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COP28 president secretly used climate summit role to push oil trade with foreign government officials

Leaked documents reveal COP28 president and UAE national oil company boss Sultan Al Jaber’s plans to discuss boosting fossil fuel business in bilateral meetings about the climate summit.

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.

November 27, 2023


The United Arab Emirates’ COP28 president, Sultan Al Jaber, sought to lobby on oil and gas deals during meetings with foreign governments about the UN climate summit, according to a cache of internal records leaked by a whistleblower.

Al Jaber, who has continued his role as CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) despite calls for him to step down during his COP presidency, has held scores of meetings with senior government officials, royalty and business leaders from around the world in recent months. The COP28 team has quietly planned to use this access as an opportunity to increase exports of Adnoc’s oil and gas, briefings prepared ahead of those meetings obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting (CCR) reveal.

The leaked documents include more than 150 pages of briefings prepared by the COP28 team for meetings held by Al Jaber between July and October of this year, which CCR has decided to publish in part below. They offer an extraordinary insight into the private discussions between the COP president and prominent government figures attending the UN summit in Dubai, which starts later this week.

CCR, working alongside the BBC, verified the authenticity of the documents leaked by the whistleblower, who came forward on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Our investigation confirmed that on at least one occasion a nation followed up on commercial discussions brought up in a meeting with Al Jaber; a source with knowledge of discussions also told CCR that Adnoc’s business interests were allegedly raised during a meeting with another country.

But it is not clear on exactly how many occasions Al Jaber and his colleagues discussed the talking points in COP28 meetings with foreign governments. Briefings prepared ahead of meetings suggest he planned to raise commercial interests with almost 30 countries. More than a dozen of them contacted by the BBC and CCR did not respond to requests for comment. Several countries denied discussing commercial interests with Al Jaber despite the talking points appearing on briefings prepared ahead of the meetings; five others said that no meetings took place.

Prof Michael Jacobs of Sheffield University, who is an expert on climate politics, said the COP28 president’s actions looked “breathtakingly hypocritical”.

“As a COP president you should not represent any national or commercial interest, it is your job to lead the world”

“The UAE at the moment is the custodian of a United Nations process aimed at reducing global emissions. And yet, in the very same meetings where it’s apparently trying to pursue that goal, it’s actually trying to do side deals which will increase global emissions.”

The COP28 team did not deny using bilateral meetings about the summit for business talks. Responding to the allegations, a COP28 spokesperson said: “Dr Sultan [Al Jaber] holds a number of positions alongside his role as COP28 President-Designate. That is public knowledge. Private meetings are private, and we do not comment on them.”

As well as the briefings, CCR has also seen internal emails and meeting records which raise serious questions about the COP28 team’s independence from Adnoc. Summit team staffers have been told talking points from the two companies Al Jaber is involved in running – Adnoc and the UAE state-owned renewable energy company, Masdar – “always need to be included,” according to emails seen and verified by CCR. The COP28 team said it was “simply untrue” that staff had been told this.

In statements to CCR and other media outlets, the team has repeatedly denied allegations of undue influence by the oil company. For instance, a summit spokesperson told CCR in September that “the COP28 staff are separate from any other entity” and that the presidency’s “operations are fully independent and autonomous.” But the leaked briefings, emails and meeting records paint a different picture. After questions from CCR, a spokesperson also confirmed that one senior member of the summit team who has been deeply involved in diplomatic efforts, COP28’s director of government affairs Mohammed Al Kaabi, works across Al Jaber’s “entire portfolio”.

Another whistleblower who also spoke to CCR on the condition of anonymity corroborated claims about the ongoing role of Adnoc. Both whistleblowers described Al Kaabi as one of Al Jaber’s key summit staffers, even though he appears to have an ongoing role at Adnoc. Internal emails seen by CCR also support their allegations that COP28 staff are in regular contact with oil company employees, who produce talking points about Adnoc targeted to specific countries at the summit team’s request. Talking points are also requested from the renewable energy company Masdar, of which Al Jaber is chairman. These are then incorporated into Al Jaber’s briefings ahead of meetings with foreign government officials.

A former COP president and other experts on UN climate negotiations said that COP presidents should never make their own or their country’s commercial interests part of the climate talks.

“As a COP president you should not represent any national or commercial interest, it is your job to lead the world,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the president of the COP20 summit in Lima in 2014.

“You can’t represent the interests of a country or a business because it will undermine confidence and trust in the presidency.”

The meetings

During the Pre-COP diplomatic gathering in Dubai last month, Al Jaber held meetings with several government officials, including those from Germany, the US and Italy. According to the COP28 website, the event was supposed to be “a key opportunity for the world to unite behind a collective ambition to transform the global response to the climate crisis.” Despite hopes among some that it might kickstart the process of agreeing a phase out of fossil fuels, briefings prepared for Al Jaber ahead of his meetings on the sidelines of Pre-COP reveal his secret plans to discuss how Adnoc can increase the billions of dollars of trade it does with some of these countries.

For instance, a briefing prepared ahead of Al Jaber’s meeting during Pre-COP with China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Zhao Yingmin, stated Adnoc has a “strategic partnership” with the country, with sales and trading worth $15bn in the past year. It “remains a committed energy partner to China” and the briefing raised the possibility of partnering on more international gas projects.

“Private meetings are private, and we do not comment on them”

“ADNOC, as a reliable provider of energy and products, stands ready to support the supply of petrochemicals to Egypt,” Al Jaber’s briefing for a meeting with the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sameh Shoukty, stated. Meanwhile, the discussion points for meetings with officials from Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Venezuela all included the same phrase: “There is no conflict between sustainable development of any country’s natural resources and its commitment to climate change.”

Other planned talking points during the Pre-COP event included: Adnoc’s diesel and jet fuel supply to Kenya; the UAE’s desire to get off the Brazilian “tax haven list” to facilitate new investments from Masdar; the “potential monetization of Venezuelan resources” since the “relaxing of US energy sanctions”; and how Adnoc and Masdar can “accelerate the partnership” to help Azerbaijan realise its vision of being a “secure energy hub for Europe, exporting natural gas and potentially clean electricity.”

Prior meetings have followed a similar pattern. In a meeting Al Jaber held with Brazil’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Marina Silva, Al Jaber appears to have planned to lobby to push through Adnoc’s bid for a Brazilian petrochemicals company called Braskem. “Securing alignment and endorsement for the deal at the highest level is important for us,” the briefing stated. It also included an “ask”: Silva’s “support in facilitating a call with the appropriate minister”. Earlier this month, Adnoc presented a new offer to become the majority stakeholder in Braskem, according to a report by Reuters.

The governments of China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Kenya and Brazil did not respond to requests for comment. The meeting with Senegal at the Pre-COP event does not appear to have taken place.

A spokesperson for Adnoc said: “Dr Sultan holds numerous meetings with stakeholders, the details of which are private.” Masdar declined to comment.

Former COP president Manuel Pulgar-Vidal said: "As a COP president you should not represent any national or commercial interest, it is your job to lead the world." (ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP via Getty Images)

The talking points

A number of prominent public figures, climate activists and human rights groups have called Al Jaber’s role as both COP president and the head of an oil company a conflict of interest. In January, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the international body which oversees the COP process, sent a series of questions to the COP28 team querying whether it was independent from Adnoc, according to a report by Politico which was corroborated by a source with direct knowledge who spoke to CCR under the condition of anonymity.

The UNFCCC says the “cardinal principle” for COP presidents and their teams is “the obligation of impartiality”. It said that COP presidents are “expected to act without bias, prejudice, favouritism, caprice, self-interest, preference or deference, strictly based on sound, independent and fair judgement”.

Despite this, Adnoc’s influence in the COP28 team appears to have remained unchecked.

Internal emails reveal COP28 staff members have been told Adnoc and Masdar talking points “always need to be included” in the briefings they prepare for Al Jaber ahead of bilateral meetings about the summit.

The summit team requests talking points for the meetings directly from Adnoc and Masdar. They typically include details on the value of Adnoc’s sales and trading with a country during the previous year and any potential business opportunities that the oil company would like Al Jaber to raise during the meeting. In many instances, these talking points are then simply copied into the COP28 president’s briefings.

Al Jaber and a delegation of COP28 staff attended the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. The team prepared briefings on around 50 governments from across the globe as well as for a number of meetings with prominent public figures, such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Prince William and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. (Blair has been a vocal supporter of Al Jaber; the briefing for the pair’s meeting reveals his government advisory non-profit, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, has been working with the COP28 senior leadership team.)

A number of the briefings prepared ahead of the General Assembly also included talking points for Adnoc and Masdar. Under a section labelled ‘Adnoc’, Al Jaber’s briefing for a meeting with two French government ministers stated: “The UAE remains committed to supporting France in a responsible and reliable manner, through hydrocarbon business, LNG [liquefied natural gas] growth which is key to the energy transition, and large-scale deployment of renewables.”

“There is no conflict between sustainable development of any country’s natural resources and its commitment to climate change”

Meanwhile, “potential discussion areas” for a meeting with the Dutch Minister for Climate and Energy Policy noted: “The UAE and its Energy companies stand ready to partner with the Netherlands to accelerate our shared ambitions”. According to the briefing, Adnoc’s sales and trading with the country in the past year was worth $2bn.

US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, has forged a close relationship with Al Jaber, meeting with the COP28 president more than almost any foreign official in the past two years. A briefing prepared ahead of their meeting in New York in September reveals Al Jaber hoped to garner “the support of the [Biden] administration” for Masdar projects in the US.

Similarly, Al Jaber appears to have planned to seek government support for international investments in the UK. A briefing for a meeting with UK government minister Graham Stuart highlighted investment by UK-based oil majors Shell and BP in Adnoc entities. “We need to ensure that correct regulatory and support mechanisms remain in place to realize our joint ambition,” the briefing stated.

One foreign official who has been in meetings with Al Jaber told CCR that the COP28 presidency has given the Adnoc CEO access to world leaders across the globe.

“Do you think he would be meeting heads of state as he’s been doing without his COP28 hat? Hardly likely,” they said. “The doors are open for him and when they close… he has many opportunities to advance his mandate in whichever manner he sees fit.”

The US, UK and French governments said commercial activities were not discussed at the UN General Assembly. The Dutch government said no meeting took place.

A COP28 spokesperson told CCR and the BBC: “Dr Sultan Al Jaber is singularly focused on the business of COP and delivering ambitious and transformational climate outcomes at COP28 – the likes of which have not been seen since Paris. The suggestion that the extensive work undertaken to drive these outcomes has not been focused on meaningful climate action is a distraction from the work of this Presidency and the hard work of all those involved in this process.”

Talking points were also prepared for potential questions Al Jaber might be asked during Q&A sessions during his trip to New York. Al Jaber has repeatedly said that a “phasing down” of fossil fuels is “inevitable” and “essential”. But the mock answers included in the briefing offer more insight into why Al Jaber has not gone further and called for a complete “phase out” that figures such as the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, have said is necessary “to stand a fighting chance of limiting global temperature rise.”

A phase down would allow for “a small number of hydrocarbons – much smaller than today – in the energy mix, with their emissions offset or abated,” the briefing document states. It adds: “‘Phase down’ gives us greater scope to align climate objectives with real-world inclusive policy, finance, and technology solutions.” The briefing document does not state that, conveniently, it would also allow Al Jaber’s Adnoc to continue selling oil and gas.

An investigation by AFP earlier this month revealed that an “energy transition narrative” drafted for the COP28 team by consulting firm McKinsey allegedly only reduces oil use by about half over the next 25 years. “On average, 40-50 MMb/d [millions of barrels per day] of oil is still expected to be utilized by 2050,” compared to about 100 MMb/d today, the document obtained by AFP stated. McKinsey is advising the summit team ahead of the talks but the scenario it proposed would allow fossil fuel companies to continue to pump far too much oil and gas to hit “net zero”, AFP’s investigation claimed.

Another hypothetical question posed to Al Jaber in the briefing document obtained by CCR asks: “Will you oppose language on phase out?” Rather than providing a direct answer, the document simply states: “Language will be agreed by the Parties present at COP28.”

When asked by CCR whether Al Jaber will oppose language on a phase out of fossil fuels, a COP28 spokesperson pointed to a prior public statement made by Al Jaber. “We know there are strong views about the idea of including language on fossil fuels and renewables in the negotiated text… We must be responsible. We must be pragmatic. And we must leave no-one behind,” he has said previously.

COP28's director of government affairs, Mohammed Al Kaabi (left), works across Al Jaber's "entire portfolio". (Source: CNN Business Arabic)

The advisor

One of Al Jaber’s advisors, Mohammed Al Kaabi, has frequently accompanied the COP president on overseas trips even though he appears to have an ongoing role at Adnoc. At a UN conference in Bonn, Germany, in June, Al Kaabi registered as COP28’s director of government affairs. But internal emails and meeting records seen by CCR reveal Al Kaabi uses an Adnoc email address. CCR also understands he has been asked to sign off on some of the talking points for Al Jaber’s briefings.

CCR identified a number of publicly-available images of Al Jaber at meetings with foreign officials and dignitaries where Al Kaabi can be seen in the background. For instance, footage from CNN Business Arabic showed Al Kaabi among the delegation who attended Al Jaber’s meeting with the Pope.

A spokesperson for the summit said “the COP28 Presidency has its own independent office, staff, and a standalone IT system.” But they also told CCR that Al Kaabi works across Al Jaber’s “entire portfolio”.

The findings echo previous details uncovered by CCR about another one of Al Jaber’s advisors, Oliver Phillips. Phillips, a former CNN and MSNBC producer who has worked with Al Jaber for several years, had played a key role in shaping the COP28 team’s PR efforts despite appearing to be employed by Adnoc. At the conference in Bonn, Phillips registered as a representative of the oil company but had already been closely involved in COP28, according to sources who had worked with him. In an earlier statement provided to CCR, the COP28 spokesperson said that Phillips is “now working full-time” on the summit. He did not respond to questions about when Phillips’ employment with the oil company ended.

In January, the COP28 team was reported to be working out of Adnoc headquarters in Abu Dhabi. Responding to the allegations at the time, a COP28 spokesperson told CCR: “The COP28 team is still being established and staff are currently based in several different locations. They will be moving into permanent offices at the beginning of next month. In the meantime, there are clear governance guidelines in place to ensure that the team can operate entirely independently from any other entity where they may be situated.”

Even though the team has since moved into a separate office, the whistleblowers alleged that COP28 meetings are still regularly held at Adnoc headquarters and Al Jaber frequently works on summit business from his office at the oil company. Records of internal meetings seen by CCR reveal that invites sent to COP28 staff have on occasion come from the Adnoc Executive Office.

A spokesperson for the summit told CCR and the BBC: “The COP28 Presidency has been consistent in our position that it does not make sense to exclude the people who understand the most about the current energy system from conversations about the energy transition. The momentum we have seen building as a result makes us confident that we will be able to deliver powerful results in Dubai.”