The Arab World’s chronic disintegration – now in Poznan

Maanantaina, 15. joulukuuta 2008     2 kommentti(a)
Mari Luomi
Kansainvälinen ympäristö- ja luonnonvarapolitiikka -tutkimusohjelma
The Arab World has yet again proved to be an increasingly empty political construct; this time in the framework of climate politics. The fault line between the rich Gulf and the poor ‘rest’ was revealed amidst domination by the OPEC-axis and passive consent by most of the other Arab states.

The UN Climate Change Conference, which convened in Poznan, Poland, during the first two weeks of December, managed to draw little interest of the Arab delegations, some of which arrived only in the second week of talks and some of which simply did not bother to arrive. Despite the fact that the Middle East is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, there is still to emerge a common regional voice demanding action. Adaptation will be a major challenge, due to the already scarce water resources, and, on the mitigation side, especially the rich Gulf states should urgently start addressing their exorbitantly high per capita CO2 emissions.

Thus far, the only single strong voice from the Arab World has been that of Saudi Arabia. This voice is familiar to all observers of UN climate talks and it carries a clear message: “do not harm our oil industry or else…”

Saudi Arabia, according to most observers, along with its Arab OPEC allies Kuwait and Qatar, has mostly played a counter-productive role throughout the history of international climate change negotiations. Instead of perceiving climate change as a threat to global prosperity and development, Saudi Arabia sees an ambitious international agreement to cope with climate change as a threat to its fossil-fuelled economy.

The list of merits is long: influencing the G77+China agenda, taking advantage of the consensus mechanism, threatening with blocking other agenda items, bogging down the talks with lengthy addresses and, last but not least, dominating the Arab World position.

According to Katherine Watts from CAN Europe and Wael Hmaidan from IndyAct, who spoke in a side event in Poznan, the Saudis have always been vocal while other Arab countries continue vague in their positions. The Saudi delegation is sizeable, skillful and very strategic. Other Arab delegations are generally small, which makes it impossible for them to follow all the agenda items, let alone to push forward with their own national interests. This is why they are happy to follow the Saudi lead, in a mixture of fear of being left out and feeling of empowerment.

External pressure on Saudi Arabia to change its position has been weak: Western NGOs do not feel comfortable criticizing developing countries. Arab NGOs are few and generally weak and lack capacity. The recently established Arab Climate Alliance is a positive exception in the NGO front.

The only possible external pressure that might have an effect on Saudi behaviour would have to come from the same region, in the form of a united, constructive and progressive position towards climate change mitigation. Changes in attitude in many Arab states have been visible on the ground during the last year or so. However, these feeble signs have not yet transformed into action in international fora. For example, Abu Dhabi’s declarations of ‘leadership in green energies’ were not met with any substantive action in Poznan.

Some place their hopes on the next Arab League summit in Kuwait in January, but as long as Kuwait and Qatar continue to perceive themselves as ‘particularly vulnerable’ countries, as was the case in Poznan, there is little hope for a common Arab League position.

The role of Saudi Arabia is well known, and so are the consequences, but so far no country in the region has dared to challenge it. In a region where looking for scapegoats is a popular distraction, why is everyone missing this one?

(In the picture: Delegates during the high level segment in the UN Climate Change Conference, Poznan, 11 December 2008)

Kirjoitukset edustavat kirjoittajien henkilökohtaisia näkemyksiä.

Keskustelu (2 kommenttia)

17.12.2008, Charly Salonius-Pasternak

Thanks for the interesting update and analysis.

You write that "the only single strong voice from the Arab World has been that of Saudi Arabia. This voice is familiar to all observers of UN climate talks and it carries a clear message: “do not harm our oil industry or else…” ",
what is this "or else..."? Are they ever explicit?

I see that they need to sell oil, so cutting off all exports is basically out of question (It's completely their own fault that their economy is still so oil dependent).Restricting production would cause the price of oil to increase, but we've seen that the market adjusts accordingly. What can the Saudi's credibly threaten to do?

2.1.2009, Mari Luomi

Thank you for the question Charly. The behaviour of Saudi Arabia described above is indeed most explicit. The expression ‘or else’ refers not only to the style with which Saudi Arabia comes through in the UN climate negotiations but also the actual negotiation tactics. Many argue that Saudi Arabia’s long-term strategy in the international climate negotiations is to prevent any meaningful agreement. The tactics include threatening with blocking (and actually blocking) agenda items if items of interest to Saudi Arabia are not approved.

The Saudi style is most visible at the rhetorical level, especially in official statements and speeches. The negotiations themselves mostly take place behind closed doors, but a lot of information is available through reliable secondary sources. This information confirms what is stated in my blog post above.

The most recent example of the style of Saudi rhetorics is the speech of the Saudi Minister of Petroleum, H.E. Mr Al-Naimi from the high level segment of COP-14 in Poznan on 11 December 2008: “… calling for moving away from fossil fuel consumption as a means of addressing climate change does not represent a practical alternative to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly given the availability of technologies for clean energy… “.

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