Sultan al-Jaber, the hard-charging oil head trying to broker COP28 consensus

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For the chief executive of one of the world’s most successful oil companies, presiding over a UN-backed agreement to dump fossil fuels seems an unlikely task. But Sultan al-Jaber, the United Arab Emirates’ most trusted technocrat and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, must oversee just that.

At this year’s COP28 climate summit, negotiators from almost 200 countries are sparring over the future for fossil fuels, the biggest contributor to global warming when burnt. The UAE, one of the world’s largest oil exporters, wants to be among the last hydrocarbon producers standing.

Brokering a deal among a diverse array of countries, often with competing and contradictory interests, not least those of Saudi Arabia, has been a challenge for Jaber. The 50-year-old’s rise through UAE officialdom has been driven by a steely self-belief matched with a combative style. Yet the same force of personality that helped propel him up the ranks of Emirati technocracy has now collided with the delicate diplomatic task of forging climate consensus.

Speaking to the FT in October, Jaber issued a plea: “We’ve had 27 COPs. Please let me deliver something tangible this time.” But some have questioned the suitability of an oil boss leading the world’s most important climate negotiations, leaving Jaber visibly angry at the suggestion that he is not the right person for the job. 

As founding chief executive of Masdar, Jaber — known to all as Dr Sultan — gave the UAE a position in clean energy among otherwise lagging oil exporters. He is also industry minister, oversees the Abu Dhabi media conglomerate bidding for the UK’s Daily Telegraph and sits on the boards of several companies central to the emirate’s diversification plans. 

The UAE’s president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, picked him in 2016 to restructure the bloated state oil company, Adnoc. He has opened it up to foreign capital while causing controversy at home by cutting staff numbers.  

“Real leaders don’t want to win popularity contests — he doesn’t mind crossing swords with anyone,” says a longstanding confidante. “There is only one man he has to please — the ruler.”

On the fifth day of COP28, Jaber summoned journalists to a hastily arranged press conference during which he lambasted the media for “misrepresentation” of his views. The outburst fuelled the perception that he had not adapted to sustained media criticism, and came after a video emerged showing Jaber claiming that there was “no science” indicating that a phaseout of fossil fuels was needed to limit global warming to 1.5C.

Over the past year, an array of expensive corporate PR firms have been recruited by the emirate to manage the hosting of COP28 and to massage the reputation of one of the president’s most effective lieutenants. Some agencies and individuals have dropped out along the way, testament to Jaber’s exacting standards.

He is not new to the way these summits work. UAE climate envoy between 2010 and 2016, he was reappointed in 2020 and has participated in several previous COPs. But he has been vexed by the slow progress of climate diplomacy, says one person who has worked with him on various COP28 initiatives this year. “He is a little bit exhausted and frustrated.”

Others who have worked with Jaber over the past 12 months say he has evolved from oil boss to climate-enlightened diplomat. His language has become more emollient and his manner more sensitive, they say. He talks of the “journey” he has taken in preparation for this event. Veterans of climate diplomacy, including the US’s John Kerry, have given him their backing. 

“Whoever becomes a COP president goes through a personal transformation. [COP26 president] Alok Sharma is a different man now, And I think Jaber is too,” said one COP veteran. “They are different by the end, they are more committed by the end.”

Jaber has talked about the need to phase down fossil fuels where emissions are not captured by the middle of the century. But he has also said that countries have to find common ground in a “fair” and “just” way for those still reliant on fossil fuels. Some diplomats argue Jaber should and could play a leading role in brokering that agreement. 

After promising a landmark COP, Jaber scored an early success when, on the first day, countries signed off on a fund with seed capital of hundreds of millions of dollars to help vulnerable states deal with climate change. 

On Friday, with the final rounds of negotiations still ahead, Jaber struck an optimistic note. “There is a unique sense of momentum, a sense of inclusivity and a sense of willingness and flexibility,” he said. “I also feel a sense that something unprecedented is possible here at COP28.”

But despite the early cash pledges and the raft of business initiatives announced in the first week, Jaber’s presidency will ultimately be judged on whether agreement on a future without fossil fuels can be reached. 

“However successful other parts of the COP might be,” says Stéphane Crouzat, France’s climate ambassador, “it will be completely overshadowed if we don’t have strong language on a fossil fuel phase out.” The world will learn next week whether the Emirates’ most senior energy executive can close his biggest deal yet.,,

Climate Capital

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