An oil state hired the biggest PR firms to buff its climate image. It didn’t help.

By Corbin Hiar, Zack Colman | 06/07/2023 07:00 AM EDT

The United Arab Emirates began paying high-profile advertising and lobbying agencies to green its image ahead of hosting this year’s climate talks. Then the trouble began.

Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber.

Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the chief executive of the UAE state-run oil company and president-designate of COP 28, has faced scrutiny from Western lawmakers for his ties to fossil fuels. Andreea Alexandru/AP Photo

One of the world’s wealthiest oil states is engaged in a wide-ranging public relations and lobbying campaign to cast itself as an environmental leader before it hosts the United Nations’ next climate talks in November.

But the United Arab Emirates’ efforts are colliding with a barrage of criticism from lawmakers and environmentalists in both the U.S. and Europe, who scoff at the idea that the oil-flush nation is committed to helping shift the world off planet-heating fossil fuels.

Amid the negative headlines, the UAE’s government has signed — and abruptly terminated — long-term contracts with at least two strategic communications firms, even as it offers fat pay packages to veteran PR executives to assist with the effort, according to interviews and Justice Department documents.


The communications offensive, which began as far back as 2019, seeks to persuade U.S. officials and the American public that the Persian Gulf state’s plan to expand oil and gas drilling is compatible with international efforts to slash the use of fossil fuels — the main cause of rising temperatures worldwide.

During the past decade, the UAE has spent more than $1 million on direct climate-focused advocacy and paid millions more to advisory firms and think tanks helping to polish its green credentials, an analysis by POLITICO’s E&E News of federal disclosure filings found. No other host nation has invested as much time and money to shape its image ahead of the annual climate negotiations.

In contrast, the United Kingdom didn’t disclose hiring any American PR or lobbying firms for climate advocacy the year it hosted the 2021 U.N. summit in Glasgow, Scotland, according to past filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. During that gathering — when UAE won the right to host this year’s talks — the Emiratis paid two firms more than $314,000 for their U.S.-focused climate influence efforts.

Much of the criticism of the UAE’s role this year has focused on Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the Emiratis’ climate envoy and CEO of its state-owned oil company, who will serve as the summit’s president. In that position, he will take a lead role crafting the initial negotiating text and guide a final deal with top diplomats at the gathering, known as COP 28.

“To have the COP be basically run by the fossil fuel industry sets the bar very, very high for accomplishments,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in an interview earlier this year. “The people running the UAE COP need to do something to show that this is going to be different.”

While the UAE has pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury and to help raise $20 billion for renewable energy projects by 2035, it’s also investing more than $100 billion to increase its oil production by nearly 1 million barrels per day over the next four years. Thirty percent of UAE’s economy is directly based on the oil and gas industry, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data.

A man stands at an Emirati oil terminal that was built to serve supertankers.
An oil terminal in the United Arab Emirates that was built to serve supertankers. A U.N. report says the climate plans of 195 nations are cumulatively failing to stem greenhouse gases. | Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

A spokesperson for al-Jaber rejected attacks on his government’s commitment to climate action.

“COP 28 has assembled a diverse team of UAE and global experts — in climate policy, technology, communications and other fields — to develop, advance and advocate for greater climate ambition,” said the spokesperson, who under UAE policy was not authorized to be named in public.

“As a nation with scarce water and food resources, in one of the hottest places on the planet, the UAE is deeply committed to the urgency of the climate crisis and the immediate need for meaningful climate action,” the spokesperson added in a statement.

Al-Jaber’s role has come under new scrutiny this week as climate negotiators gathered in Bonn, Germany, for preliminary discussions leading up to the November-December summit.

“We have a president who has significant experience in the oil and gas sector in an oil-and-gas-producing nation,” Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the U.N.’s climate body, told reporters Monday. “It provides an opportunity to ask some very difficult questions, but also to seek some very difficult but needed answers.”

A river of PR contracts

The UAE spends tens of millions of dollars annually on U.S. lobbying and PR, more than most other nations, according to data compiled by the watchdog group OpenSecrets. And while much of the Emiratis’ recent U.S. advocacy has focused on their military priorities, there has been a steady uptick in the nation’s climate-related messaging as it sought to land and prepare for the global climate negotiations, federal filings show.

Part of that strategy in recent months included deals with top global public relations firms to work on COP 28. Yet two of the agreements abruptly ended months before they were scheduled to conclude, a fact that has not been previously reported.

In September 2022, the UAE’s state-owned renewables company Masdar hired BCW Global to provide “strategic communications activities to support the UAE in its role as host country in 2023 for COP28,” a contract agreement filed with the Justice Department says. Al-Jaber founded Masdar in 2006 and chairs its board of directors.

The deal was set to run through November 2024 and would have paid BCW the equivalent of more than $750,000. But federal filings show the firm’s work for the UAE ended on Dec. 23, 2022 — less than three months into the two-year agreement.

BCW confirmed in a statement to POLITICO that the deal had ended but did not respond to questions about why or at whose request the UAE contract was terminated.

In January, the Emiratis made two climate-focused deals with Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm.

One agreement sought to position al-Jaber and other executives with Masdar “as sustainability leaders with key stakeholders in the U.S.,” according to a contract filed with the U.S. government. The Edelman deal with the UAE began in January and is set to run until the beginning of the climate conference, netting the firm about $500,000. It’s the largest climate-focused agreement by any COP host country in the past decade, according to POLITICO’s analysis.

The only comparable contracts were a $99,000 consulting deal that Fiji made with Qorvis Communications LLC three months before its COP presidency in 2019. Peru signed a five-month deal worth $200,000 with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in 2014.

Another Edelman deal, which had no defined end date in the filings, focused on “outreach to key stakeholders and media as well as the development of digital and social content for COP28 assets ahead of, and during” the climate conference, a preliminary agreement says. As part of that work, the firm helped draft speeches and run the conference’s social media accounts, filings show.

That latter Edelman deal concluded in April, after just four months.

“Edelman supported the announcement of the COP28 presidency and initial rollout; however, this engagement has concluded,” Edelman spokesperson Michael Bush said in a statement. Bush did not respond to follow-up questions about the intended duration of the contractscope of work, why the work ended or which party scrapped the agreement.

The contracts with BCW and Edelman ended “amicably,” the COP 28 spokesperson said.

Solar panels on a gas station.
Thirty percent of UAE’s economy is directly based on the oil and gas industry, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data. | Kamran Jebreili/AP Photo

Meanwhile, the UAE has enticed seasoned PR executives to join the conference’s communications operation as the host country and al-Jaber face continued attacks.

Alan VanderMolen, the conference’s Abu Dhabi-based communications director, was previously the top spokesperson for the multinational manufacturer S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. The UAE has also brought on David Canzini, who as an aide to then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson opposed windfall oil taxes. He was hired through the Anglo-Australian consultancy the CT Group, which didn’t respond to a request for comment. Canzini’s role was first reported by the Financial Times.

One communications strategist said they turned down a nearly $1 million salary, which would have required moving to the UAE. The person said they were uncomfortable with the concept of the role.

“It’s life-altering amounts of money,” said the person, who was granted anonymity to speak freely to discuss a field of international diplomacy in which they continue to work.

When asked whether such salary offers were common, the COP 28 spokesperson said the team does not comment on personnel matters.

An honest broker?

The UAE’s surge in climate advocacy comes at an important time for the global U.N. talks. The Paris climate agreement that has guided the negotiations since 2016 will require countries for the first time to formally share the progress they have made toward meeting their national commitments to slash emissions.

That reckoning will show that the world is far off track from the agreement’s goal to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times.

But supporters of climate action are divided on whether they see the UAE is a genuine climate broker. The negotiation host typically wields significant influence over final agreements, which require unanimity. In past conferences, oil- and gas-rich nations have weakened language calling for an end to fossil fuels — as seen during last year’s climate talks in Egypt, which produced a final statement with unexpected language welcoming more natural gas production.

Skeptics said they wonder how ambitious the UAE will be when dialogue reaches inevitable standstills.

“The UAE has tried hard to position itself as a country that is transitioning to a future economy that is not dependent on fossil fuels,” said Nigel Purvis, a former State Department official who now runs the consulting firm Climate Advisers. “But whether that transition can be made real and whether it can occur on a timeframe that is consistent with climate science, that is what this COP is going to test.”

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry points at Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry told The Associated Press that al-Jaber “is a terrific choice” to lead the U.N. climate conference, citing his work on renewable energy projects. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Since at least 2019, lobbyists and PR officials hired by the UAE have worked to introduce Emirati climate officials and present talking points to U.S. policymakers and journalists, according to a review of documents that U.S. public relations and lobbying firms must file on behalf of overseas clients under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Over the same period, the country has inked five climate-focused advocacy deals, the POLITICO analysis found. They are cumulatively worth more than $1 million.

Climate messaging has also become an increasing priority for the UAE’s broader advocacy efforts.

One example was a $5.5-million-per-year general communications deal that the Emiratis signed in April 2022 with the strategic advisory firm now known as FGS Global. The firm has declined to comment to POLITICO.

FGS officials have taken part in meetings with top U.S. climate officials on behalf of the UAE, according to documents and interviews. On Jan. 14, two days after al-Jaber’s appointment prompted international criticism, a top FGS executive attended a briefing with al-Jaber and Amos Hochstein, President Joe Biden’s coordinator for global infrastructure and energy security. Hochstein and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry also appeared alongside al-Jaber at an energy forum in Abu Dhabi that day.

Later that week, Kerry told The Associated Press that al-Jaber “is a terrific choice” to lead the U.N. climate conference, citing his work on renewable energy projects. Kerry has said solving climate change requires countries like the UAE, which World Bank data shows has the world’s fourth-highest per capita rate of greenhouse gas emissions, seeing a future for themselves.

In contrast, Whitehouse and 131 other members of Congress and the European Parliament have called for ousting al-Jaber from his leadership of the climate summit, pointing to what they call his potential conflicts of interest.

The State Department described the U.S. officials’ meetings with al-Jaber and UAE operatives as routine diplomatic engagement and emphasized that the U.S. government had arranged them.

“As Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, Secretary Kerry engages frequently with the COP28 President-Designate, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, to articulate U.S. views, including on how to ensure that COP28 delivers credible, necessary action in this decisive decade to keep 1.5C within reach,” wrote a spokesperson, who asked not to be named to comply with State Department policy.

Outreach to think tanks and lawmakers

In addition to hiring dozens of lobbyists and public relations executives, the UAE also gives millions of dollars annually to Washington think tanks like the Atlantic Council. Its scholars have praised the Emiratis’ actions on climate change while providing access to U.S. officials.

Al-Jaber is “an ideal choice” to lead COP 28 because of his “rich background in both renewables and fossil fuels,” Atlantic Council CEO Fredrick Kempe said in a January opinion piece for CNBC. Al-Jaber made his first speech as COP 28 president-designate at an Abu Dhabi event the think tank hosted in January, which federal filings show lobbyists for the UAE heavily promoted.

But Kempe did not disclose in his op-ed that the Atlantic Council has received more than $3 million from the UAE since 2019 and hundreds of thousands of dollars from energy firms al-Jaber oversees, financial entanglements that the Washington Free Beacon first reported. Atlantic Council spokesperson Richard Davidson called that “an oversight that we regret” but told POLITICO that the “funding didn’t influence” Kempe’s views. CNBC has since attached an editor’s note to the piece.

Sultan al-Jaber speaking at a forum.
Al-Jaber made his first speech as COP 28 president-designate at an Abu Dhabi event in January, which federal filings show lobbyists for the UAE heavily promoted. | Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

The Atlantic Council also organized a weeklong trip to Abu Dhabi for senior staffers from the offices of Republican Reps. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, Ken Calvert of California and then-Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas. Lucas and Westerman now chair two committees that oversee climate and environment policy. 

The trip included sessions on climate finance, the UAE’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution and its plans for the climate conference. The Atlantic Council’s Davidson said the trip intended to help Republican aides “devise pragmatic solutions” to energy and climate challenges. A Lucas spokesperson declined to comment. Aides of Westerman and Calvert didn’t respond to questions about the trip or the UAE’s climate work.

People who have studied the UAE’s approach to climate advocacy called the campaign a reflection of its foreign influence efforts.

“It kind of creates this echo chamber where you have an article from a media outlet that’s very favorable to them that’s echoed in a think tank panel and then that’s echoed by somebody giving a speech on the floor of the House,” said Ben Freeman, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, who in December authored a comprehensive review of Emirati lobbying efforts in the United States.

“You start to have that type of drumbeat go over and over and over,” he said. “Even if it’s not outright lies, it’s changing the narrative that would otherwise be there if the scales weren’t tipped so heavily towards the UAE.”

Reporter Sara Schonhardt contributed.