Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman poses at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, France on June 16, 2023.

(Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images)

'Cartoonishly Villainous' Saudi Plot to Hook Poor Nations on Oil Exposed

"It's like the tobacco companies that knew the addictive and lethal nature of cigarettes yet continued to get millions of teenagers hooked on them," said one African critic.

With the world hurtling toward catastrophic temperature rise, "Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is overseeing a sweeping global investment program" intended to "ensure that emerging economies across Africa and Asia become vastly more dependent on oil" even as the international community tries to phase out planet-heating fossil fuels.

That's according to a sixth-month undercover investigation by the U.K.'s Center for Climate Reporting (CCR) and Channel 4 News, based on regulatory filings, documents from Saudi officials, and secret recordings.

The findings were published Monday in the leadup to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) set to kick off Thursday in the United Arab Emirates.

As CCR detailed:

The Oil Demand Sustainability Program (OSP) is a vast government program with dozens of projects aimed at embedding a high-carbon, fossil fuel-dependent development model in countries across Africa and Asia. This includes meticulously researched plans to drive a major increase in gasoline and diesel-fueled vehicles and boost jet fuel sales via increased air travel.

It brings together the most powerful arms of the Saudi state, including the $700 billion Saudi Public Investment Fund; the world's largest oil company, Saudi Aramco; petrochemicals giant, Sabic; and the kingdom's most important ministries—all under the auspices of the crown prince's supreme committee of hydrocarbon affairs.

When asked by an undercover reporter whether the aim of the program is to artificially stimulate oil demand to counter global efforts to reduce oil consumption and tackle climate change, a Saudi official responded: "Yes... it is one of the main objectives that we are trying to accomplish."

Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Energy—which did not respond to a request for comment—mainly "characterizes the OSP as a sustainable development initiative" to aid developing countries, CCR reported.

However, as the center highlighted, key pieces of the kingdom's plot include plans to promote oil-based power generation, deploy petrol and diesel vehicles in Africa and Asia, work with a global auto manufacturer to make a cheap car, lobby against government subsidies for electric vehicles, and fast-track commercial supersonic air travel.

Power Shift Africa director Mohamed Adow told CCR that "the Saudi government is like a drug dealer trying to get Africa hooked on its harmful product. The rest of the world is cleaning up its act and weaning itself off dirty and polluting fossil fuels and Saudi Arabia is getting desperate for more customers and is turning its sights on Africa."

"It's like the tobacco companies that knew the addictive and lethal nature of cigarettes yet continued to get millions of teenagers hooked on them," Adow added, "it's repulsive."

Rapid Transition Alliance coordinator Andrew Simms similarly said on social media, "Straight outta the tobacco companies' playbook."

The Saudi investigation was released on the same day that the center and BBC revealed that Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the UAE's Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and president of COP28, used meetings about the summit to push for foreign fossil fuel deals.

"This undermines essential impartiality and the integrity of the talks, and will accelerate devastating global heating," said the Environmental Justice Foundation, pointing to both revelations. "These backroom deals serve wealthy nations and fossil fuel profiteers at the expense of everyone else."

Also noting both reports, American author and climate activist Bill McKibben wrote Tuesday that "the new documents, which really must be read to be believed, perform the same essential task as the revelations almost a decade ago about Exxon's climate lies. They end any pretense that these countries are engaged in good-faith efforts to wind down the industry."

"It's difficult, I think, to imagine anything much more systemically evil than this spate of bids by the oil companies and oil countries to keep wrecking the planet; it's akin to the way that tobacco companies, facing legal losses in the U.S., pivoted to expand their markets in Asia instead," he added, describing the Saudi plot as "almost cartoonishly villainous."

The kingdom has a long history of impeding climate action—particularly progress at global talks, as three experts laid out in a paper released last week by the Climate Social Science Network at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

"Saudi delegations to the U.N. climate talks are highly skilled, well-organized, and have been extremely successful over decades at slowing the efforts of the world community on climate change to a crawl," the trio wrote. "Saudi Arabia's actions should be seen as part of a wider web of obstruction to an effective response to climate change, which includes fossil fuel industry groups and other (predominantly U.S.-based) political lobbyists and elites, and allied intergovernmental organizations."

As Common Dreams reported last week, the U.N. has allowed at least 7,200 delegates for fossil fuel companies and industry trade groups to attended climate talks since 2003. This year, attendees must disclose their affiliation under new transparency rules.

The summit comes as scientists warn that 2023 is projected to be the hottest year in 125,000 years and currently implemented emissions policies will likely lead to 3°C of temperature rise by the end of the century—or double the 1.5°C goal of the Paris agreement.

"Leaders must act to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C, protect people from climate chaos, and end the fossil fuel age," United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres declared Monday. "They must make COP28 count."

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