Political rebranding through environmental reforms in Saudi Arabia?

Pseudo name: Bachir Baadarani
Political rebranding through environmental reforms in Saudi Arabia?
Rock and oasis scenes in Wadi Disah in Tabuk Region, Saudi Arabia © Shutterstock ID: 1447010039

During a work call in March, while giving a presentation on the situation of crude and other commodities’ movement in the Middle East and North Africa region, a news flash on the television screen near me read: ”Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman [often dubbed MbS by international media] announced that the kingdom aims to plant billions of trees over the coming decades to increase the global area covered by existing trees.”

I paused, then decided to read it out loud for the attendees who were more eager to know about the actual rebound of global crude demand and its impact on the economy in a world that was supposedly preparing to rid itself from a pandemic that ravaged and disrupted life for over a year and a half. And, while I was about to carry on with my presentation, my “Slack” application beeped with a one-word notification: Greenwashing!

Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and Grand Plans

First coined in 1986 by a New York environmentalist, Jay Westervelt, the term “greenwashing”, also called "green sheen," aimed to call out the hotel industry’s practices.

At the time, hotels in New York City and elsewhere in the United States, were placing placards in their rooms to promote the reuse of towels to “save the environment." Yet Westervelt’s studies at the time, showed that hotels’ main target was to increase their margin of profit by cutting costs unrelated to any environment-preserving practices. In conclusion, while the stunt, aimed for good publicity, wanted to give the impression that the hotel industry was heading in a more "environmentally-conscientious" direction. However, studies conducted by Westervelt and others showed that neither energy consumption nor waste levels dropped—things that mattered most for the environment.

Yet, where the hotel industry failed, the energy industry seems to succeed nowadays, to an extent. Over the past years, some of the world's biggest carbon emitters, such as conventional energy companies, have attempted to rebrand themselves as champions of the environment. In fact, beginning of July shareholders of Exxon Mobil elected two board candidates nominated by activist investors who pledged to steer the company towards cleaner energy and away from oil and gas, in a precedent.

The campaigns, hence, come at a time when citizens frustration and anger are at an all-time high only to be matched with the all-time record high temperature the world is recording over the past few years. The year 2020 has been ranked as the second-warmest year in the 141-year record for the combined land and ocean surface, and land areas on humanity’s records. And while warming has not been uniform across the planet—with the upward trend in the globally averaged temperature showing that more areas are warming than cooling—awareness of climate change and its impact on the planet hasn’t only risen exponentially but has also achieved immense success in transforming into a solid political movement.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, is ranked first in greenhouse gas emissions per capita, alongside none other than the US. Additionally, MbS has found himself in a seat as hot as the scorching summer heat in the kingdom, because of several bad decisions taken that could be traced back to the Saudi leadership since his ascension to the ‘crown-princeship’ began. 

In that context, MbS announced earlier this year the Saudi and Middle East Green Initiatives, a drive to spearhead a comprehensive Saudi environmental process in the Middle East. The initiative intends to be a regional roadmap, designed to help achieve goals defined by the international community in the fight against global warming and is based mainly on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

MbS weaved the green initiative into his 2030 Vision—announced in 2016— as the environmental struggle involves reducing oil consumption and transitioning towards renewable energies.  Meanwhile, the crown prince aims to push his Vision forward after its implementation stalled over the past year and a half due to a global pandemic that brought the world to a halt.

Aside from being the largest forestry project in the world [commitment to plant 10 billion trees in the kingdom and another 40 billion across the Middle East], the initiative also includes a commitment to reduce the country's carbon emissions, fight pollution and soil erosion, preserve marine life, and increase the percentage of protected areas in the country. Yet, MbS’ plans are overly ambitious on all fronts and while there’s absolutely no issue with grand plans and ambition, precedents in the kingdom are often not encouraging. The forestation project, modeled after China’s greening of a third of its Kubuqi Desert and the United Arab Emirates’ experience of Tatiana Antonelli Abella, is highly unlikely to change climate in the kingdom as experts have noted.

Meanwhile, temperatures in Saudi Arabia are projected to rise faster than the global average in the coming decades with speculations that the Arabian Peninsula might become inhabitable by the end of this century.

More so, MbS’ plan to feed 50% of the kingdom’s energy consumption from renewable energy by 2030, is more of a pipe dream given that its installed renewable energy capacity was 142 megawatts (MW) in 2018. Such capacity represents less than 0.05 percent of Saudi Arabia's electricity supply coming from renewable energy, as per the International Energy Agency (IAE).

MbS’ initiative, if realized, will surely accelerate the transition to green energies and transform Saudi Arabia into a global hub of renewable energy alongside its status for conventional energy—something he seems keen on as he aims to locate many of those projects at his Neom futuristic city, planned to be a hallmark of his rule. However, it remains to be seen whether implementation will meet expectations and timelines from one side, while also inspecting the political side of the Saudi initiative.

A Game of Green Politics

When MbS first announced his initiative towards end of March this year, it came against the backdrop of losing his closest allies at the White House: ex-President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Veteran reporter Bob Woodward inked it in his book, titled “Rage,” when he said that Trump “bragged that he protected Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from congressional scrutiny after the brutal assassination of the Saudi-dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

By end of January, a new administration descended on DC and President Joe Biden directly acted on one of campaign promises by releasing a 2018 CIA report that concluded the murder of the Washington Post’s columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, by Saudi Arabian agents in Turkey “was done ‘on behalf’ of and ‘approved’ by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”

Not only had Biden done that, but during his 2020 campaign ahead of the presidential, he unwaveringly uttered harsh words for Saudi Arabia, while his foreign policy agenda was to be denominated by human rights, principles to which the Saudi leadership can’t offer a good track record over the last decades. More so, the Biden administration placed environmental issues high on its agenda. In fact, Biden moved to reinstate the US to the Paris climate agreement just hours after being sworn in as president and his administration immediately rolled out a cavalcade of executive orders aimed at tackling the climate crisis.

Hence, MbS’ green initiative is politically motivated and namely a desire to score points with the current US administration, whom the crown prince personally hasn’t had direct contact with since it entered the Oval Office. While it is said that MbS and Jared Kushner used to exchange daily messages over WhatsApp, relations between Riyadh and Washington are at a sensitive stage of “recalibration” today.

A few months ago, at the International Climate Summit organised by the US President on Earth Day (April 22-23), King Salman declared that Saudi Arabia would host the Green Initiative Forum this year as well as a summit meeting for the Middle East Green Initiative. While the King and Crown Prince often stressed the importance of “regional cooperation” in the field, it is becoming clear they aim to lead the process and not join other initiatives. For instance, in April, representatives from all the Gulf states and other Arab countries met in Abu Dhabi for a regional dialogue on climate issues, with the participation of the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, though without the participation of a representative of Saudi Arabia, which had announced its own green initiative only a few days earlier.

The main driver for this move is underpinned by Riyadh’s lack of appetite to be held accountable for certain commitments as its crown prince continues to drive the kingdom towards an ultranationalist discourse that refuses “outside interference,” especially on human rights-related matters.

While Saudis have moved, over the past decade, from climate change denial to supporting the historic 2016 Paris Agreement, it is highly unlikely they are forfeiting the protection of their valuable resource anytime soon. Saudis are sitting on a huge amount of hydrocarbon resources, and they want to ensure that the last barrel of oil on the face of the earth comes from a Saudi well. A few months ago, Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, said in a meeting, “[W]e are still going to be the last man standing, and every molecule of hydrocarbon will come out,” Bloomberg reported.

However, what the “Western World” isn’t paying attention to, is that they’re forfeiting the field for others to take the lead in the hydrocarbon world. For instance, with their staunch pursuit of the green agenda  and with more western energy companies and governments adhering to the climate change regulations, the less funding will be spent on exploration and development, and, the more margin the Saudis will have to increase production and grab market share. At the end of the day, Saudis benefit from some of the lowest production costs in the industry.

MbS understands well that he cannot keep making enemies and ever since the Biden administration took office, a change in attitude has become apparent in Riyadh especially on regional and international dossiers. Riyadh’s hawkishness is making way for a more moderate, dialogue-seeking and compromising one. Meanwhile, one avenue MbS is exploring to reinstall himself into the international community is through “greenwashing.”. While it might not be enough following the Khashoggi murder and as long as the war in Yemen continues to unfold, MbS understands that he needs to strike a delicate balance between appeasement and aggression to remain in power and the past 6 years might have given him enough lessons to carry on. Meanwhile, the Al-Saud clan will look to rule the Saudi Arabia till the last drop of oil.