Credit: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

Inside the campaign that put an oil boss in charge of a climate summit

Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the UAE’s national oil company, secured the COP28 presidency despite questions over his green credentials.

Ben is a British investigative reporter based in New York City working for the Centre for Climate Reporting. He investigates the tools used by multinational corporations, authoritarian regimes and wealthy individuals to retain power and his work has been featured in some of the world’s biggest news outlets, such as The New York Times, the Guardian and the LA Times. He was previously a reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

October 25, 2023


John Kerry looked on from the front row as Sultan Al Jaber of the United Arab Emirates took to the stage in Abu Dhabi in January. Next to Kerry on the plush white chairs reserved for VIPs were senior figures from the Emirati, British, and U.S. governments. It was Al Jaber’s first public appearance since being appointed president of this year’s Conference of the Parties, COP28, the United Nations annual climate summit.

Al Jaber wore a sage green kandura, round glasses, and a white headdress. He spoke slowly and deliberately, laying out his vision for COP28, which will be held in the UAE in December. But his assured manner belied the barrage of criticism he was facing in the press.

Al Jaber is not just this year’s COP president. He also heads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, known as Adnoc. It is the first time any CEO, let alone one from the fossil fuel industry, has been COP president. The announcement was met with fury from climate activists. Kerry, meanwhile, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, appeared nonplussed.

During his speech at the Global Energy Forum — an event the Atlantic Council, an American think tank, has hosted in the UAE for the past six years — Al Jaber said that when the time comes, the oil-rich nation will celebrate “the last barrel of oil.” He spoke about his time leading the UAE’s state-owned renewable energy company Masdar and called for “practical solutions” to the climate crisis at COP28.

What he didn’t say was that as CEO of Adnoc, he is currently overseeing a major expansion of the company’s oil and gas output. And the oil company’s staff has played a critical role in shaping the summit. At least a dozen Adnoc employees have been appointed to roles on the hosting team, including two staffers designated as negotiators for the UAE. The fossil fuel industry has been deeply involved in the annual COPs since they began in the 1990s, sending hundreds of lobbyists each year, as The Intercept previously reported. But this year, the industry is closer than ever to one of the most important international climate forums.

“The Consultant must not allow negative impressions to take hold, especially in the runup to COP28.”

When he left the stage, Al Jaber returned to the vacant seat next to Kerry, who stood to shake his hand. Kerry has met with Al Jaber more than a dozen times since taking up the role of U.S. climate envoy in 2021, more than he has met with almost any other foreign official. A few days after the Global Energy Forum, Kerry described Al Jaber as a “terrific choice” to lead the summit.

Al Jaber’s first speech as COP28 president had many of the hallmarks of his closely choreographed public appearances: an event organized by a respected international institution; foreign dignitaries in the audience; no questions afterward. It was followed by a press release sent out to scores of journalists by Edelman, a major U.S. public relations firm.

Al Jaber’s reputation has been shaped by some of the world’s most influential PR agencies, which have used his roles as CEO and chair of the UAE’s renewable energy company and visionary behind the futuristic Masdar City to make him the face of the country’s fight against climate change.

The Centre for Climate Reporting and Drilled, in collaboration with The Intercept, reviewed hundreds of pages of U.S. Justice Department filings and internal communications strategy documents that reveal the careful curation of Al Jaber’s image over the years. We also interviewed a number of Al Jaber’s former colleagues and advisers, who asked that their names be withheld for fear of professional repercussions. Despite stalled progress on Al Jaber’s acclaimed eco-city and questions over his green credentials as he ramps up oil and gas production, PR agencies and consultants secured him the support of global leaders and institutions and placed him at the helm of COP28.

The fixer

Al Jaber wears many hats. In addition to being a Cabinet minister and chair of Masdar, he has spent the past three years serving as both an oil boss and the UAE’s special envoy for climate change — positions that many would see as diametrically opposed. His supporters point to this as an asset, reflecting an ability to bridge the gap between the fossil fuel industry and the climate movement. But even before his presidency was announced, Al Jaber was wary of what the media might say.

Most of the major news outlets in the UAE are state-owned or controlled by press groups with ties to the government. Al Jaber is more comfortable than most with the local press; he previously served as chair of the National Media Council. The international press poses an entirely different challenge. Without the ability to control what he’s asked or how he’s portrayed, Al Jaber has relied on the help of highly paid consultants to manage his image.

They have built Al Jaber a reputation as a dependable technocrat, a “fixer.” One of the UAE’s “objectives” for COP28 has been to position Al Jaber as a “climate action leader” and “consensus-enabler,” an internal document from the office of the UAE’s climate envoy shows.

But behind closed doors, Al Jaber is said to be an exacting boss with a domineering approach. Two former COP28 team members claimed Al Jaber once threw a laptop at a wall in a fit of anger; one of them said he had a reputation as a “bully.” COP staff and the PR agencies he’s hired to help with the summit have been expected work around the clock, and morale has hit rock bottom, according to three sources who worked with the COP team.

Al Jaber declined to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to questions about his behavior toward staff members.

The COP presidency is supposed to be impartial, and critics are concerned that the person with the power to shape summit negotiations will not be able to separate himself from his duties as CEO of an oil company undertaking a major expansion. Al Jaber has rebuffed calls to step down from Adnoc, insisting there is no conflict of interest. But the line between the oil company and COP28 has “blurred,” one former summit staffer said. At one point, the COP team was working out of Adnoc headquarters.

Concerned about crossover, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international body that oversees the COP process, sent questions to the team in January to ensure a firewall was in place, querying whether staff from the oil company had access to COP28 strategic documents. Yet Adnoc employees were still being consulted on how to respond to media inquiries about the summit as recently as June, according to reporting by The Guardian.

One of Al Jaber’s advisers at Adnoc was signing off on communications leaving the COP28 team while still employed at the oil company, according to people who worked with him. While attending a U.N. conference in June, Oliver Phillips registered as a representative of Adnoc. But according to two sources who worked on COP28 communications, Phillips had already played a key role in steering PR efforts for the summit.

Phillips doesn’t declare any affiliation with the oil company on his LinkedIn account, which states that the former CNN and MSNBC producer has been a senior adviser at the UAE’s climate envoy office and the ministry Al Jaber oversees since 2015. But multiple sources said that until recently, Phillips was an employee of Adnoc.

COP28 spokesperson Alan VanderMolen said that Phillips is “now working full-time” on the summit. He did not respond to questions about when Phillips’s employment with the oil company ended. Neither Phillips nor Adnoc responded to requests for comment.

VanderMolen defended Al Jaber’s qualifications to lead the climate summit. “It is in our common interest to have someone with deep experience across the entire energy value chain in this role,” VanderMolen said. “His experience as a climate diplomat, serving two terms as the UAE’s climate envoy and attending over 10 previous COPs, makes him ideally suited to lead a consensus-driven process.”

“The COP28 presidency has its own independent office, staff, and a standalone IT system,” VanderMolen added. “The COP28 staff are separate from any other entity and operate in coordination with the UNFCCC.”

Since the UAE began its bid to host the summit, major players in the PR industry have also been involved in handling communications for the COP28 team, including APCO, Burson Cohn & Wolfe, Edelman, and Teneo. Even the agencies have struggled to see the line between COP28 and Al Jaber’s other roles. Some agencies acting on behalf of COP28 were engaged by Adnoc and Masdar rather than the COP team, according to sources with direct knowledge and filings with the U.S. Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which requires U.S. companies to report their dealings with foreign governments.

Lindsay Clifton, former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee and deputy press secretary for President Donald Trump, was recently included on a list of Edelman staff working on Al Jaber’s COP team, according to an internal communications strategy document. At the White House, she defended Trump’s stance on climate change as his administration rolled back policies intended to help abate global heating. Clifton has been working at Edelman since 2019 and is now managing director of its global advisory arm. She was listed as Al Jaber’s direct “media support” during the U.N. General Assembly in September, the strategy document indicates. Clifton did not respond to requests for comment.

COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber addressed the U.N. General Assembly in September. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

It’s not the first time a COP summit has been held in a petrostate; Qatar, another Middle Eastern nation, hosted in 2012. But Al Jaber’s role as both summit president and Adnoc CEO is unprecedented. Amnesty International labeled it a conflict of interest and said Al Jaber was “unfit” to lead the climate talks, while activists have compared his appointment to putting a tobacco company in charge of an anti-smoking campaign. Former Vice President Al Gore characterized his presidency as a sign that the fossil fuel industry has “brazenly seized control” of the COP process. In May, 130 U.S. and EU lawmakers signed a letter calling for Al Jaber to be removed from his post.

Melissa Aronczyk, media studies professor at Rutgers University and co-author of “A Strategic Nature,” a book about the history of environmental PR, said the increased fossil fuel presence at COP is part of the industry’s decadeslong attempt to avoid regulation. “Working with U.S. PR firms, oil and gas companies, car companies, and petrochemical companies all conspired 30 years ago to create campaigns and programs around ‘sustainability’ with the goal of telling the world that the fossil fuel industry was helping to ‘solve’ the problem of environmental degradation and climate change,” Aronczyk said. “It’s very clear by now that when companies set their own targets and create their own rules, the outcome spells disaster.”

Al Jaber has never seen his green credentials so publicly questioned. But ever since he emerged as the UAE’s climate advocate, he has been searching for a solution to a difficult puzzle: How do you convince the world that a petrostate is genuinely interested in addressing climate change?

The COP28 team has already parted ways with three major PR firms, including Edelman, whose contract was abruptly terminated in April. In August, the UAE brought in reinforcements, hiring a small New Jersey-based strategic communications firm called First International Resources to “counteract all negative press and media reports,” according to FARA filings first reported by the Washington Post. “The consultant must not allow negative impressions to take hold, especially in the runup to COP28,” the contract states. COP28 confirmed that Teneo and Edelman, which was recently rehired, are currently working on the summit. APCO and Burson Cohn & Wolfe, whose contracts were terminated, did not respond to requests for comment.

For Kerry, Al Jaber’s sensitivity to criticism is a plus point. “If he can’t get this done, if oil and gas won’t show up and do something real here, then the UAE will look really bad, and he knows it,” Kerry said. “They’re going to have to fight a little bit, but if they do, they could be the all-time catalyst.”

US special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, with COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber at the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi in January. Credit: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

"Amazing, isn’t it?"

In a nation where power is typically held by a select group of royal families, Al Jaber was not destined for leadership. After a brief stint as an engineer for Adnoc, he was tapped to work for the energy platform of one of the UAE’s sovereign wealth funds, Mubadala. In 2006, he was promoted to CEO of the program and his rise in public life began — just as the country’s rulers reeled from an international PR disaster.

The government-owned Dubai Ports World had been set to spend billions of dollars to take over the management of several major American ports. But a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., argued the purchase threatened national security. Their campaign effectively killed the deal.

“This was a transformational moment for the UAE. … They were completely blindsided,” said Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London. “It was a wake-up call for everyone in Abu Dhabi to actually say, ‘Look, we need to invest more into influence and shaping perception.’”

In his early 30s, Al Jaber was chosen to be the first CEO of Masdar, the renewable energy company funded by the UAE government. He fit the mold of a new type of Emirati statesman, which had been shaped by the embarrassment of the ports affair. He had studied in the United Kingdom and the United States and represented to the world that the authoritarian UAE was in fact a modern meritocracy.

Masdar was the first step in a long-term plan that was supposed to lead the oil-rich country away from fossil fuels. The company promised to plow billions of dollars into clean energy. But Krieg believes Masdar had a more covert purpose. “It’s a tool of economic statecraft,” he said. “It’s about pouring money into a country to gain strategic leverage in the long run.”

A year after Al Jaber became CEO, Masdar inked a lucrative contract with Edelman to help promote one of its flagship projects: Masdar City, a proposed zero-carbon “city of the future” in the Abu Dhabi desert.

With plans drawn up by a top British architectural firm, Masdar City would be built on 6 square kilometers of scrubland not far from the Abu Dhabi airport. General Electric announced that it would open the world’s first Ecomagination Center there to showcase next-generation technologies, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched the MIT and Masdar Institute Cooperative Program, focused on innovation in alternative energy.

The money Al Jaber spent on Edelman paid off. The agency managed to convince White House staff to add a visit to review plans for Masdar City to George W. Bush’s final foreign trip as president.

“Amazing, isn’t it? This country has gotten its wealth from the ground and is now reinvesting in alternative forms of energy,” Bush remarked as he and Al Jaber stood before the media. “I hope that my visit shines a spotlight on the Middle East … and shows people the truth about what life is like here in the UAE.”

When Al Jaber was invited to speak in front of a congressional select committee in 2008, Sen. Ed Markey (who was recently among the lawmakers calling for Al Jaber’s removal as COP28 president) heaped praise on Masdar City, saying it represented “the future of green communities.”

“Make no mistake, Masdar is our new Sputnik. It should be a wake-up call to America and a challenge to each of us,” the Massachusetts senator said.

In 2009, Al Jaber faced the first true test of his international PR campaign. He announced that the UAE would “aggressively pursue” a bid to host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency, or IRENA, at Masdar City. The campaign was officially overseen by the country’s then-minister of foreign affairs, but Al Jaber was managing day-to-day operations, according to a person involved in the campaign. Little would be left to chance. He brought on heavyweight Democratic campaigner Jim Margolis and his strategic communications firm GMMB, which had just helped Barack Obama take the White House.

GMMB and Edelman worked in concert to run an enormous global campaign. Edelman tracked how each member country might vote on a “whip grid” and researched how much aid the UAE was sending those countries. When a country said they would vote for the UAE, Edelman sent personalized thank you notes.

GMMB handled the marketing materials, which included promotional videos, a glossy pitch book, speeches, and presentations. When the date of the vote finally arrived and delegates arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, GMMB arranged for a video promoting Masdar City to be played in their hotel rooms. The UAE reportedly offered twice as much money to help run IRENA as its closest rival, Germany. Included in the UAE’s funding was a $1 million contract for Edelman to work with the agency, according to FARA filings. The UAE won the vote.

As Edelman built Masdar’s reputation, the energy company promised to deliver on more and more renewable projects. It pledged to invest $2 billion into thin-film photovoltaics manufacturing for solar panels, and when Shell announced that it was pulling out of the London Array project in the U.K. — one of the world’s largest offshore wind farms — Masdar stepped in and purchased a 20 percent stake.

Al Jaber was founding CEO of Masdar and became chair — the position he still holds — in 2014. He was also CEO of the energy platform for Mubadala, the UAE’s strategic investment arm, making him the person most responsible for building out renewable energy in the UAE for more than a decade. In 2015, Masdar was part of an IRENA-led group that committed to doubling global renewable energy capacity by 2030. The same year, the UAE government pledged that 24 percent of its entire energy mix would come from renewables and nuclear energy by 2021.

According to the Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency, only 2 percent of the UAE’s total energy mix was derived from renewables and nuclear by 2021. Masdar, on the other hand, made slow but steady progress. From 2006 to August 2020, the company was involved with projects delivering around 5 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity worldwide. As 2020 came to a close and the campaign to secure COP hosting rights began, that number suddenly doubled in press statements, although there were no project announcements that accounted for the sudden increase. In late 2022, in the months leading up to Al Jaber’s appointment as COP28 president, Masdar’s claimed renewable energy capacity doubled again, this time to more than 20 GW.

The company declined to explain these numbers, but its 2021 sustainability report sheds some light on Masdar’s rapid growth. More than half comes not from developing new projects, which would add to global renewable energy capacity, but from acquiring stakes in existing projects, and from a strategic partnership the company inked with Mubadala, Adnoc, and the UAE’s power and water utility. In his chair statement for the report, Al Jaber wrote that this partnership, finalized in 2022, would allow Masdar to “almost double its renewable energy capacity overnight.”

Masdar noted that the partnership would “have a combined current, committed, and exclusive capacity of over 23 GW of renewable energy.” But moving capacity numbers from one balance sheet to another is not building new renewable energy capacity.

It’s about pouring money into a country to gain strategic leverage in the long run.

When asked what he thought of Masdar’s and the UAE’s progress on renewables, Kerry responded only, “Ugh, I know.”

Al Jaber’s supporters have pointed to his work with Masdar and Masdar City as proof of what he might do for COP: map a pathway for a profitable transition off fossil fuels that the industry can get behind. But if Masdar City is the exemplar, climate advocates are right to be concerned about Al Jaber’s ability to deliver real emissions reductions.

According to Federico Cugurullo, a geography professor at Trinity College, Dublin, who focuses on urban sustainability and has conducted extensive research in Masdar City, the goal of the project is to generate revenue for the UAE via the development and sale of clean-tech products, so “when environmental or social goals are at odds with those profits, they are quickly abandoned.”

The city was initially planned to be car-free and fully reliant on an electrified personal rapid transit system. But because most people who work in Masdar City opt to live in Abu Dhabi, and because Masdar has partnered with various automotive companies interested in conducting electric vehicle research, the car-free idea was scrapped and the PRT proposal scaled back.

“Masdar City stopped being a laboratory for alternative transport and embraced a traditional car-friendly layout to support partnerships with automakers,” Cugurullo said. In his case study, he quoted a Masdar Initiative manager on that decision: “The PRT costs a fortune and Masdar City is not an environmental crusade.” Plans for the city to be zero-carbon and zero-waste were also scaled back to cut costs.

“The podium at the core of the city remains car-free, and visitors can use several shared electric transportation options,” Amy Robertson, communications manager for Masdar City, said. “The rest of the UAE is still largely dependent on private vehicles, however, and Masdar City’s master plan takes those social norms into account.”

“A ‘green’ city is not truly sustainable if it does not meet community needs, and if it is not financially viable,” Robertson added.

“It’s not wrong to take into account the economics of sustainable developments,” Cugurullo said. “But it is wrong if that is the only focus of your projects, and that was the case with Masdar City.”

Al Jaber’s green pedigree continued to grow, even after he took over the national oil company in 2016 — the same year that Masdar City was supposed to have been completed. Instead, the government had downgraded its commitments and announced that the project would be completed by 2030. Maybe.

Sultan Al Jaber graduated from the University of Southern California with a BSc in Chemical Engineering in 1997. Credit: USC Alumni Association

Friends in high places

Following the announcement of his COP28 presidency, Al Jaber set off across the globe on a monthslong “listening tour.” He met with politicians, business leaders, and public figures, including King Charles III, Emmanuel Macron, Michael Bloomberg, and of course, Kerry.

Al Jaber has long recognized the importance of surrounding himself with credible allies; engaging “thought leaders” was a key task for Edelman during its early work on the Masdar account. Masdar’s money put Al Jaber into partnerships with the likes of GE, Siemens, and Mitsubishi, and Edelman’s Rolodex put him into rooms with the elite of Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C.

By 2010, Al Jaber was the UAE’s special envoy on climate change and attending COP16 in Cancun, where he met Kerry, then Massachusetts senator. The two have since been photographed together innumerable times. Their seemingly close relationship is part of a broader collaboration on climate change: Last year, the U.S. and the UAE launched the Partnership for Accelerating Clean Energy, which promised to mobilize $100 billion in funding for renewable energy. Kerry was among the first to come out in defense of Al Jaber’s COP presidency.

“I think he and his team are committed to bringing other oil and gas interests to the table in a real way and I think we need that,” Kerry said.

During the U.N. General Assembly in September, Edelman worked with the COP28 team to find influential figures to voice their support for the UAE’s efforts on the summit, according to an internal communications strategy document. Dubbed “validators,” the targets included Bill Gates, BlackRock’s Larry Fink, and German climate envoy and former Greenpeace head Jennifer Morgan.

Other prominent acquaintances who have endorsed Al Jaber include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose government consultancy firm has a long track record of working for the UAE. Bloomberg, the U.N. special envoy for climate ambition and solutions, took to the pages of his eponymous publication to scold those criticizing the appointment and point to Al Jaber’s time as CEO of Masdar as proof that he was the right man for the job.

Bloomberg has also attached his philanthropic arm, Bloomberg Philanthropies, to Al Jaber’s presidency and is partnering with Al Jaber on an initiative to include mayors and local priorities in the COP28 agenda. Bloomberg Philanthropies staffers and campaigners, who asked that their names be withheld, said many people in the organization, which has a major focus on climate, think it’s a conflict of interest to support an oil boss as the head of COP.

Meanwhile, the head of the Atlantic Council, Fred Kempe, who introduced Al Jaber to the Global Energy Forum stage, wrote an op-ed for CNBC that described him as “the ideal person” to lead the summit. Kempe failed to declare that his organization had received millions of dollars in funding from the UAE, and that Adnoc and Masdar are both sponsors of the think tank’s energy forum. The op-ed was later amended with a note stating that “the obvious conflict of interest” was not disclosed to CNBC prior to publication.

The COP Presidency rotates among the five recognized UN regions and is supposed to be impartial, but Sultan Al Jaber has rebuffed calls to step down from his position as CEO of Adnoc. Credit: UN Photo

Adnoc becomes an oil major

As the Masdar City project ground to a snail’s pace, the UAE’s crown prince set Al Jaber a new challenge: modernize one of the country’s most important assets, the national oil company. By this point, Al Jaber had become “one of the most powerful men in the country,” according to Krieg, the security studies lecturer.

His appointment as Adnoc CEO came at a time of shifting narratives in the fossil fuel industry: Oil and gas companies were pitching themselves as allies in the fight against climate change, a trend that had largely bypassed the state-owned players.

Al Jaber hired Adnoc’s first communications team, bringing on Omar Zaafrani, the man he’d tasked with forging international partnerships at Masdar. By the end of 2017, the oil company had contracted three external PR firms — Burson Cohn & Wolfe, APCO, and Teneo, all of which would later work on COP28 — to show the world that Adnoc was no longer “a sleeping giant” but an efficient, responsive operation ripe for investment.

In essence, Al Jaber wanted Adnoc to act less like a state-owned behemoth and more like an oil major. “It is a bold, new, and ambitious approach,” he said at the time. “One that will allow Adnoc to compete, lead, and thrive in the new energy era.” He is currently overseeing a $150 billion expansion plan centered around ramping up Adnoc’s oil and gas production. The company began drilling in partnership with international oil companies for the first time in 2018 and accelerated its timeline in 2022. By last month, it had hit 4.5 million barrels per day, making it the third largest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the seventh largest in the world.

Despite this, under Al Jaber’s leadership, Adnoc has pushed its credentials as “one of the least carbon-intensive oil and gas companies in the world.” Last year, it even considered dropping the word “oil” from its name as part of a green rebrand ahead of COP28. Adnoc has plans to reach net-zero operational emissions by 2045. The plans depend heavily on carbon capture, where the greenhouse gas is collected and stored instead of being released into the atmosphere, meaning the burning of oil would not need to be phased out as quickly. But the technology has not yet been scaled to meaningful levels, and the need to phase out fossil fuels is increasingly urgent.

In 2021, when Al Jaber spearheaded the bid to host COP28, the UAE again turned to GMMB. At a summit in Abu Dhabi that April with representatives from across the Middle East, Kerry allegedly urged the participating countries to support the UAE’s bid and sang the praises of the country’s efforts in sustainable development “via big communications operations organized by GMMB,” according to a report by Intelligence Online, which cited anonymous sources. The same month, Adnoc hired APCO for “strategic communications and media relations services within the United States to represent the UAE’s climate envoy,” according to FARA filings.

When companies want a seat at the table where climate policy is at stake, it’s primarily so they can control what happens

Al Jaber’s COP28 presidency has become emblematic of a deeper rift among those involved in international climate diplomacy. The Adnoc CEO’s supporters maintain that oil companies are a necessary partner for a successful transition to clean energy. But after decades of lobbying, spin, and deceit, some now question whether the fossil fuel industry can ever be an ally in the fight against the climate crisis.

Christiana Figueres, longtime executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and architect of the Paris climate accord, has publicly revoked her support of the industry. “When I saw them making record profits in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I thought, ‘Terrific, now they have plenty of capital to invest in the energy transition,’” she said. “But instead, they dug in their heels and doubled down on fossil fuel growth.”

“When companies want a seat at the table where climate policy is at stake, it’s primarily so they can control what happens,” Aronczyk, the media studies professor, said. “Having the head of an oil company presiding over COP28 represents the culmination of 30-plus years of capitulation to the power and money of the fossil fuel industry.”

To date only about 2 of the planned 6 square kilometers of Masdar City have been built. Masdar’s chief operating officer has admitted that “the plug was more or less quietly pulled” on the idea of 6 square kilometers as early as 2008, after the financial crash — before Edelman and GMMB had even begun to promote Masdar City as “the world’s most ambitious sustainable development.” Less than half of the promised $22 billion investment has been spent.

Yet the site is still used as a shining example of the UAE’s transformation. APCO says it has facilitated visits for Ban Ki-moon, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Narendra Modi, and Joe Biden. Last year, the Atlantic Council paid for U.S. congressional aides to travel there.

Once touted by Al Jaber as “a blueprint for cities around the world striving for sustainability,” Masdar City risks becoming a ghost town. Fifteen thousand people currently work and live there, according to Robertson, the communications manager, who did not clarify how many live in the development versus commute. At best, that’s 25,000 below the goal that was announced in 2008. GE shuttered the Ecomagination Center in 2018. And while Masdar City boasts plenty of solar panels, the city’s planners say it won’t be fully renewable until construction is complete. Far from being a zero-carbon, car-free eco-utopia, Masdar City is fossil fuel-dependent and car-centric.

“Masdar City is not built on sand, it is built on oil,” Cugurullo, the urban sustainability expert, said. “Black is the color that sustains this supposedly green city.”

Al Jaber’s critics worry the same will be true of the UAE’s climate summit.