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Missiles, bullying claims, a tragic death: what’s going on at Saudi Aramco?

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When Alwyn Whitcher took a job with Saudi Aramco in 2017, he believed he was joining a company with a history of valuing the expatriate engineers who helped build and run the desert kingdom’s state oil giant. Three years after the South African started work at the Saudi Arabian cash cow, his dead body was tipped from the digger of a JCB into a rudimentary grave at a site that looks like a landfill.

Following his death in July and his burial on the outskirts of the Jizan refinery project in the south-west of the country, his grieving family had to wait almost five months to receive any benefits or back wages from the company, which vies with Apple to be the world’s most valuable.

Kareen Whitcher, his widow, says Saudi Aramco and local authorities repeatedly denied her 46-year-old husband medical testing and treatment when he first fell ill with Covid-19 in early June, despite some of his Saudi Arabian office colleagues having tested positive for the virus. 

“If they had treated him properly early on, or sent him to a proper hospital, I’m convinced he would have survived,” says Kareen, who used to run a medical centre in Durban. “But it was all too late.” Saudi Aramco says it provided Whitcher with swift medical care and acted with “compassion at all times”.

The Whitchers’ story is one among many from expatriate employees who say they have been mistreated by the world’s largest energy company, which produces roughly 10 per cent of the oil consumed globally and underpins the wealth of Saudi Arabia’s royal family.

Alwyn Whitcher, seen here with his two children in 2019, was working for Saudi Aramco when he caught Covid-19 © Courtesy the Whitcher family
Whitcher in hospital on the day he was put into a coma. He passed away in July © Courtesy the Whitcher family

For decades, Aramco has attracted expatriates prepared to accept the restrictions of life in the kingdom with promises of safe compounds for families, high salaries and bonuses. The company has long painted itself as an operation run along the lines of western energy majors such as ExxonMobil and BP, despite being a state-backed enterprise.

But five whistleblowers who spoke to the FT — including current and former Saudi Aramco employees — warn that treatment of expatriate staff has deteriorated markedly in recent years, threatening morale and the safety of projects.

These whistleblowers believe a company squeezed by an oil crash that has upended the entire industry — and under pressure to accelerate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans for the “Saudisation” of the kingdom’s workforce — has taken to pushing out key staff and cutting corners on projects such as the Jizan development. But they also paint a detailed picture of a company culture troubled by perceived mistreatment of experienced expatriates, from bullying and mismanagement to racism and allegations of neglect. 


The complaints largely centre on Jizan, a refinery due to open next year on the country’s southern Red Sea coast and near the border with Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has waged a five-year war. Many of the problems here, including a missile strike in July by Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen, are alleged to have been largely downplayed in the rush to finish the project. One current employee describes the site as a “ticking bomb”. 

As the pandemic caused oil prices to tumble this year, the kingdom instructed Saudi Aramco to slash production in an effort to shore up the price and rescue its finances. Hundreds of expatriate workers have been laid off in recent months as the company scrambles to cut costs during the oil slump, following a policy of letting foreign workers go first, regardless of performance. Overtime pay and holiday leave have been restricted, with workers under pressure to do more for less because of a $45-a-barrel oil price, which is just over half of what Saudi Arabia needs to balance its budget.

The Jizan site in 2016
The Jizan site in 2016. The refinery, on Saudi Arabia’s southern Red Sea coast, is due to open next year © James/YouTube

Saudi Aramco rejects the allegations and “what they insinuate about the way Aramco is managed and run”, saying it is proud of its multinational workforce and safety standards that “are in excess of international standards”, with lower recorded fatality and injury rates in 2018 and 2019 than western rivals. It has indicated it will “investigate claims of any violations of our standards”.

For Alwyn Whitcher it is already too late. When he was eventually hospitalised he was quarantined for more than a week in a room which, he told Kareen, had restricted access to a toilet, resulting in him soiling himself on occasion. His only contact with the outside world was increasingly desperate video calls to his wife as his breathing became more laboured. Eventually, he was placed in a coma and intubated. Kareen became entirely reliant on Saudi Aramco for news of his condition.

The company says its HR team was in contact with his wife “twice a day, mainly by text message”, when her husband was on a ventilator. Kareen, who is adamant Aramco needs to answer for her husband’s death and her family’s subsequent treatment, says there was “no contact with me, none whatsoever, before Alwyn went into a coma”. After that, she says, communication was sparse, normally consisting of a promise to update her in the evening, followed by a later text saying something along the lines of “Still in coma, not breathing on own”. The hospital would not speak to Kareen or other family members directly.

After two weeks on a ventilator, Whitcher passed away. His wife found out through a condolence text from one of his former colleagues. She says Saudi Aramco did not formally contact her until approximately 14 hours after his death. The company believes it was the first to contact her after receiving “proper confirmation” from the hospital.

It also says Whitcher only presented with illness three weeks before his death. But Kareen says this timeline ignores a near three-week period beforehand in which he was asking the company and local authorities for help, having developed a host of flu-like symptoms after being in contact with a Saudi Arabian colleague confirmed to have the virus. “He was told just to keep his gloves and mask on,” Kareen says. “He eventually had to call the ambulance himself.”

Since her husband’s death, Kareen says Saudi Aramco has made her jump through endless bureaucratic hoops. Requests to have her husband’s body flown back to South Africa were rebuffed so many times she eventually consented to have it buried in the kingdom.

The company says the pandemic made repatriation impossible, but emails from the South African consulate in Jeddah show staff there had located a company willing to transport his body and connected them to Aramco. “It is now up to them to negotiate as to whether they will proceed with the process or not,” an email from an administrator at the consulate shows.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: expatriate workers have been squeezed as part of his ‘Saudisation’ of the economy © Mandel NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser. The company says it believes it is ‘recognised as being among the best companies in the world with regard to quality management’ © Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

Kareen says she was later told by a member of Saudi Aramco HR that her attempts had always been futile. “They told me, ‘It’s a good thing you decided to have him buried there, as we were never going to give you his body anyway,’” she claims.

Whitcher had worked in Saudi Arabia earlier in his 20-year career in the energy industry. He had previously been a contractor on a refinery project in the kingdom. “When he worked in Saudi Arabia before, he was paid amazingly, he was treated well, that’s why he went back,” says Kareen. “But everything had changed.”


For decades, a job at Saudi Aramco meant a golden ticket for expatriate oil workers. International employees still make up more than 10 per cent of its workforce. In 2019 the company listed a small slice of its shares on Saudi Arabia’s domestic exchange, valuing the total business at as much as $2tn, and it has long-running ambitions to list internationally.

While share prices of other large oil companies such as ExxonMobil have declined by about 40 per cent since the start of this year, Saudi Aramco’s is higher than it was in January. It is borrowing heavily on international debt markets to keep paying its bumper $75bn dividend, the vast majority of which goes to its largest shareholder, the Saudi government.

While Saudi Aramco is well regarded in the industry, it is far from an ordinary company. Its biggest shareholder is ultimately the royal family, putting its future and culture at the whim of the crown prince and de facto heir widely known as MBS. When Aramco was preparing to list, the Financial Times reported that wealthy families with ties to the kingdom, including those held and in some instances allegedly tortured in the Ritz-Carlton “anti-corruption” crackdown of 2017-18, were being pressured to invest to help reach MBS’s lofty valuation of the company.

Drilling by the Arabian-American Oil Company, later Saudi Aramco, c1955
Drilling in the 1950s by the Arabian-American Oil Company, later to become Saudi Aramco © Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images

Though MBS’s international reputation has been tarnished by the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, his plans to modernise the kingdom, such as allowing women to drive and trying to increase employment for young Saudis, have won broad support at home, where under-35s make up around 70 per cent of the population. Youth unemployment was above 30 per cent last year. In 2016 MBS told The Economist that there were “10 million jobs that are being occupied by non-Saudi employees [in the kingdom] that I can resort to at any time of my choosing”. As part of his “Saudisation” of the economy, experienced expatriate workers have been squeezed — a move exacerbated by the oil crash.

They complain that the attitude towards them has corroded, with their expertise often dismissed by a new generation of Saudi Arabian management less willing to take on board international standards.

“There’s a different attitude towards expats from the days when they were highly valued and seen as having built the company,” says Valérie Marcel, an expert in state-backed oil companies at Chatham House. “There have long been concerns, even within the company, whether this generation of managers, who unlike their forebears grew up wealthy and didn’t have to struggle, would be as well placed to manage what is one of the world’s most important companies. One of Saudi Aramco’s weaknesses is it doesn’t have a culture of challenge.” 

Reports from Jizan illustrate the problem, despite Saudi Aramco stating on its website that “safety is one of our five core values” and “underlies and sustains the performance of our entire workforce”. Whistleblowers say the project, which started in 2012, has become affected by problems such as subsidence of foundations, while many safety features they would expect to see on a modern refinery have been signed off without sufficient checks or testing in their view.

In a 14-page letter sent to Saudi Aramco chief executive Amin Nasser in June, one former employee laid out his concerns. He detailed complaints over his own dismissal, reports of bullying and harassment of staff, and the company’s failure to pressure-test valves and mains units and other parts of the project that had been installed “highly dangerously”. The letter details cracks in the refinery structure and subsidence of roads and foundations and describes decisions carried out “against all the advice offered from expat operations supervisors”.

The former employee, who has asked not to be named, never received a response.

© Brian Stauffer

One current expatriate employee, who also wishes not to be named, is blunter. “The way it is going, this refinery runs a real risk of becoming Saudi Arabia’s Piper Alpha,” he says, referring to the 1988 disaster that killed 167 workers on a North Sea oil rig. “There’s been a multitude of sins. People have been pressured to sign off work without the proper systems checks. Corners have been cut. It’s got inherent issues that have been covered up or patched over that pose a real safety risk.”

This experienced engineer says Aramco’s own engineering practices “aren’t bad as such, if they’re followed, even if they’re not that modern . . . But the problem is the ineptitude and laziness of the people that work here. They don’t like criticism, they don’t like challenge, they don’t like being told their views are wrong.”

In the letter to Nasser, the former employee said there was “an atmosphere of intimidation and constant fear” among employees at the Jizan project because of threats of “losing their jobs” if they spoke out. He had been criticised for being difficult to work with, which he believes stemmed from his willingness to challenge procedures he thought were unsafe.

“I truly never believed that coming to Saudi Arabia to work for the world’s biggest oil & gas producer to help them construct a refinery the magnitude of Jizan could end so badly for myself simply because I stood up for what I believed was right,” the letter said.

Saudi Aramco says it believes it is “recognised as being among the best companies in the world with regard to quality management across its many mega and giga projects”, arguing that “the company’s processes are carefully applied across every project . . . and the projects at Jazan [an alternative spelling] are no exception”. The company says allegations around bullying and mistreatment of staff were taken “very seriously”.

Industry analysts believe there are further challenges ahead for the company as Saudi Arabia’s priorities evolve. “MBS envisions an economy that has moved beyond oil . . . but while Saudi Aramco remains the beating heart of the Saudi economy, the strategic focus has moved elsewhere,” says Bill Farren-Price, an industry analyst at Enverus. “Maintaining the highest corporate standards that burnished Aramco’s reputation in its heyday may be less of a priority in the years ahead.”


A softly spoken English engineer with more than 30 years’ experience in the oil and gas industry, Michael Reading says he was forced to quit Saudi Aramco to protect his health. In August 2019, after three successful years at the company, Reading (not his real name) was travelling to Jizan airport to fly back to his family in the eastern city of Dhahran for a weekend break.

Earlier in his posting, Reading had become concerned about safety procedures, believing that the Saudi Arabian nationals in charge of the project were at times failing to follow best practices in their rush to sign off each stage of the development, which was well over schedule and budget. The company had said in 2012 that the 400,000-barrel-a-day refinery and petrochemical facility would be ready by 2016.

But that night when he arrived at the airport he was confronted with a more immediate risk. As he pulled up, he saw four low-flying missiles approaching from the south, flames dripping from their tails, appearing to head directly for his location. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but the terror just grips you,” he says.

Jizan is close to the Yemen border and has been targeted by the Houthi rebel group
Jizan is close to the Yemen border and has been targeted by the Houthi rebel group © AFP via Getty images

In a matter of seconds the missiles were overhead, when suddenly they exploded — intercepted, Reading believes, by Saudi Arabia’s air defences. Badly traumatised, he was sedated by company doctors. Later, he collapsed once more and was diagnosed with early-stage post-traumatic stress disorder by a western doctor at the Johns Hopkins Aramco Healthcare medical centre in Dhahran.

“The doctor warned that if I went back to Jizan ‘You will get PTSD — you’ll find it hard to recover from that,’” Reading says. Yet his bosses had little sympathy. He was ordered to return or risk being fired despite a doctor’s email advising: “Do not attend work at Jazan but advise them of your readiness to work anywhere else.”

Reading believes part of the problem was that Jizan had gained a reputation for people trying to get relocated. The same doctor told him that some of his work was taken up by Saudi Arabian nationals wanting to be signed off from the project, which sits in one of the poorest corners of the country.

Map showing Mecca and Jizan in Saudi Arabia

Reading decided he had little choice but to hand in his notice. However, his letter of resignation was met with a mixture of derision and obfuscation. “My superintendent was laughing about it, reading out the letter to my colleagues in the office,” he says. “Then they started blocking my attempts to leave, saying they couldn’t pass such a letter to HR.” He believes he was forced to soften its contents to avoid his immediate management team facing questions from Saudi Aramco headquarters. But his mind was made up. “After the missile attack you look with fresh eyes and realise we’re on the verge of a war zone, but there’s little provision in place for workers’ safety. I asked, ‘What provisions are you making for our safety?’ and they’d rub their hands together and say, ‘God willing, it will be fine.’”

Other former and current expatriate employees at Jizan say their worries about the risk of attack have been ignored. “Any concerns raised about security were met with, ‘Are you questioning the ability of Saudi military authorities?’ — as if it’s an insult to even ask,” says one of the former employees, who quit after just five months. He said there was “no training or clear protocol of what to do in the event of an attack. They could have chucked a dozen missiles on that camp and folk would have been going around like headless chickens wondering where the fire hose was.” 

Saudi Aramco says it has run drills and has protocols of what to do in the event of an attack. But some staff believe the risks have been downplayed. In July a missile from Yemen scored a direct hit on the refinery. Photographs seen by the FT include shrapnel hits on some of the structures. “It happened at night and was cleared up by sunrise,” says one current employee, who described a “teardrop-shaped” crater in the ground which he believes is consistent with a large projectile hitting the refinery site.

A former Saudi Aramco employee: ‘Any concerns raised about security were met with, “Are you questioning the ability of Saudi military authorities?” – as if it’s an insult to even ask’
A former Saudi Aramco employee: ‘Any concerns raised about security were met with, “Are you questioning the ability of Saudi military authorities?” — as if it’s an insult to even ask’ © Sophie Gerrard

He believes the Houthis were warning they could hit personnel if they wanted. “But there’s been no communication to the workers here about the risk, beyond one laughable reference in an internal email to an ‘unfortunate external event’. In a few months there will be hydrocarbons flowing through this plant and it will be a live target that’s riddled with risks given the corners that have been cut.”

Last month in another attempted attack, two speedboats, laden with explosives and remotely controlled, were launched at an oil-loading facility close to the refinery. They were successfully intercepted by Saudi Arabian forces and the kingdom acknowledged the attack had caused a fire affecting a “floating hose” at an offshore oil-unloading platform, without providing further details.

According to the corporate intelligence arm of Ambrey — the world’s largest provider of maritime security guards — satellite imagery suggests an oil tanker was berthed close to where it assesses the attack took place, indicating a far larger disaster may have been only narrowly avoided. One employee at Jizan says the refinery has recently started taking in shipments of crude oil, propane and butane as part of preparations for its start-up next year.

Saudi Aramco says it was in “constant co-ordination with the Government, including military defence forces, to ensure the protection of Jazan Economic City from attack by air, land and sea” and that “thus far, the Saudi military has managed to intercept many Houthi rocket attacks”.

Reading eventually returned to the UK, where he has taken a job with a power plant. But he says his anger recently boiled over when watching Formula One, of which Saudi Aramco has become a major sponsor this year. “You see them there portraying themselves as a normal international company,” he says. “But I wish I could tell Amin Nasser [Saudi Aramco’s chief executive]: ‘You’ve got the best company in the world at your disposal. But you don’t put what you preach into practice. You do not have the respect for human life and wellbeing that you say you do.’”


For some at Jizan, safety concerns go beyond the site’s proximity to Yemen. When the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, employees say there were initially few measures taken to protect them. The buses that drive workers from the temporary camps and shared dorms to the plant were as packed as ever. Dining initially still took place in mess halls, where the quality of the food and general hygiene had long been a bone of contention among expatriates. Photographs seen by the FT show broken air conditioners dripping water down mouldy walls.

Whistleblowers say there was no screening of workers arriving at the site after trips to their families in other parts of Saudi Arabia, making it a prime vector for infection. More than 30 security personnel at Jizan fell ill in March, according to one former employee. A current employee says that by July they did have an internal contact-tracing system in place, but by that point staff were receiving five or six emails a day detailing colleagues who had fallen ill: “They were overwhelmed by it. You couldn’t get a test unless you were at death’s door.”

The Saudi Aramco Al-Midra tower complex in the eastern city of Dhahran © Bloomberg

Saudi Aramco says that both nationally and at Jizan it implemented a set of “strict guidelines” and procedures “to protect employees”, including sample testing early in the pandemic, compulsory mask use, temperature checks and other measures such as a “secure quarantine section within the camp”, with ample medical care available. “All these immediate actions and strict compliance have resulted in dramatically reducing the impact of Covid-19 on the Company’s employees and its operational sustainability,” it says.

While the vast majority who fell ill recovered, morale at the camp plummeted, according to current and former employees. Within Saudi Aramco, some expatriate workers were at more risk than others. Engineers from Europe or North America, or countries such as South Africa, were generally provided with better accommodation but those joining as labourers from countries like Bangladesh and Nepal were often in shared accommodation. Some of these dormitories were run on a “hot bed” basis, where workers would share beds with those on opposite shifts.

It is not the first time safety concerns have been flagged about Saudi Aramco accommodation. In 2015, at least 10 people died in a fire at an apartment complex housing employees in the east of the kingdom, many of whom were Pakistani.

Amnesty International has criticised Saudi Arabia, though not Saudi Aramco directly, for its treatment of migrants in the Jizan region during the pandemic, saying “thousands of Ethiopians expelled by neighbouring Yemen in March [were] left to languish in disease-ridden Saudi cells”.

“What you see in the labourers’ camps is better than that, but only marginally,” says one current Saudi Aramco employee. Early in the pandemic the company was forced to apologise after a photograph circulated on social media showing an international employee, who appeared to be of South Asian descent, dressed up as a human hand-sanitiser pump at one of the company’s offices. 

Staff accommodation at the Jizan site © Supplied by former employee
An image that appeared on Twitter earlier this year of a Saudi Aramco employee dressed as a hand-sanitiser pump © Twitter

Marcel, at Chatham House, says opportunities vary in the company: “As is common in the Gulf, there’s a hierarchy related to your race and nationality, with Americans and Europeans seen as above non-Gulf Arabs and even more so above South Asian nationals who’ve actually manned operations for years.”

Kareen Whitcher says she believes such racial disparities have contributed to her treatment by the company after the death of her husband, who, like her, was of mixed race. “When someone dies in South Africa the company would send a representative to help the family, they would offer counselling. Aramco did nothing of this,” Kareen says. “They’ve left me to go into debt. I had to live on a credit card with my kids, as they refused to pay anything for five months. Memorials, kids’ school fees, I had to pay all that.”

She eventually received more than $400,000 in benefits, back pay and a company-backed insurance policy in November and December, with the latter being paid after Saudi Aramco had received questions from the FT. While Kareen says there is still a dispute over the final insurance amount, there has been a “notable shift in tone” from the company. “They were giving me no help at all, putting obstacles every step of the way,” says Kareen, who initially would only talk to the FT by video call so she could confirm it was not a sting operation by the company. “In the last week they have suddenly got busy.”

She is still angry with Saudi Aramco and how she alleges her husband and family have been treated. When the company finally returned some of his belongings, four months after he died, many of his clothes were missing, including the collection of Liverpool FC shirts that she had hoped their young son could inherit. “Alwyn got on well with his Saudi Arabian colleagues,” she says. “But the people higher up the chain have done nothing to help us.” 

Alwyn and Kareen Whitcher in 2018 © Courtesy the Whitcher family
Alwyn’s burial in July at a site on the outskirts of the Jizan refinery project © Courtesy the Whitcher family

She says Whitcher’s mobile phone, which was returned, had been wiped of all photos, videos and messages from June 23 onwards — the day he was admitted to hospital. When told that Saudi Aramco’s response to the allegations is that it has “acted with compassion at all times”, she laughs hollowly. The company says it rejects any insinuation that it deleted anything from his phone at any stage.

She has been told by lawyers in South Africa that the chance of taking successful legal action against Saudi Aramco is nonexistent. Other expatriates, who have pursued similar avenues, including attempting to hire lawyers in the kingdom, have run into the same problem. “You can’t fight these people. You would be fighting the Saudi Arabian government, which is the royal family,” Kareen says. “So it doesn’t matter what you say.”

A 12-second video clip of the end of Whitcher’s burial, filmed by Kareen’s nephew, who also works at Jizan, shows a sandy site covered in track marks. Current employees say it was set aside for non-Muslims who had died of Covid-19. Kareen worries the family may not be able to locate the grave in the future, though the company says the burial plot co-ordinates have been recorded by the cemetery. “They have never shared them with me or anyone in the family,” she says.

“We thank you for our brothers in Saudi Arabia and Saudi Aramco for the support that they have given us, amen,” says one man in the clip. “It is like a sick joke,” says Kareen. “They have given us no support at all.” 

David Sheppard is the FT’s energy editor

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A carbon registry leaves polluters with nowhere left to hide

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The writer is the founder and executive chair of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a think-tank

No one yet knows which countries will extract the last barrel of oil, therm of gas or seam of coal. But the jostling has started. Every nation has reasons to believe it has the “right” to continue fossil fuel extraction, leaving others to deal with the climate crisis.

In the Middle East, oil producers can argue that the cost of extraction is low. In Canada, they market their human rights record. Norwegians trumpet the low-carbon intensity of their operations. And in the US under Donald Trump, they touted the virtues of “freedom gas” and called exports of liquefied natural gas “molecules of freedom”.

The dilemma for governments is that if one country stops producing fossil fuels domestically, others will step in to take market share. And so the obligation to contain emissions set out in the Paris Agreement risks being undermined by special pleading.

In the UK, the furore over plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria the year that the country is hosting the UN’s climate summit is indicative of the contrary positions many countries hold. Facing one way the government says it is addressing climate change. But looking the other, it consents not just to continued extraction, but to support and subsidise the expansion of production.

Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here 

To keep warming under the Paris Agreement limit of 1.5C, countries need to decrease production of oil, gas and coal by 6 per cent a year for the next decade. Worryingly, they are instead planning increases of 2 per cent annually, the UN says. On this course, by 2030 production will be too high to keep temperature rises below 1.5C. The climate maths just doesn’t work.

One of the problems in attempting to track fossil-fuel production is the lack of transparency by both governments and corporations over how much CO2 is embedded in reserves likely to be developed. This makes it difficult to determine how to use the last of the world’s “carbon budget” before temperature thresholds such as 1.5C are exceeded.

Governments need a tool that establishes the extent to which business as usual overshoots their “allowance” of carbon. There needs to be a corrective because the cost competitiveness of renewable energy, and the risk of stranded energy assets, has not stopped governments heavily subsidising fossil fuels. During the pandemic, stimulus dollars have been dumped into the fossil-fuel sector regardless of its steady financial decline, staggering mounds of debt and falling job count. 

This is why my initiative and Global Energy Monitor, a non-profit group, are developing a global registry of fossil fuels, a publicly available database of all reserves in the ground and in production. This will allow governments, investors, researchers and civil society organisations, including the public, to assess the amount of embedded CO2 in coal, oil and gas projects globally. It will be a standalone tool and can provide a model for a potential UN-hosted registry.

With it, producer nations will have nowhere left to hide. It will help counter the absence of mechanisms in the UN’s climate change convention to restrain national beggar-thy-neighbour expansion of fossil-fuel production.

No country, community or company can go it alone. But governments can draw from the lessons of nuclear non-proliferation. First, they must stop adding to the problem; exploration and expansion into new reserves must end. This must be accompanied by “global disarmament” — using up stockpiles and ceasing production. Finally, access to renewable energy and low-carbon solutions must be developed in comprehensive and equitable transition plans.

The choice is between phasing out fossil fuels and fast-tracking low-carbon solutions, or locking-in economic, health and climate catastrophe. A fossil-fuel registry will help governments and international organisations plan for the low-carbon world ahead.

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Hasty, imperfect ESG is not the path for business

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The writer is a global economist. Her book ‘How Boards Work’ will be published in May

Good environmental, social and governance practices take a company from financial shareholder maximisation to multiple stakeholder optimisation: society, community, employees. But if done poorly, not only does ESG miss its sustainability goals, it can make things worse and let down the very stakeholders it should help.

To be sure, the ESG agenda should be pursued with determination. But there are a number of reasons why it threatens to create bad outcomes. The agenda is putting companies on the defensive. From boardrooms, I have seen organisations worry about meeting the demands of environmental and social justice activists, leading to risk aversion in allocating capital. Yet innovation is the most important tool to address many of the challenges of climate change, inequality and social discord.

Pursued by $45tn of investments, using the broadest classification, ESG is weighed down by inconsistent, blurry metrics. Investors and lobbyists use different evaluation standards and goals, which focus on varied issues such as CO2 emissions and diversity. Metrics also depend on business models.

Without a clear, unified compass, companies that measure themselves against today’s standards risk seeming off base once a more consistent regulator-led direction emerges (for example, from worker audits, the COP26 summit and the Paris Club lender nations).

ESG is not without cost and the best hope for long-term success lies with business leaders’ ability to stay attuned to its impact and unintended consequences. For example, while the case for diversity is incontrovertible, efforts at inclusion should account for the possible casualties of positive discrimination.

Furthermore, despite ESG advocates setting a strong and singular direction for governance, organisations have to maintain their operations and value while managing assets and people in a world where cultural and ethical values are far from universal. While laudable, a heightened focus on ethics (such as human rights, environmental concerns, gender and racial parity, data privacy and worker advocacy) places additional stress on global companies.

It is often asked if advocates appreciate that ESG is largely viewed from the west’s narrow and wealthy economic perspective. To be truly sustainable, ESG demands global solutions to global problems. Proposals need to be scalable, exportable and palatable to emerging countries like India and China, or no effort will truly move the needle.

Much of the agenda is too rigid, requires aggressive timelines and lacks the spirit of innovation to achieve long-term societal progress. Stakeholders’ interests differ, so ESG solutions must be nuanced, balanced and trade off speed of implementation against the breadth and depth of change.

Business leaders are aware of the need for greater focus and prioritisation of ESG. We also understand that deadlines can provide important levers for senior managers to spur their organisations into action. After all, in the face of pressure for a solution to the global pandemic, vaccines were produced in months instead of the usual 10 years.

I live at the crossroads of these tensions every day. Raised in Africa, I have lived in energy poverty, and seen how it continues to impede living standards globally. As a board member of a global energy company, I have seen much investment in the energy transition. Yet from my role with a university endowment, I have also been under pressure to divest from energy corporations. 

Business leaders must solve ESG concerns in ways that do not set corporations on a path to failure in the long term. They must have the boldness to adopt a flexible, measured and experimental agenda for lasting change. In this sense, they must push back against the politically led narrative that wants imperfect ESG changes at any cost.



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UAE’s Taqa seeks to shine with solar energy push

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From a distance, the 3.4m panels making up the United Arab Emirates’ largest solar power plant look like a massive lake.

But Noor Abu Dhabi, nestled between camel farms and rolling sand dunes, is no mirage. The 1.2 gigawatt facility — the world’s largest single-site plant — produces enough electricity for around 90,000 homes. Owned by Taqa, an Abu Dhabi state-backed utility, with Japan’s Marubeni and China’s JinkoSolar, it will celebrate its second anniversary of operations this month.

Staff constantly scan for repairs so production can be maximised during daylight hours, while every evening more than 1,400 robotic cleaners wipe the dust from the banks of solar panels to boost efficiency.

Noor and another Taqa project — an even larger 2GW solar plant under construction in Al Dhafra, nearer the capital — are emblematic of the company’s ambitions to recast itself as a force in clean energy.

It has outlined a new sustainable strategy with a goal for renewables to form 30 per cent of its energy mix, compared with 5 per cent now, and plans to boost domestic power capacity from 18GW to 30GW by 2030. It will set itself a carbon emissions target later this year.

“We want to transform Taqa into a power and water low-carbon champion in and outside the United Arab Emirates,” said Jasim Husain Thabet, chief executive of the power provider, which is majority owned by government holding company ADQ and listed on the emirate’s bourse.

Renewable sources account for a small part of the UAE’s energy supply

Taqa’s push into renewables is a key element of the UAE’s ambition to have clean energy form half of its energy mix by 2050, with 44 per cent from sources such as wind and solar and 6 per cent from nuclear power.

Last year, the oil-rich emirate had 2.3GW of renewable energy capacity, or seven per cent of the power production mix, mainly from solar power, according to Rystad Energy, a research firm. It forecasts that the UAE is on track to reach its 44 per cent target by 2050.

Although many Gulf governments have targets to boost solar and wind power, the UAE has been out in front.

The Al Dhafra plant is expected to boast the world’s most competitive solar tariff when complete. The facility, a joint venture with UAE renewable pioneer Masdar, EDF and JinkoPower, plans to power 150,000 homes when it comes online next year, reducing the country’s carbon emissions by the equivalent of taking 720,000 cars off the road.

“This is about being a good citizen,” said Thabet. “But it is also attractive for global investors keen on environmental sustainability, it fits in with our main shareholder’s priorities and brings down financing costs.”

Yet Taqa’s sustainability pitch could fall flat with investors scrutinising environmental concerns.

Taqa has committed to capping production at its overseas oil and gas assets, which span fields in Canada, the North Sea and Iraqi Kurdistan. But although it has not ruled out selling the hydrocarbons assets that it bought during a spending spree in the 2000s, divestment is not imminent.

“If the right opportunity comes we will consider it, but right now our focus is on enhancing operations and reducing emissions,” Thabet said.

The UAE, a leading oil exporter and member of Opec, is also committed to increasing its crude oil capacity in the coming years. The country is working towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but still has one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world.

But Mohammed Atif, area manager for the Middle East and Africa at DNV, a renewables advisory firm, said the UAE, like other major oil and gas producers such as Norway and the UK, are working for a more sustainable future. 

“Yes, the roots and history of the UAE are grounded in hydrocarbons, but they are aware of the challenge of climate change,” he said. “It is a transition, not a revolution, and that takes time.”

US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry: ‘There’s no reason why oil-producing countries cannot also be a key part of tackling the climate crisis’ © WAM/Handout via Reuters

John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, visited the Noor plant while attending a regional climate change dialogue in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, saying such “incredible energy projects” would “set us on the right path” to achieving the Paris Agreement goals that aim to limit global warming.

“There’s no reason why oil-producing countries cannot also be a key part of tackling the climate crisis,” he said in a tweet. 

At the same time, Taqa is eyeing opportunities to expand in renewables beyond the UAE. Last year it merged with Abu Dhabi Power Corporation, creating an integrated utility company with ADQ owning 98.6 per cent.

The government is expected to increase the free float via a share offering, Thabet said, declining to provide further details.

With exclusive rights to participate in power projects in Abu Dhabi over the next decade, the company is now mulling how to leverage that guaranteed cash flow abroad.

Thabet said the company would focus on projects and investments that burnish its sustainable credentials. It wants to build 15GW of power capacity outside the UAE. The group currently produces 5GW internationally, including 2GW in Morocco.

“We believe in solar and [photovoltaic] projects, so we will focus on that — but if there is an opportunity outside the UAE, such as onshore or offshore wind, then we will explore that,” he said. Taqa would also consider investing in international renewables platforms to reach its targets, he added.



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