Saudi Arabia denies sabotaging COP26 talks

·4-min read

The tightest of smiles on his face and the fabric of his traditional dress swirling as he strides through a hallway at UN climate talks, Saudi Arabia's energy minister expresses shock at repeated complaints the world's largest oil producer is working behind the scenes to sabotage negotiations.

"What you have been hearing is a false allegation and a cheat and a lie," Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman al Saud said this week at the talks in Glasgow.

He was responding to journalists pressing for a response to claims Saudi Arabia's negotiators have been working to block climate measures that would threaten demand for oil.

"We have been working well" with the head of the COP26 UN climate talks and others, Prince Abdulaziz said.

Australia and Russia are lumped in with Saudi Arabia at the talks as countries that see their futures as dependent on coal, natural gas or oil and as working for a Glasgow climate deal that does not threaten that.

Negotiators from about 200 countries face a weekend deadline to find consensus on steps to cut the world's fossil-fuel emissions and otherwise combat climate change.

Saudi Arabia's participation in climate talks can seem incongruous - a kingdom that has become wealthy and powerful because of oil involved in negotiations where a core issue is reducing consumption of oil and other fossil fuels.

While pledging to join emission-cutting efforts at home, Saudi leaders have made clear they intend to pump and sell their oil as long as demand lasts.

Saudi Arabia's team in Glasgow has introduced proposals ranging from a call to quit negotiations - they often stretch into the early hours - by 6pm every day, to what negotiation veterans allege are complex efforts to play country factions against one another with the aim of blocking agreement on tough steps to wrench the world away from coal, gas and oil.

That is the Saudis' approach, Jennifer Tollmann, an analyst at climate think tank E3G, says - to suggest shortened days and "just accept that this is not going to be ambitious".

And then "if other countries want to agree with Saudi, they can blame Saudi Arabia", Tollmann says.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and head of a group of senior political leaders on climate, told The Associated Press on Thursday that Russia and Saudi Arabia "are pushing back hard" to block any mention in the final deal out of Glasgow of working to phase out coal, or to reduce government subsidies for fossil fuels.

Saudi Arabia has long been accused of playing a spoiler in the climate talks, and this year it is the main country singled out so far by negotiators, speaking privately, and observers.

Despite efforts to diversify the economy, oil accounts for more than half of Saudi Arabia's revenue. About half of Saudi employees work for the public sector, their salaries paid in large part by oil.

And there's China, whose dependence on coal makes it the world's current biggest climate polluter. It argues it cannot switch to cleaner energy as fast as the West says it must, although the United States and China did jointly pledge to speed up their efforts to cut emissions.

Not surprisingly, island nations that would disappear under the rising oceans at a higher level of warming are those pushing hardest for the most stringent deal out of COP26.

Meanwhile, climate advocates accuse the United States and European Union of so far failing to throw their weight behind the demands of the island nations, although the US and EU often wait until the last few days of climate talks to take hard stands.

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of the Greenpeace environmental group, said other governments need "to isolate the Saudi delegation" if they want the climate conference to succeed..

Saudi Arabia was fine with joining in governments' climate-pledge fever before the talks.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in the runup to Glasgow the kingdom would zero out its carbon emissions by 2060.

But the nation's leaders have for years vowed to pump the last molecule of oil from their kingdom before world demand ends - an objective that a fast global switch from fossil fuels would frustrate.

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