BP has ‘hands full with gas’ in Egypt and ‘won’t be vehicle’ for transition, concludes UK Ambassador in email

  • Documents released by UK Foreign Office under FOI shine spotlight on BP’s major focus on fossil gas in Egypt
  • Email from British Ambassador reports that BP said it had its ‘hands full with gas’ and was ‘low key’ on green energy in the country
  • Despite human rights situation, BP CEO Bernard Looney met with President Sisi earlier this year but appeared to snub invitation from British Ambassador
  • Pressure grows for release of political prisoner Alaa Abd el-Fattah to be secured during COP27

You can view the emails in full at the end of this post.

As efforts to curb new oil and gas production are stepped up at the COP27 Climate Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, new documents released under Freedom of Information (FOI) rules shine a spotlight on BP’s role as a champion of fossil gas production in Egypt. An internal email sent by the British Ambassador earlier this year reports that BP had admitted in a meeting that it had ‘its hands full with gas’ and had been ‘low key’ about green energy projects in Egypt, with the Ambassador remarking to a colleague that BP Egypt ‘certainly won’t be the vehicle’ for energy transition initiatives in the region. 

The emails paint a picture of diplomacy and networking with BP and the Egyptian government playing out through trade missions, Embassy receptions and at polo events over the last year in spite of ongoing human rights concerns. Today, pressure continues to mount on the UK government to secure the release of Egyptian-British writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah.

Attendees gathered on Thursday at the COP27 Climate Summit to insist there can be no climate justice without human rights. Photo by Jack Shenker / @hackneylad

BP claims that, with its partners, it is responsible for 60% of Egypt’s total fossil gas production which it has dramatically expanded over the last decade, and its total investments in Egypt have doubled since the Egyptian Revolution, climbing from $17 billion in 2010, to $35 billion today. The emails released by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) following a request made by the campaign organisation Culture Unstained reflect this almost singular focus on fossil fuel production. You can read the emails in full here.

  • In an email sent on 21st March 2022, British Ambassador to Egypt Gareth Bayley writes to a colleague following a meeting:

Bayley’s colleague replied that BP had also been uninterested in a call with the UK Trade Secretary and that:   

‘We wanted to impress on BP the opportunities of [the Just Energy Transition Partnership] in South Africa, COP partnership in Egypt, and rapid transition in Africa.’

In reply, Bayley simply remarks:

  • The documents clearly illustrate how highly BP values its close relationship with President Sisi, with BP CEO Bernard Looney meeting with the Egyptian President during the EGYPS oil, gas and energy conference on the 14th February but the company appeared to snub the British Ambassador and UK trade team. An email sent on 7th February notes:

Help is then sought from colleagues working on trade:

The response two days later, after working with contacts at BP and Shell to try and secure meetings, is that:               

Following Bernard Looney’s meeting with the President, it was reported that Sisi had said there was a need

‘To remove any impediments facing [BP’s] work so as to further advance search and exploration efforts as well as oil production in Egypt’

And that BP’s CEO had ‘lauded President El-Sisi’s wise leadership and ambitious vision’, disregarding the human rights situation in the country.

  • The emails also give an illuminating insight into informal networking that plays out between BP, the British Embassy and the Egyptian government, at occasions like Polo matches. In October 2021 the Ambassador and an unnamed official:

‘Met <Redacted> of BP at the Polo event’

And then arranged to follow up on: 

‘A letter sent sometime back requesting a meeting with HMA [Her Majesty’s Ambassador]’

The Ambassador himself threw in the ball as the British Army Polo team took on the King’s Polo team in Cairo. British Army Polo were in Egypt on a trip supporting the UK government’s GREAT campaign, which aims to drive exports and investment, with the Polo Team seeking to align ‘overseas tours and sponsorship with Defence Diplomacy aims and objectives wherever possible.’

A few weeks later, a ‘high level’ UK delegation attended the Egyptian Defence Exhibition, EDEX, and announced:

‘The biggest UK defence agreement with Egypt in two decades’

Gareth Bayley said the UK-Egypt relationship was ‘going from strength to strength’ and ‘our cooperation across the board – from climate to culture – is closer than ever’.

  • An email from BP sent on 22nd February 2022 shows BP also asking the British Embassy to help promote its close partnership with the Egyptian government on its media channels, specifically its continued collaboration with Egypt’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources on a ‘Middle Management Programme’ involving work-based training and a course at Manchester University in the UK:       

Chris Garrard, Co-director of Culture Unstained, has said:

‘The British Ambassador is right. While BP claims that it is leading the energy transition, in Egypt its hands are full with fossil gas extraction, its business aided by President Sisi’s repressive laws which have all but shut down scrutiny and opposition from communities on the ground. As climate impacts have intensified and the human rights situation worsened, rather than speaking out and stepping back, BP has instead chosen to ramp up its fossil fuel investments and lavished praise on Egypt’s President.’ 

People mobilise against BP’s plans in Idku in 2011. Photo by Mika Minio-Paluello

In 2011, local resistance in Idku disrupted and delayed BP’s plans to build a gas processing plant as part of its West Nile Delta developments, and the project was eventually abandoned. However, following the introduction of a regressive anti-protest law, and changes to investment laws which removed avenues for citizens to challenge contracts, that kind of community opposition became all but impossible and BP’s operations resumed.

In the thread below, Sanaa Seif – activist and sister of Alaa Abd el-Fattah – tells the story of Idku and the climate movement in Egypt.

While the Egyptian government has sought to use its hosting of COP27 as a way to promote itself on the world stage, it has so far been overshadowed by human rights concerns and specifically calls for the release of Egyptian-British writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah who had been on hunger strike for over 200 days before then starting to refuse water from the first day of the Summit. For the latest developments, a rolling press release is available here

On Tuesday, UK Parliament Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy said, ‘there should be serious diplomatic consequences’ if Alaa is not released and consular access not granted. He has subsequently suggested that he would support limiting the role of Egypt’s Ambassador in the UK. 

As Egypt’s Ambassador to the UK opened the British Museum’s ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’ exhibition, Feral X projected an image of Alaa Abd el-Fattah onto the building outside. Photo by Ron Fassbender.

Just a few weeks ago, the Egyptian Ambassador opened a major new exhibition, ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’ at the British Museum, which is being sponsored by BP. Ahead of the opening, a letter with over 70 signatories including leading cultural figures and climate organisations, urged the Museum to back calls for release of political prisoners including Alaa ahead of COP27. The Museum has still not made a formal response to the letter, claiming that, despite its connections with the Egyptian government, it ‘has a duty to operate as a politically impartial institution’.

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Emails disclosed by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) under Freedom of Information