Saudi Arabia, Wikileaks and Climate Diplomacy

For those with time to look beyond the boundaries of the Moon Palace and Cancun Messe, you may have come across a story about Wikileaks giving greater transparency to some internal US cables. Among those relating to climate was the observation by the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
‘Saudi officials are very concerned that a climate change treaty would significantly reduce their income just as they face significant costs to diversify their economy,’ he wrote. ‘The King is particularly sensitive to avoid Saudi Arabia being singled out as the bad actor, particularly on environmental issues.
Saudi Arabia faces real challenge in diversifying its economy away from pumping black liquids from under its sands.  It’s easier to graduate to new products similar to those already in production than to make leaps into completely new lines of business. Furthermore, oil is a particularly difficult sector to diversify from. And the nation has a young population, which creates job creation challenges that addiction to oil export doesn’t address.
In the face of these difficulties, Saudi Arabia is making real efforts to diversify its economy. Even those most devoted to oil can see how the rest of the world is moving towards a low carbon future, although not at all as quickly as ECO, or any climate scientist, knows they should.
The Kingdom is making some exciting moves, such as founding King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which will build the ranks of scientists and engineers.  This also is leading to a stronger RD&D base, including climate modeling and “the stresses arising [on Red Sea coral reef systems] from natural as well as anthropogenic factors including . . climate change.” (Clearly the university gets it, even if the negotiators here don’t). And importantly, the country is also investing heavily in solar research.
So if the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is trying to develop a low-carbon and economically-diverse future, why is it working just as hard to hold the world back from making progress on climate change?
The Wikileaks cables also record the the view of the US ambassador that ‘Saudi officials have suggested that they need to find a way to climb down gracefully from the country’s tough negotiating position. More sustained engagement in co-ordination with other governments, particularly if pitched as an effort to develop partnership, may help them do so.
If Saudi Arabia is so concerned about criticism yet keen to develop in new ways, ECO respectfully offers a few ideas for changing their stance in the negotiations here and now and leave its negative reputation on climate issues in the past. To this end, the Kingdom could:

  • See the global transition to a global low carbon future as an opportunity.  By investing its existing fossil wealth wisely, the Kingdom has much to offer,
  • Develop a long-term vision of its post-oil future as a low-carbon economy, drawing on its incredible solar resource.  And it should work in partnership with other countries to realize that vision.
  • Stop linking response measures/spillover effects to adaptation.  Such distasteful negotiating tactics do not make friends and can endanger lives.
  • Support bringing pledges from the Copenhagen Accord into the UNFCCC as the basis for further discussion through 2011.
  • Stop blocking the 1.5o C review proposed by AOSIS as well as other initiatives to increase mitigation ambition. 

That way, among other important things, Saudi Arabia’s stunning coral reefs and highly productive (and carbon sequestering) mangrove forests and seagrasses can survive the oil age.

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