By Arab News
By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh*
It is fair to say that there has been some nervousness among Gulf states about the new Biden administration.
New President Joe Biden’s intention to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, together with the potential for a more distant relationship with him than with his predecessor, Donald Trump, have understandably caused unease in the region.
Nevertheless, leaders in the Gulf, as well as the new US president himself, will be keen to find common ground upon which they can build positive partnerships.
Take climate action, for example. Unlike the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has not taken any productive steps to tackle climate change, some Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, are leading the way on this issue. As exemplified by the recent Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, climate change is an obvious choice for an interest that is shared by the US and Gulf states.
Some scholars, policy analysts and politicians might think a region that is the oil hub of the world is not an obvious place to look for innovation in green technologies — however it is critical to point out that the region has experienced a quiet shift in its understanding and recognition of the fact that avoiding action on climate change is no longer possible.
Speaking at the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh last month, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, told a panel of industry leaders: “Whatever we will do in the Kingdom will support emissions reduction, and we are doing it willingly because the economic benefits (from new energy technologies) are clear.” He added: “We will enjoy being looked at as a reasonable and responsible international citizen because we will be doing more than most European countries by 2030.”
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have pledged to improve the proportion of their energy mixes that are renewable, and the UAE has committed to a 24 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.
“With our existing infrastructure and large CCUS (carbon capture, utilization and storage) capabilities, we believe we can be one of the lowest-cost and largest producers of blue hydrogen in the world,” Sultan Al-Jaber, the UAE’s special envoy for climate change and CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, said during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week last month.
Of course, one can not expect that Gulf states will immediately ditch hydrocarbons altogether. As the cornerstone of their economies, oil production will continue to provide significant and essential revenues to governments.
However, there appears to be a growing understanding that technologies such as carbon capture and storage need to be developed to keep the oil industry viable in the long term. This extends beyond simply keeping oil dollars flowing.
Saudi Arabia has announced hugely ambitious plans to build NEOM, the world’s first city without roads, a clear signal of intent to adjust course in a more environmentally friendly direction. Elsewhere, Sultan Al-Jaber, the chairman of Masdar, recently said that the UAE could become a producer of low-cost hydrogen.
It is true that there is a long way to go but perhaps the most important short-term effect of all this is that it sends a clear signal to the new White House administration.
Biden has made much of his environmental intentions. In his initial flurry of executive orders, a return to the Paris Climate Agreement was one of the most prominent decisions. Throughout his presidential campaign, he clearly saw placing climate change high on the agenda as a vote winner, especially among younger, more liberal-minded voters.
Some of these voters might have a negative view of the Middle East — but if Biden and the Gulf are looking for a common cause, green issues could provide just that.
Solar power, for example, is an area in which there is obvious common ground. The US is the world’s second-largest producer of solar energy, while the Middle East is an obvious candidate for the mass deployment of solar power as a green alternative energy.
Furthermore, countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have invested, or are planning to invest, billions of dollars in developing high-tech innovation hubs that could prove attractive to American companies interested in developing advanced clean technology.
Meanwhile the Abraham Accords, the normalization-of-relations agreements between Israel and several Arab countries, provide another opportunity to harness the potential of green issues as means for building relations between the US and Gulf states. It is also telling that green energy can be an issue of public agreement between the Gulf nations and Israel, both of whom will no doubt be keen for greater American involvement in such deals in the future.
What the evolving relationship between the Gulf and the US under Biden will ultimately look like probably will not be fully apparent for at least a year. However, if both sides are looking for opportunities for positive cooperation, they need not look much further than tackling climate change.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh