Inside the Campaign That Put an Oil Boss in Charge of a Climate Summit

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.

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.

Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, and John Kerry, U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, attend the opening session of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi on Jan. 14, 2023.

Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

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.

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.

“It’s very clear by now that when companies set their own targets and create their own rules, the outcome spells disaster.”

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.”

The main courtyard at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Masdar City, United Arab Emirates, on Jan. 5, 2011.

Photo: Duncan Chard/Bloomberg 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.”

“It’s about pouring money…

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