Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading exporter of oil, has become the biggest obstacle to an agreement to fight global warming at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai, where countries are debating whether to call for a phaseout of fossil fuels, negotiators and observers said.
The Saudi delegation has flatly opposed any language in a deal that would even mention fossil fuels, the oil, gas and coal that, when burned, create emissions that are dangerously heating the planet. Saudi negotiators have also objected to a provision, endorsed by at least 118 countries, to triple global renewable energy capacity by 2030.
Saudi Arabia’s diplomats have been particularly skillful at blocking discussions and slowing the talks, according to interviews with a dozen people who have been inside closed-door negotiations. Tactics include inserting words into draft agreements that are considered poison pills by other countries; slow-walking a provision meant to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change; staging a walkout in a side meeting; and refusing to sit down with negotiators pressing for a phaseout of fossil fuels.
The Saudi opposition is significant because U.N. rules require that any agreement forged at the climate summit be unanimously endorsed. Any one of the 198 participating nations can thwart a deal.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country raising concerns about more ambitious global efforts to fight climate change. The United States has sought to inject caveats into the fossil fuel phaseout language. India and China have opposed language that would single out coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels. Iran and Russia have pushed for provisions to protect natural gas. And many nations, such as Iraq, have raised concerns that ending oil and gas could devastate countries that depend on fossil fuels for income and have asked for more financial support from wealthier countries.
But Saudi Arabia has stood out as the most implacable opponent of any agreement on fossil fuels.
“Most countries vary on the degree or speed of how fast you get out of fossil fuels,” said Linda Kalcher, a former climate adviser to the United Nations who has been in negotiating rooms this week. Saudi Arabia “doesn’t even want to have the conversation,” she said.
Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.
If nations do agree in Dubai to phase out fossil fuels, or even phase them down, it would be a historic moment. Past U.N. climate deals have shied away from mentioning the words “fossil fuels,” let alone contemplating a phaseout.
But the dynamics appear to have shifted this year, the hottest in recorded history. A group of nations led by small islands, whose countries are most vulnerable to sea level rise and other climate-fueled extreme weather events, want the summit to adopt a formal statement that the era of coal, oil and natural gas should soon come to an end. Aided by Europe, they have made a “fossil fuel phaseout” their top goal at the talks, known as COP28.
The debate has been deeply contentious. In particular, oil- and gas-rich nations in the Persian Gulf appear to view the challenge to the future of fossil fuels, a resource that has brought their governments and royal families extraordinary wealth, as a threat as existential as climate change itself.
“It would be unacceptable that politically motivated campaigns put our people’s prosperity and future at risk,” Haitham Al-Ghais, the secretary general of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries warned his member countries last week. He urged them to reject any text that targets fossil fuels.
Saudi Arabia is the most influential country within the OPEC cartel. Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, said recently that his country would “absolutely not” support a deal that called for the phase-down or phaseout of fossil fuels.
That stance is more intransigent than the one adopted by its neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, another major oil and gas producer. Sultan Al Jaber, the Emirati official and oil executive presiding over the talks, has said that the transition away from fossil fuels is “inevitable” but needs to be managed carefully.
Saudi Arabia and a number of oil companies have tried to focus the talks on emissions, instead of fossil fuels themselves, arguing that technologies such as carbon capture and storage, or CCS, could trap and bury greenhouse gases from oil and gas and allow their continued use.
But other world leaders and most environmentalists say the best way to cut emissions is to switch to cleaner forms of energy like solar, wind, or nuclear, reserving carbon capture for rare situations where alternatives are unavailable.
“The reality we need to face is that we have to phase out fossil fuels, period,” said Wopke Hoekstra the European commissioner for climate action. “We cannot CCS ourselves out of the problem.”
Inside the negotiating rooms, things are even more combative, according to negotiators and others who asked to remain anonymous so they could describe the closed-door talks.
All of them described the Arab bloc of nations to the United Nations, which is led by Saudi Arabia, as using procedural tactics to delay and stymie a deal on fossil fuels.
Several people described Saudi diplomats giving lengthy speeches that took up the bulk of time at meetings. They also said Saudi negotiators have argued that the 2015 Paris climate agreement calls for cutting emissions, without mentioning specific energy sources, and that nations must not go beyond that original mandate.
Three people also said Saudi Arabia has worked to delay the adoption of text around setting goals for protecting countries from the consequences of climate change. The negotiators said that Saudi Arabia didn’t necessarily oppose the provision on its merits. But, they explained, if developing nations don’t see progress on the issue of adaptation, they might not be willing to embrace a broader deal that includes a fossil fuel phaseout.
Saudi Arabia also is insisting that the phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities” be included in several parts of the text. The phrase refers to the principle that wealthy countries should do more to rein in climate change because they have been polluting the longest. But the United States and Europe oppose this language, because they say it has been used in U.N. forums to reduce pressure on rich, emerging economies like China and wealthy Gulf states, which are technically considered developing countries.
Saudi Arabia’s insistence on including the phrase amounts to “sheer delay tactics,” a European negotiator said.
On Sunday, the Arab bloc, led by Saudi Arabia, walked out of a meeting on finance, according to one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“They’re using dirty tricks to stop progress on the fossil fuel phaseout,” said Jake Schmidt, the senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Saudi Arabia has a long history of throwing sand in the gears of climate talks. In fact, one reason that the U.N. climate body operates by consensus, with any one country able to block a deal, is that Saudi Arabia demanded those rules at the first climate summit in 1992 and has fought to maintain them ever since.
The Saudi delegation is dominated by members of the country’s Energy Ministry, which is closely associated with the state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco. As recently as last year it pushed, along with Russia, to delete a reference to “human-induced climate change” from a U.N. scientific document, effectively challenging the scientific fact that burning fossil fuels causes climate change.
Saudi officials have in the past argued that phasing out fossil fuels is unrealistic, calling the idea a form of moral grandstanding by countries that appear unable to follow through on their pledges. Frustrated Saudi citizens often point out that oil production in the United States is surging and that, during the energy crisis brought on by the war in Ukraine, some European countries turned to coal-fired power plants.
In 2021, Prince Abdulaziz, the Saudi energy minister, famously dismissed as a fantasy the strategy laid out by the International Energy Agency for nations to reach a point by 2050 where they would stop adding emissions to the atmosphere. He likened it to a sequel to “La La Land,” the musical film.
Despite decades of trying to break the so-called “resource curse,” Saudi Arabia remains highly dependent on revenue from fossil fuels to sustain its economy, its government budget and its political stability.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is spending tens of billions of dollars to try to diversify the Saudi economy, investing in industries like renewable energy, tourism, entertainment and artificial intelligence.
Paradoxically, that means the government needs its oil revenue to fund its plans for life after oil, analysts say. Officials expect budget shortfalls every year through 2026, partly because of a decline in oil revenue.
Saudi officials often say they see no contradiction between moving toward a future focused on renewable energy, addressing climate change and continuing to export the kingdom’s oil, which they and other major oil producers say the world will need for many years to come, if not for energy, then for petrochemicals.
At COP28, visitors to Saudi Arabia’s exhibit are greeted by illuminated green lettering that proclaims, “Here we write the future.” A flashy panoramic projection of forests planted in the desert and business owners eager to talk about green initiatives amplify the message: This is the new Saudi Arabia.
But the question, analysts said, is whether the Saudi diplomats inside the rooms are ready to shift away from their old positions.
Somini Sengupta, Jenny Gross and Max Bearak contributed reporting from Dubai.