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27 October 2021updated 28 Oct 2021 10:24am

IUCN’s Al Mubarak: the conservation leader who says we can work with oil majors

While campaigners call for a ban on fossil fuel sponsorship, the head of the planet's biggest nature network takes a different stance.

By India Bourke

“Nature was not just a key to my future and my present, but really a key to my past,” says Razan Al Mubarak, explaining how the landscapes of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) shaped her sense of self. Everything from poetry to the rhythm of daily life seemed guided by “the winds, the seasons, the sea”, she recalls. The fast pace of development also left her alert to the losses that urbanisation and environmental degradation entail, but as head of the world’s largest environmental network, she prefers to engage with the polluters rather than ignore them.

“There are 200 words in the Arabic language to describe the sound of the wind in the desert,” says the new president for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “So when you lose that desert landscape, you lose the words — and when you lose the words, you start losing an identity.”

A scion of one of the most important families in the oil-rich UAE, Al Mubarak is particularly mindful of the entwined history of nature conservation and the fossil fuel economy in her home region, with money from one supporting action on the other. Nor is she afraid to defend the relationship. 

Even as campaigners call for an end to all forms of fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship, the IUCN has reportedly been considering a new partnership with TotalEnergies – a fossil fuel giant that has been accused of downplaying the risks of climate change. The IUCN already has a longstanding partnership with Shell.

Al Mubarak said she was unable to comment on TotalEnergies as she hadn’t been involved in the project and didn’t want to “say something out of ignorance”. But she believes such partnerships still leave IUCN “best placed to engage” in situations where local communities and NGOs are concerned about an extractive firm’s activity. “As an outside broker, you’re able to say things that perhaps a local institution can’t necessarily say,” she says, highlighting the way it can provide factual information to both sides. 

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But can IUCN remain a neutral broker if it is receiving money from a fossil fuel partner? 

“You can agree to disagree right from the beginning, and I think that’s really important,” says Al Mubarak. “Whatever deal you’re striking, make it very clear. And IUCN has the knowledge, because of its network and connectivity on the ground, to be able to set those red lines. We can work together if we respect these boundaries. If we don’t, then we will disagree and make that very clear.”

One “major” red line when deciding whether to work with a fossil fuel company, for example, might be not allowing any activity “that infringes on the integrity of a protected area”.

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Behind this philosophy is a commitment to the idea that conservation organisations must keep an open dialogue with private businesses. NGOs “can’t ignore” business, and instead need “to allow the creative pull of the business community to help solve some of the challenges that we’re facing”. 

“Not all oil majors are created equal,” she concedes, but NGOs should “have the integrity and courage” to work with those that have shown initiative.

Al Mubarak’s approach is informed by her own experience of UAE culture. When we spoke recently over Zoom, an awareness of heritage suffused the 42 year-old’s vision of the world – from the sweep of calligraphic art that decorates her elegant living-room, to her environmental sensitivity.

The daughter of an assassinated ambassador to France, Al Mubarak and her siblings were taken under the wing of the UAE’s ruling family and have now become key to the country’s ambitions on the global stage. One brother, Khaldoon, is chairman of Manchester City football club and a close adviser to Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan. Another, Mohamed, oversees Abu Dhabi’s tourism and culture industries.

Mubarak’s career, meanwhile, has taken in another part of UAE identity: restoring its natural wealth. As a child, she remembers spending hours exploring the island archipelago, accompanied by shoals of fish and flocks of birds. Yet today, when she takes her own children out in a dinghy, she has to warn them that they’re unlikely to see many animals at all: “It’s exciting if they see just one dolphin; but I grew up with whole families.”

An appreciation of conservation is “in the DNA” of the water-scarce UAE, believes Al Mubarak. The late sheikh and his descendants poured revenues from the country’s oil and gas reserves into schemes to “green the desert”, she notes. And in 2001, while still in her early twenties, Al Mubarak helped found Emirates Nature, an affiliate of WWF, before going on to head Mohamed bin Zayed’s Species Conservation Fund. By 2011, she had become the youngest ever secretary-general of the government’s EAD environment agency.

Now, as the second woman to be IUCN president, she is keen to empower more women. And as its first female president from an Arab nation, she is also concerned with demonstrating that her region can represent on issues that are not just “about conflict”. 

But the UAE’s dual legacy of oil money on the one hand, conservation on the other is not straightforward. The temperature in Dubai was an uncomfortable 34 degrees on the afternoon we spoke, and scientists predict regular temperatures over 56 degrees in the region if global emissions are not curtailed.

[see also: What future for oil nations in a zero-carbon world?]

Gleaming “sustainable” cities and a commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050 are promising signs of a domestic transformation. Yet the world’s seventh largest oil exporter is still investing in new production, in spite of the International Energy Agency’s call to end new supply.

How does Al Mubarak feel about accusations that the UAE’s conservation efforts are mere “greenwash”? 

“From a conservation perspective, it’s really important that you maintain your integrity and you really speak science,” she says. “Today, almost 80 per cent of the mangroves that you see on the UAE coast are manmade. And the impact of that work is something we are now reaping the fruits of.”

Tension between the needs of businesses and the environment are set to take the global spotlight at next week’s Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow; not least over using money from carbon offsets to pay for forest protection (Al Mubarak is clear that doing so should be in addition to, not instead of, companies reducing emissions).

And ahead of next year’s Cop15 Biodiversity summit in China, Al Mubarak is also keen that conservation takes centre stage in its own right. She believes setting better targets and reporting mechanisms for stemming biodiversity loss are essential. But unlike the climate target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, no such clear aim exists for the many challenges facing nature.

Making progress will be tough and will require countries to unite around shared aims. Yet there is something winning about Mubarak’s mix of poetic sensibility and matter-of-fact descriptions of the animal world (in which grouper fish are “very cuddly, not very bright”, and Sri Lanka’s fishing cat is a “nice looking cat, likes fishing”). Behind it is a recognition of the magnitude of loss at stake.

“I genuinely believe we are part of this incredible tapestry of life,” she says. “You take any species out and you’re losing the beauty of the tapestry, until finally, at the end, you’re left with threads.”