Abu Dhabi CNN —
As Western states try to wean themselves off their addiction to hydrocarbons, Gulf oil nations have been pushing back hard, warning that a hasty transition away from fossil fuels will be counterproductive.
But as they tell the world that it cannot live without the natural resource that has brought them enormous wealth, the Gulf states are embarking on their own ambitious clean energy projects.
Some of the world’s largest hydrocarbon producers and exporters, Gulf countries are also among the globe’s biggest polluters. Gas-rich Qatar and oil-wealthy Saudi Arabia have some of the heaviest carbon footprints on the planet. According to the World Bank, Qatar had the highest carbon emissions per capita as of 2019, followed by Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf monarchies are trying to change that, investing billions in the renewable energy sector, a plan that allows them to save more of their hydrocarbons for export to an energy-hungry world.
Analysts say the move is more than a publicity stunt in a world where hydrocarbons are increasingly stigmatized. It is pragmatic, they say.
“The Gulf states are making net zero domestic targets in some ways to increase their hydrocarbon assets for export, to take advantage of a window of opportunity of those products as demand is expected to gradually decline,” said Karen Young, senior research scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
Their push for going green at home also helps them battle their longstanding image of being heavy polluters, said Rafiq Latta, senior correspondent at Energy Intelligence, an energy information company.
“The last thing the Gulf states want is to appear dirty,” Latta told CNN, “So they are investing heavily in green energy,” which also opens avenues for business as the green energy industry gains global traction.
So, investment in clean energy projects and renewables “makes very good business sense and PR sense for the Gulf,” he said.
Gulf petro-states are warning against a quick transition away from hydrocarbons, with the UAE calling for a “mixed energy” approach that minimizes emissions without cutting hydrocarbons.
The UAE is one of the biggest oil exporters, but has made renewable and green energy a priority, arguing that clean and dirty energy are complementary, not competing.
That view of the symbiotic relationship between the two types of energies that the UAE believes in is perhaps best demonstrated by Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the nation’s main oil company ADNOC, who also happens to be the government’s climate envoy. He has argued that by 2050, the world will need to produce 30% more energy than today.
“The world needs all the solutions it can get,” he said at an energy summit in Abu Dhabi last month. “It is not oil or gas or solar or wind or nuclear or hydrogen. It is oil and gas and solar and wind … It is all of the above.”
The UAE was the first Middle Eastern state to add nuclear power to its energy mix 14 years ago and the first to set a net-zero emissions goal, by 2050. The Gulf state is home to the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and is due to host next year’s COP28 climate summit.
Saudi Arabia, which has its own climate program, followed by announcing a net zero carbon emissions target of 2060. On Monday, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that his $620 billion wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, will also target net zero emissions by 2050, adding that the kingdom will contribute $2.5 billion to the Middle East Green Initiative, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from regional hydrocarbon production by more than 60%.
This month, the United States and the UAE signed a memorandum that aims to mobilize $100 billion on clean energy projects that would “accelerate toward a goal of deploying 100 gigawatts of clean energy by 2035.” One gigawatt can power about 300,000 homes.
“The world will still have demand for oil and the Gulf approach, at least in Saudi and UAE, is to produce a cleaner oil product that emits less carbon from flaring and that is more efficient in extraction methods,” said Young, “And they are doing that.”
The flaring of natural gas is a by-product of oil production, and the waste contributes to severe air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Speaking to CNN’s Becky Anderson on Tuesday during the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, the UAE’s minister of climate change and environment Mariam Almheiri said that the Gulf state has been working toward “a just energy transition.”.
“We are ramping up our renewables and at the same time decarbonizing our oil and gas sector,” Almheiri told CNN, adding that the UAE now offers some of the lowest carbon footprint oil barrels in the world.
Much of the hydrocarbons exported by Gulf states go to some of the world’s biggest consumers and polluters, including China and India.
Gulf states are however not directly responsible for the carbon footprints left by their consumers, and analysts say it’s unrealistic to advocate for a cut in oil and gas extraction and export, as it would be detrimental to GCC economies.
“They’ve got their own self-interest to look after, and clearly it would be economic suicide to advocate for a radical shift away from oil and gas,” said Latta.
“The turkey is not going to vote for Christmas, and the lamb is not going to vote for Eid, so I don’t see the Gulf en masse moving or accelerating away from hydrocarbons any time soon,” said Latta.
The UAE’s mantra of “maximum energy, minimum emissions” calls for a combined energy supply in a slow and gradual energy transition to avoid a shock to the global economy.
While it is in their self-interest, “GCC states have first a responsibility to their citizens, and that means they must generate revenue,” said Young. “Right now, the easiest and most efficient way to generate state revenue is to sell oil and gas. So that’s what they will keep doing.”
At least 18 people, including two children, were killed in last Friday’s protests in the city of Khash, in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, said Amnesty International on Thursday.
“This latest deadly incident in Sistan and Baluchistan province reveals that protesters from the oppressed Baluchi minority have borne the brunt of the security forces’ particularly vicious crackdown on demonstrations,” the human rights organization added.
Last week, protests turned violent in several cities in the province in southeast Iran, state media and activists said. Sistan and Baluchistan, which neighbors Pakistan and Afghanistan, is home to the long-oppressed Baluch ethnic minority and has a history of unrest with armed groups carrying out attacks against Iranian security personnel.
The deadly protests are part of a wider nationwide movement gripping Iran in recent weeks.