese delegation, said: "Within the group, we now have less divergence than before. In the past we differed on major issues (the transition to renewable energies, the financing of that transition, the 1.5°C target), but since the Paris Agreement many of our questions have been resolved. It’s time for us to co-ordinate our positions."

Many of the Arab delegations were concerned about lack of consultation. A Lebanese representative said: "Saudi Arabia should not just be informing us what happened in the negotiations. We should be conferring, putting forward joint proposals. This is an inconceivable situation."

The power of Riyadh has been criticised by the region’s civil society groups

The influence of the climate sceptics

Divergences of opinion and approach among the Arab countries were clear during the Paris Agreement negotiations of 2015.

Saudi Arabia lobbied to delay adoption of the agreement by the Arab group. Safa’ Al-Jayoussi, journalist and co-ordinator of the Arab arm of the Climate Action Network (CAN), said: "A large proportion of that group is made up of countries that are members of the organisation of petroleum exporting countries (OPEC). This year, in Marrakesh, the already very slow moving negotiations were once again blocked by the Saudis."

The low profile of Arab countries at climate summits is often explained with reference to the influence of Saudi Arabia.

"Since the start of the climate negotiations, the Saudi delegation has been headed by Dr Mohamed Al-Sabban. He’s a climate sceptic and has a reputation for acting as a blocker," explained Wael Hmaidan, director of CAN International [4]. The replacement of this Saudi diplomat from 2015 might allow Saudi Arabia to gradually modify its negotiating position.

Within the ranks of the Saudi delegation in Marrakesh, a conservative reading of the Paris Agreement held sway. Ayman Shasly, adviser to the Saudi Energy Ministry and member of the negotiating committee, said: "The Paris Agreement allows for adoption according to each country’s level of development. Countries are not compelled to make commitments around fossil fuels. All actions remain voluntary." Other Arab countries were distancing themselves from this interpretation.

Weak ratification of the Paris Agreement

Safa’ Al-Jayoussi, speaking towards the end of the summit, expressed disappointment at the weak Arab presence at COP22.

"There was greater Arab participation in COP21," she said. Her network has been calling for ‘a strong presence to support the Moroccan presidency’ for months.

Its appeals fell on deaf ears: only a few environmental ministers made the trip. The head of the Lebanese delegation explained ‘the new Lebanese president was supposed to be here, but he was kept at home because of urgent engagements relating to the formation of the new government.’

The lack of Arab involvement in the COP is in tune with the reluctance of Arab League countries to mobilise in signing the Paris Agreement. Of the 22 countries, only three – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Morocco – have signed up to the UNFCCC. Four countries have started the ratification process at national level – Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Lebanon.

The lack of Arab involvement in the COP is in tune with the reluctance of Arab League countries to mobilise in signing the Paris Agreement

Safa’ Al-Jayoussi said: "Our countries came to COP22 unprepared. They were surprised by the speed with which others had ratified the agreement. They ended up feeling excluded from negotiations because of not already having signed up."

In disarray

Not all the Arab country pavilions in COP22’s ‘blue zone’ sought the same position or visibility. The host country, Morocco, emphasised its African orientation and desire to pursue business links in that continent. Tunisia, also part of the African pavilion, was happy with a symbolic presence and a modest space. Algeria kept its presence to the bare minimum and chose not to have its own pavilion at all.

The GCC pavilion provided a small number of opportunities for the region’s countries to exchange information about their climate change adaptation strategies. These sessions were not well-attended and the presentations about national programmes failed to translate into any regional response to the challenges of climate change.

All of these factors have led the Arab countries to develop their strategies in isolation. Egypt, like Morocco, is positioning itself as a key actor in the group of African countries: the Egyptian Environment Minister, Khaled Fahmy, is the group’s president. Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia are part of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which takes more progressive positions than those of the Arab group. Even the UAE, one of Saudi Arabia’s principal allies, is slowly beginning to step out from under the Saudi shadow. In the GCC pavilion, the UAE chose to have its own space. It has expressed a strong desire for mobilisation in response to climate change. These divergent national responses make co-ordination of a regional response difficult.

The prospect of debt

Countries like Morocco are caught between these multiple positions. Jawad Moustakbal, member of Morocco’s Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and Citizen Action (Attac) explained: "Although Morocco has been part of the COP since 1995, it’s hard to identify any autonomous strategy or clear political position from the country on the subject of climate change. Without such a vision, ‘our’ negotiators are lost, moving between 20 different negotiating groups."

Solitary strategies weaken the communal position and leave the field free for Saudi Arabia.

"Our main obstacle is the fact that the Arab group is headed by an oil-producing and climate sceptic country," adds Al-Jayoussi.

"We would have expected a joint declaration from the Arab countries, an initiative to support the Moroccan presidency this year, but our representatives are deafening in their silence.’

The only regional level initiative has come from the World Bank. That flagship vessel of neoliberal policy-making in the developing world has promised MENA countries access to funds already allocated to other areas, notably the reduction in poverty, announcing that the percentage of its support loans going towards climate action will increase from 18 to 30 percent [5].

In the absence of any regional response from Arab governments, the people of the Maghreb and the Mashriq face the prospect of being indebted for decades to finance the complex process of adaptation to climate change.

Salaheddine Lemaizi is a journalist who specialises in the media coverage of political news. He is based in Casablanca and blogs on Moroccan media.

This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

[1] See our full series of articles: ‘COP22 Des paroles aux actes’

[2] For a complete scan of the consequences of climate change in the region, see Climate Projections and Extreme Climate Indices for the Arab Region, UN Economic and Social for Western Africa (ESCWA), 2015.

[3] A number of interviewees requested anonymity.

[4] Wael Hmaidan, ‘The Wind of Change Hitting the Arab Region?’, in A Region Heating Up : Climate Change Activism in the Middle East and North AfricaPerspectives n° 9 (August 2016), Heinrich Böll Foundation.

[5] ‘A New Plan to Support Action on Climate Change in the Arab World’, November 15th, 2016