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Gulf Arab states can't give up oil. But they can slash their emissions

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Abu Dhabi (CNN) As Western states try to wean themselves off their addiction to hydrocarbons, Gulf oil nations have been pushing back hard, warning that a hasty transition away from fossil fuels will be counterproductive.

But as they tell the world that it cannot live without the natural resource that has brought them enormous wealth, the Gulf states are embarking on their own ambitious clean energy projects.

Some of the world's largest hydrocarbon producers and exporters, Gulf countries are also among the globe's biggest polluters. Gas-rich Qatar and oil-wealthy Saudi Arabia have some of the heaviest carbon footprints on the planet. According to the World Bank, Qatar had the highest carbon emissions per capita as of 2019, followed by Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf monarchies are trying to change that, investing billions in the renewable energy sector, a plan that allows them to save more of their hydrocarbons for export to an energy-hungry world.

Analysts say the move is more than a publicity stunt in a world where hydrocarbons are increasingly stigmatized. It is pragmatic, they say.

"The Gulf states are making net zero domestic targets in some ways to increase their hydrocarbon assets for export, to take advantage of a window of opportunity of those products as demand is expected to gradually decline," said Karen Young, senior research scholar at Columbia's Center on Global Energy Policy.

Their push for going green at home also helps them battle their longstanding image of being heavy polluters, said Rafiq Latta, senior correspondent at Energy Intelligence, an energy information company.

"The last thing the Gulf states want is to appear dirty," Latta told CNN, "So they are investing heavily in green energy," which also opens avenues for business as the green energy industry gains global traction.

So, investment in clean energy projects and renewables "makes very good business sense and PR sense for the Gulf," he said.

Gulf petro-states are warning against a quick transition away from hydrocarbons, with the UAE calling for a "mixed energy" approach that minimizes emissions without cutting hydrocarbons.

The UAE is one of the biggest oil exporters, but has made renewable and green energy a priority, arguing that clean and dirty energy are complementary, not competing.

That view of the symbiotic relationship between the two types of energies that the UAE believes in is perhaps best demonstrated by Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the nation's main oil company ADNOC, who also happens to be the government's climate envoy. He has argued that by 2050, the world will need to produce 30% more energy than today.

"The world needs all the solutions it can get," he said at an energy summit in Abu Dhabi last month. "It is not oil or gas or solar or wind or nuclear or hydrogen. It is oil and gas and solar and wind ... It is all of the above."

The UAE was the first Middle Eastern state to add nuclear power to its energy mix 14 years ago and the first to set a net-zero emissions goal, by 2050. The Gulf state is home to the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and is due to host next year's COP28 climate summit.

Saudi Arabia, which has its own climate program, followed by announcing a net zero carbon emissions target of 2060. On Monday, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that his $620 billion wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, will also target net zero emissions by 2050, adding that the kingdom will contribute $2.5 billion to the Middle East Green Initiative, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from regional hydrocarbon production by more than 60%.

This month, the United States and the UAE signed a memorandum that aims to mobilize $100 billion on clean energy projects that would "accelerate toward a goal of deploying 100 gigawatts of clean energy by 2035." One gigawatt can power about 300,000 homes.

"The world will still have demand for oil and the Gulf approach, at least in Saudi and UAE, is to produce a cleaner oil product that emits less carbon from flaring and that is more efficient in extraction methods," said Young, "And they are doing that."

The flaring of natural gas is a by-product of oil production, and the waste contributes to severe air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Speaking to CNN's Becky Anderson on Tuesday during the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, the UAE's minister of climate change and environment Mariam Almheiri said that the Gulf state has been working toward "a just energy transition.".

"We are ramping up our renewables and at the same time decarbonizing our oil and gas sector," Almheiri told CNN, adding that the UAE now offers some of the lowest carbon footprint oil barrels in the world.

Much of the hydrocarbons exported by Gulf states go to some of the world's biggest consumers and polluters, including China and India.

Gulf states are however not directly responsible for the carbon footprints left by their consumers, and analysts say it's unrealistic to advocate for a cut in oil and gas extraction and export, as it would be detrimental to GCC economies.

"They've got their own self-interest to look after, and clearly it would be economic suicide to advocate for a radical shift away from oil and gas," said Latta.

"The turkey is not going to vote for Christmas, and the lamb is not going to vote for Eid, so I don't see the Gulf en masse moving or accelerating away from hydrocarbons any time soon," said Latta.

The UAE's mantra of "maximum energy, minimum emissions" calls for a combined energy supply in a slow and gradual energy transition to avoid a shock to the global economy.

While it is in their self-interest, "GCC states have first a responsibility to their citizens, and that means they must generate revenue," said Young. "Right now, the easiest and most efficient way to generate state revenue is to sell oil and gas. So that's what they will keep doing."

Iran protests

At least 18 people, including two children, were killed in last Friday's protests in the city of Khash, in Iran's Sistan and Baluchistan province, said Amnesty International on Thursday.

"This latest deadly incident in Sistan and Baluchistan province reveals that protesters from the oppressed Baluchi minority have borne the brunt of the security forces' particularly vicious crackdown on demonstrations," the human rights organization added.

Last week, protests turned violent in several cities in the province in southeast Iran, state media and activists said. Sistan and Baluchistan, which neighbors Pakistan and Afghanistan, is home to the long-oppressed Baluch ethnic minority and has a history of unrest with armed groups carrying out attacks against Iranian security personnel.

The deadly protests are part of a wider nationwide movement gripping Iran in recent weeks.

Here is the latest:

  • Iran's foreign minister on Thursday criticized his German counterpart after she tweeted a message of support for anti-government demonstrators on Wednesday.
  • Leading Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti posted a picture of herself on Instagram without the mandatory hijab to show support for the protests.
  • The Iranian government labeled London-based news channel Iran International as a "terrorist organization," the state-aligned news agency ISNA reported Tuesday, citing the country's information ministry.
  • Iranian forces then arrested a journalist from Iran International, ISNA reported Thursday. ISNA, referring to journalist Elham Afkari as an "agent," reported that she was arrested Thursday by the Ministry of Intelligence while trying to "flee the country." Iranian officials have identified Afkari as the sister of famous Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari, who was executed two years ago, according to the state news agency IRNA.

The digest

FIFA announces shared flights for Israeli and Palestinian football fans for 2022 World Cup

FIFA, football's world governing body, announced on Thursday that shared flights have been organized to permit Israeli and Palestinian fans into Qatar to watch the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

  • Background: In FIFA's press release, the organization's president Gianni Infantino said, "We are delighted that an agreement has been reached for Israeli and Palestinian fans to visit Qatar and attend matches during the FIFA World Cup. With this deal, Israelis and Palestinians will be able to fly together and enjoy football together." Qatar does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, but a temporary consular services office will be set up during the tournament to handle Israeli visitors. More than the 8,000 Palestinians and 3,800 Israelis have bought tickets for the tournament, a source briefed on the matter, but not authorized to speak publicly, told CNN.
  • Why it matters: The temporary charter flights between Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, represent the only official direct flights between the two nations. Two Gulf Arab states neighboring Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain, signed historic normalization agreements with Israel in 2020, but despite direct flights for the World Cup, a Qatari official told CNN that the country's stance on normalization "has not changed."

Lawyer of British-Egyptian hunger striker refused prison entry, authorities say he is in "good health"

Khaled Ali, a lawyer representing jailed British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah, tweeted Thursday that despite a permit, he was denied entry to Wadi Al Natroun prison to visit his client amid mounting concerns over Abd El-Fattah's deteriorating health. On the same day, Egypt's Public Prosecution said in a statement that a medical report shows jailed British-Egyptian writer and activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah is in "good health."

  • Background: The Public Prosecution said it has ordered the formation of a medical committee to look into Abd El-Fattah's health condition following a request by his attorney earlier this month to move him to a medical center. The Public Prosecution said in the statement that the medical report "concluded that Abd El Fattah is in good health and doesn't require moving to a medical center and recommended regular follow up." Abd El-Fattah, a leading activist in the country's 2011 uprising who has been imprisoned several times over nine years, escalated a more than 200-day hunger strike on Sunday as he stopped drinking water.

  • Why it matters: The family of Abd El-Fattah said Thursday that Egyptian authorities had intervened medically after the activist stopped drinking water, and urged British authorities to get information about his health status.

It'll be Bibi: Israel's president to invite Netanyahu to form next government

Israel's President Isaac Herzog announced Friday he will invite Benjamin Netanyahu to form the country's next government.

  • Background: Herzog will officially issue the mandate to Netanyahu on Sunday, he said. Herzog made the announcement after meeting with all the Knesset's factions to ask who they would back for prime minister. In a statement released by his office, he said: "At the end of the round of consultations, 64 members of the Knesset recommended to the president the chairman of the Likud faction, MK Benjamin Netanyahu." He added that 28 Knesset members recommended outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid. The same number chose not to recommend anyone. Under Israeli law, Netanyahu will then have 28 days to form a new government, with the possibility of a 14-day extension if required.

  • Why it matters: The invitation paves the way for Netanyahu to take Israel's top job for a record sixth time and his extend his record as the country's longest-serving leader. Netanyahu's ruling coalition is likely to be the most far-right government Israel has ever seen, which risks creating further tensions with Palestinians.

Around the region

Kathleen Martinez, an archaeologist at the University of Santo Domingo, has been searching for the lost tomb of Cleopatra for nearly 20 years. Now she believes she's made a pivotal breakthrough.

Martinez and her team uncovered a 1,305-meter (4,281-foot) tunnel, located 13 meters (43 feet) underground, the Egyptian Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities recently announced -- an architectural design experts called an "engineering miracle."

"The excavation revealed a huge religious center with three sanctuaries, a sacred lake, more than 1,500 objects, busts, statues, golden pieces, a huge collection of coins portraying Alexander the Great, Queen Cleopatra and the Ptolemies," Martinez told CNN.

"The most interesting discovery is the complex of tunnels leading to the Mediterranean Sea and sunken structures," she added. Exploring these underwater structures will be the next stage of her search for the Egyptian queen's lost tomb -- a journey that began in 2005.

A series of clues led Martinez to believe Cleopatra's tomb might be located in the Temple of Osiris in the ruined city of Taposiris Magna, on Egypt's northern coast, where the Nile River meets the Mediterranean.

Chief among them was the name itself. According to Martinez, Cleopatra was considered in her time to be "the human incarnation of the goddess Isis," as Antony was considered to be that of the god Orisis, Isis' husband.

Martinez believes Cleopatra may have chosen to bury her husband in the temple to reflect this myth. Of all the 20 temples around Alexandria she has studied, Martinez said, "no other place, structure or temple combines so many conditions as the temple of Taposiris Magna."

And after years of searching, Martinez feels she is getting close.

The excavations so far have revealed that "the temple was dedicated to Isis" -- which Martinez believes is another sign that the lost tomb lies nearby -- as well as the tunnels below the sea.

Now, Martinez said, she is at "the beginning of a new journey" -- underwater excavations.

This is where Martinez and her team are looking next. Although it is "too early to know where these tunnels lead," she is hopeful.

If the tunnels lead to Cleopatra, "it will be the most important discovery of the century," she said.

By Christian Edwards

Photo of the day

A girl with face-paint depicting the Palestinian flag looks on as others gather with flags of the Fatah movement during a rally to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in Gaza City on Thursday.

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