Saudi Arabia’s Crisis: Climate Change Opportunity


by Sunjeev Bery and Michelle Dixon

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is fast becoming a pariah among world leaders. Even as his family-run government continues pumping millions of barrels of oil, his own stock is dropping fast. Just yesterday, the Senate voted to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-UAE coalition’s brutal war in Yemen. The Senate then immediately voted to condemn MbS for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

For climate campaigners who are hungry for a new strategic fight, the Saudi oil monarchy’s failing brand is a rare and unique gift. For too long, the Saudi monarchy has had the political freedom to invest its vast oil profits in the Western economies of the world. The moment is now ripe for climate campaigners to give not just MbS but Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth itself a pariah status that no Western capitalist would dare touch.

For years, climate campaigners have focused their efforts in other important directions. These have ranged from the truly visionary, like the Paris Agreement, to critical initiatives to block new sources of fossil fuel, like campaigns against U.S. fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline. Oil producers like Saudi Arabia and Russia were never popular among Western societies, but their energy exports were considered a basic geopolitical reality. Of course, the United States now tops that oil-producing list.

A key factor in the impunity of the global oil economy is the freedom with which oil producers reinvest their fossil fuel profits into new economic sectors. Saudi Arabia is a unique example of a totalitarian system of government in which a ruling family essentially owns a people, a country, and the oil that flows beneath both. Key Silicon Valley businesses now serve as money-laundering operations for the very Saudi oil profits that are helping drive the planet into a ditch. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has invested billions in Uber and even bought Tesla stock. Through the Japanese company Softbank, the Saudi monarchy has invested even more into other Silicon Valley companies, including Slack and WeWork. Elon Musk wouldn’t openly finance Tesla with money from Exxon Mobil, for example, but he and many others have been perfectly willing to consider taking billions in Saudi oil wealth.

While Saudi Arabia competes with Russia and the United States for the mantle of top fossil-fuel producer, the monarchy has made itself an easy climate campaign target with its headline-dominating murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its war of starvation against the people of Yemen. As a result, many of the companies that have taken Saudi oil money are now vulnerable to significant reputational costs for their financial decisions. But so far, they haven’t faced any of the sustained pressure that would tarnish their brands and scare their investors.

With the right campaign, Saudi Arabia’s economic impunity could begin to erode. Not only that, but the morally bankrupt posture of many major oil-producing nations could also be brought into focus. According to the Associated Press, just last weekend the Trump administration worked with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait to block the endorsement of a critical study on global warming at the UN Climate Summit. There are currently no real consequences for actions like these. A campaign that begins with a focus on Saudi Arabia can eventually grow to target oil profits in every major country, including the United States.

In today’s climate, few CEOs would want to risk being the target of a campaign that defines their business as a “fossil-fuel company” financed by an oil monarchy. Saudi-funded companies in the United States are especially vulnerable. WeWork, for example, is a global office-sharing business whose entrepreneurial tenants could easily choose from other competitors. Uber has just barely emerged from waves of reputational damage for its misogynist work culture. And Tesla, a symbol of the new post-oil economy, can’t afford to be thought of as part-owned by Saudi oil money.

The successful fossil fuel divestment movement has already pushed many public and private institutions to give up their investments in the industries that drive climate change. Now is the time to force Western companies to give up the fossil-fuel profits that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is investing in them. No one knows how long the current political moment will last. But deep cracks in the Saudi monarchy’s alliances are starting to show, and that’s good news for climate change campaigners.

Sunjeev Bery is a campaign strategist with Win Without War. He has worked in fundraising, digital organizing, and communications roles with Rainforest Action Network, NRDC, and Food and Water Watch. Michelle Dixon is the organization’s deputy director and previously served as outreach director for U.S. Climate Action Network.

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