Saudi’s Call for Flexibility in the Energy Transition

Saudi’s Call for Flexibility in the Energy Transition

The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which was billed the "last, best hope" to save the planet, was held in Glasgow, United Kingdom, in November 2021. There exists a clear consensus among nations that urgent climate action is needed, while numerous organisations and activists have called for world governments to bring tangible plans to the table, rather than mere promises, to prevent an irreversible rise in temperatures, the repercussions of which, scientists have warned, are likely to be catastrophic.

As asserted by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the absolute priority must be to limit the rise in temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as it is understood that, beyond this limit, long-term consequences on water resources and ecosystems would be  calamitous. At the heart of the climate actions aimed at avoiding such catastrophes lies the energy transition away from fossil fuels.

Energy transition was given a prominent place in the economic Visions of the Gulf countries that were unveiled over the past decade and that aim at accelerating economic diversification. Beyond its economic potential, energy transition is also expected to enable countries in the region to prevent potential disasters for their ecosystems. The countries of the MENA region, most particularly countries with increasingly arid temperatures, such as Iraq, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia, already witness the consequences of these issues on their daily lives, especially with regard to water resources. In this area, Jordan for instance, in partnership with the UAE, has recently signed an agreement with Israel to benefit from its desalination technology.

Nevertheless, if rushed and implemented without carefully considering the multiple ramifications relevant to its development, energy transition might hamper energy security at the global level. This concern was notably expressed by the Saudi Minister in charge of Energy, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman al-Saud, who called for “flexibility” in the race for greener energy at a conference held in Saudi Arabia in January 2022:

"It may end up being a leap into the future, unfortunately an unknown future. We should not forfeit energy security for the sake of a publicity stunt. That transition needs to be [a] well-thought of transition," he said.

During the event, the Minister also announced that Saudi Arabia is poised to make the most of its large uranium resources by launching an ambitious nuclear energy programme. Despite the concerns generally associated with nuclear developments in the region, such nuclear ambition is not new to the country. Saudi Arabia had already expressed its desire to develop nuclear energy some ten years ago. However, no nuclear power plants have yet been built and fossil fuels still represent the largest part of Saudi Arabia’s energy mix.

To alleviate potential concerns that could be raised by such a nuclear programme in the country, the Minister insisted that it would be developed in a transparent way and with the cooperation of selected partners. Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman al-Saud also said that a new energy strategy would soon be unveiled and that it held the potential to make Saudi Arabia the largest producer of cheap green energy. Through its national company Saudi Arabia Mining Co. (Ma'aden), the Kingdom also intends to create partnerships abroad to invest in the field. 

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