When the United Arab Emirates hosts this year’s United Nations climate summit, it will elevate the Gulf nation’s global profile. But the conference is also inviting scrutiny of the Emirates’ record on human rights as well as its position as a leading oil producer.
A leaked recording of a February meeting between representatives from the United Arab Emirates and summit organizers provides a candid look at their efforts to respond to the criticism. It also highlights the authoritarian state’s focus on its image, managed through contracts with public relations companies, lobbyists and social media specialists around the world.
Hosting the global summit, known as COP28, had given rise to unwelcome questions about the Emirates’ human rights record and “alarm bells started going off,” one Emirati official, who identified herself as head of the human rights office at the presidential court, told the gathering.
Taped in its entirety by a participant, the recording was obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting, a London-based nonprofit organization, and shared with the The New York Times. The Times verified the recording with the person who made it, who asked to remain anonymous out of concerns about retaliation.
One participant during the 30-minute meeting, who identified herself as Sconaid McGeachin, the communications director for the climate summit, said the Emirates needed a strategy to fend off critics.
“COPs have evolved, obviously, over time. Now they’re an outlet for activism and for youth activism,” said Ms. McGeachin, a public relations specialist who was hired by the Emirates. “They will use this opportunity to attack the U.A.E. We need to preserve the reputation of the U.A.E., to look at how we can protect that and enhance its reputation, and to try and minimize those attacks as much as possible.”
Vincent Hughes, a spokesman for the climate summit, called the recording “unverified” and declined to comment on its content. However, he added: “The COP28 team has held — and continues to hold — meetings regarding its comprehensive preparations with key and relevant stakeholders.” He said the conference would “take an inclusive approach that engages all stakeholders” and would be “a milestone moment for global climate action.”
The Emirati foreign ministry declined to answer questions. Ms. McGeachin declined to comment.
The Emirates’ neighbor, Qatar, found itself in a similar situation as host of the 2022 World Cup. Qatar faced a barrage of criticism and some boycotted the event over the country’s human rights policies, particularly LGBTQ and migrant worker rights. Last year’s U.N. climate conference, hosted by Egypt, was preceded by the arrests of dozens of activists by Egyptian security forces, triggering an international outcry.
The climate summit is convened annually by the United Nations, and its host countries rotate. It is set to take place this year in Dubai and will be led by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the Emirates’ climate envoy.
His appointment has been controversial. Mr. Al Jaber runs the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the state-owned oil giant, which provides about 3 percent of the world’s oil. He also runs the much smaller state-owned renewables company, Masdar.
That an oil executive will run an international gathering aimed at tackling climate change has been met with deep skepticism by environmental groups. Though Abu Dhabi has taken steps to diversify, its economy and government budget rely heavily on the continued production of oil and gas.
Human rights groups, meanwhile, have criticized the Emirates for its lack of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and other basic rights. Protests, which are common at United Nations climate summits, are essentially banned in the Emirates.
“That’s the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the U.A.E. acting as host of the annual global climate conference,” said Devin Kenney, who researches the United Arab Emirates for Amnesty International. “How are you supposed to have a serious discussion about a critical problem for all humanity in a country where critical discussion is illegal?”
In the recording, officials discuss a survey of more than 20,000 people in 20 countries about attitudes toward the Emirates, commissioned by the Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
“The biggest concerns that came out were all associated with human rights,” including freedom of speech, the right to protest and L.G.B.T.Q.+ issues, Ms. McGeachin told the gathering. Queer people can face severe discrimination in the Emirates, and the state’s vague laws — such as those that punish “promoting sin” or violating “public morals” — could be wielded against them, human rights groups warn.
Ms. McGeachin added that organizers should try to blunt the criticism by reaching out to human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have been critical of the Emirates’ record of abuses. “We need to demonstrate that, and we need to be seen to be engaging all stakeholders,” she said.
But the human rights official from the Emirati presidential court said a better strategy was to keep engagement tightly focused on climate change.
“Conversations should be limited to those directly associated with climate change,” she said in the recording. She said it was “not mandatory” to answer questions about the country’s position on L.G.B.T.Q. rights.
It was critical that the climate conference was “not used as a free pass to throw everything at us,” she said.
Human rights organizations have urged the Emirates to end its detention of activists, academics, lawyers and others. This week, more than a dozen human rights groups sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, calling on the United States to pressure the Emirates to release Ahmed Mansoor, a government critic who has been jailed since 2017.
As the host nation, the United Arab Emirates shapes all aspects of the summit, including the staffing, agenda and access, said Nikki Reisch, climate and energy program director at the Center for International Environmental Law. “But with that influence comes responsibility to manage the process for the benefit of the international community, not for the interest of a single country — and certainly not for a single industry.”
Under its agreement with the United Nations regarding the summit, the Emirates has promised to make “space available for climate activists to assemble peacefully and make their voices heard.” The secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which oversees global climate conferences, was “committed to upholding the rights of all participants” Alexander Saier, a spokesman for the organization, said.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said they had not been contacted by Emirates officials, and that numerous attempts to discuss human rights with the government had been ignored.
“If the complaint is that HRW and other groups will use COP28 to highlight human rights issues in the UAE, they are absolutely correct,” said Joey Shea, an investigator at Human Rights Watch. “The climate crisis is a human rights crisis, and governments at COP28 have a human rights obligation to address climate change.”
Vivian Nereim contributed reporting from Riyadh.