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Illusion in Progress - 2023 UN Climate Change Conference

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Nousha Salimi/AP Images for Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA)

Even the greatest magicians usually limit themselves to performing one illusion at a time. In a show starting on November 30th and running for two weeks, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will create a double illusion and have the entire world as its audience. In hosting the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) 28 of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the UAE will present itself as a champion for green energy and a modern society.


Like all magic shows, there will be a lot of smoke and mirrors, and a façade to direct attention away from reality. For COP28, hidden from public view will be UAE’s determination to remain a major exporter of oil and its record of human rights violations.

Then come the side shows. The swarm of 600 fossil-fuel lobbyists that blanketed last year’s COP27 in Egypt is expected to be dwarfed in volume by this year’s descent onto Dubai. Outside the conference rooms and meetings halls will be displays and presentation areas that can be best described as an upscale information bazaar. Their displays will be professionally designed to conceal the contradictions of the corporations and countries they represent.

UAE is off to a bad start in trying to present itself as part of the solution to climate change. As host country, it picked UAE’s Minister of Industry and Technology Dr. Sultan al Jaber as COP28’s president. Here begins the first façade. Dr. al Jaber is also the head of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Appointing the head of one of the world’s major exporters of oil as the COP28 president reduces the credibility of the event and allows al Jaber to be the ringmaster at the circus.     

This is especially true considering that al Jaber's $26 billion international deals for oil production involve Italy’s ENI and America’s Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Company, which in turn includes a $4 billion pipeline investment. Bottom line is al Jaber’s mission from the UAE will be to control the narrative at COP 28.


Recognizing the problem with al Jaber hosting the conference, 110 European Parliamentarians and members of the US Congress have sent a joint letter to President Joe Biden expressing concerns with this conflict of interest. More specifically, the elected representatives have asked President Biden to “…engage in diplomatic efforts to secure the withdrawal of the president-designate of COP 28.”

Meanwhile, twenty-seven Democrat members of US Congress have formally engaged Presidential Special Envoy John Kerry to urge UAE to appoint someone other than al Jaber to head the conference. Considering his record as Secretary of State in dealing with Iran’s Khamenei, Iraq’s Maliki, and Egypt’s Morsi while all three were leading genocide campaigns against their own people, Kerry is not going to do anything. Just the opposite of the Congressional wishes, Kerry has already blessed al Jaber’s appointment. 

Then comes the human rights façade. Political opposition parties are outlawed in the UAE. Media sources are under an iron grip. Online and on-street digital surveillance by the UAE is continual. Women’s rights are all but non-existent. Anyone within the country’s borders expressing dissent is subject to immediate arrest, imprisonment, conviction, and the possibility of a trial (in that order). 

Even those who have completed their sentences are subject to remaining in confinement without visits from or communication with their families. Ninety-four human rights advocates, intellectuals, and lawyers convicted and sentenced in 2013 remain in prison. Known as the UAE 94, many of their sentences expired in 2019.


As documented by law, crimes in the UAE include opposing the system of government, association with opposition groups, damaging national unity, and undermining interests of the state. UAE justification for keeping prisoners in custody includes "rehabilitation needs" and "counter-terrorism measures." One of the most blatant examples of UAE injustice is the case of Ahmed Mansoor, a recipient of The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. In 2017 he was sentenced to ten years in prison for “insulting the prestige" of the UAE.

As bad as citizens of UAE have it, migrant workers and foreign nationals within the borders have it worse.  They can be arrested and imprisoned for all the same reasons. They are also subjected to arbitrary detention and deportation without cause. Their efforts from years of building a future and living in a secure environment can disappear in a minute.

UAE has brilliantly hijacked the annual UN Climate Conference by presenting itself a concerned nation, appointed the head of its state-owned oil company to preside over the conference and control the narrative, received blessing of that appointment from a former US Secretary of State and Presidential candidate, and is doing it in a country that blatantly violates human rights and the rules of law. It is among the most oppressive countries in the world.   


In a two-week run, starting late this fall, the main event and all its side shows will create the illusion of a climate conference in a progressive country. When all the smoke, mirrors, and façades go away, the world might come to realize nothing was real and no good was achieved.  

Wes Martin has served in law enforcement positions around the world and holds a MBA in International Politics and Business.


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