When the sultan who presided over the fairly successful climate talks in Dubai looked back on Wednesday at the two-week parley, he pinpointed one day, and one event, that he thought put it on the right path. It was the majlis that he convened this past Sunday. A majlis, from the Arabic word for sitting place, is a tradition in the Gulf region that’s older than Islam.
For much of COP — as the Conference of the Parties, the United Nations-sponsored gathering dedicated to fighting climate change, is called — Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber was all over the place trying to form what he termed the United Arab Emirates “consensus.” He had come under fire for having said last month that there was “no science” behind the idea that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures would require ending fossil fuel production.
“And then we became the first COP to host a change-makers majlis,” Al Jaber said in his prepared closing speech. “And I felt that that was the turning point in our negotiations. You reconnected with your spirit of collaboration, you got out of your comfort zones and started speaking to each other from the heart.”
“That,” he said, “made the difference.”
Could a majlis really do all that? Or did the sultan overstate the benefits of the majlis because it was kind of his thing? I looked into these questions and came away thinking that the sultan was on to something. The majlis is a tradition of the Arab world that just might have a role on the world stage.
A majlis (pronounced MAHJ-liss) is both a place and an event. It is the place in an Arab home where people sit with guests. Often the richer the homeowner, the bigger the majlis. Traditionally there are carpets, cushions, a teapot, an incense burner. In a majlis, people don’t rush to do business. Sociably sitting is part of the experience.
There are different majalis (that’s the plural, pronounced mah-JAH-liss) for different purposes. Sometimes they are family-oriented. Sometimes they serve a religious or judicial function. Fishermen or farmers might have a majlis to work out disputes over fishing grounds or watering holes. Hamza Yusuf, the president of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif., told me he once attended a majlis in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia that involved a deep discussion of “The Brothers Karamazov,” the Russian novel.
Another type is the majlis-ash-shura, which is quasi-legislative or quasi-judicial, though traditionally not democratic. No voting is involved. But people do have a chance to be heard, and there is an expectation of being treated fairly. The decision may be handed down by the local leader, such as a sultan, or by religious leaders who are respected for their piety.
The majlis originated in Arabia and spread with Islam to North Africa as well as to non-Arab nations such as Iran, Turkey and Indonesia. In more democratic nations with elected legislatures, the lawmaking body is often called a majlis.
That brings us up to Dubai and the sultan. Considering that Al Jaber is the president of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, I think he deserves credit for cajoling delegates from nearly 200 countries to, for the first time, approve a pact that calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels.” In his closing address he thanked delegates “who met me at 4 and 5 a.m.” When does this guy sleep?
The majlis on Sunday, which involved delegates sitting in concentric rings (no head of the table!), didn’t seem at first glance too different from other gatherings at COP28. Climate diplomats from France, Australia and the United Kingdom, among others, strongly advocated phasing out fossil fuels, while those from Saudi Arabia and Iraq just as strongly opposed doing so. It wasn’t “Kumbaya.” But Al Jaber may have been right that there was more speaking from the heart than usual. “The gathering seemed to evoke a more personal, emotional tone, and confidences were shared,” Environment News Service wrote.
The reason you can imagine a majlis working is that there’s a certain resemblance between international forums and the desert culture in which the majlis was born centuries ago. In both cases, no one is clearly in charge. In ancient Arabia, tribal leaders who had conflicts couldn’t appeal to some higher authority. They had to work things out among themselves. Likewise in the modern world, nobody can order China to stop building coal-fired generating plants. There is no higher authority — certainly not the United Nations — that can tell sovereign nations what to do. They need to work things out among themselves.
Modern majalis might be able to resolve disputes — and help save the planet — by drawing on sources of authority beyond one-person, one-vote democracy. Trust that’s built up over time, for one. A majlis is also a natural forum for scientific experts, religious leaders and artists to be heard and heeded.
I asked Yusuf, the college president, what he thought about Al Jaber’s majlis. He said he knows Al Jaber and worked with him on a renewable energy project in Mauritania. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said. ”We need more majalis.”
In modern diplomacy, Yusuf said, “There’s just a complete lack of regard for expertise and any type of leadership. The majlis is based on a kind of decorum. There are things that are totally unacceptable in a majlis, such as backbiting, speaking ill of people. There’s a hushed aspect to it. People speak in a very respectful, formal way. Each situation is going to be unique.”
Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist who won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, showed how ranchers, fishermen and others had devised clever ways to cooperate, without appealing to government, and to avoid the tragedy of the commons, which is the overexploitation of shared resources. One way they built the necessary trust was through what Ostrom called “cheap talk,” which is simple communication. “More cooperation occurs than predicted, ‘cheap talk’ increases cooperation, and subjects invest in sanctioning free-riders,” Ostrom wrote in her Nobel lecture.
The trust-building communication that Ostrom put her finger on in her Nobel lecture seems like the kind of talk that occurs in a majlis, Erik Nordman, the author of “The Uncommon Knowledge of Elinor Ostrom,” told me.
I don’t want to overstate the accomplishments of COP28. It leaves a lot of wiggle room. Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, is claiming that the agreement “left space for countries to choose their own way” on fossil fuels. I also don’t want to make too much of the role of the majlis in reaching the deal. The majlis should not be a replacement for democracy but a complement to it. In that role, I think it could be quite useful.
The Readers Write
I was involved in running cooperative art galleries in Ithaca, N.Y., for 17 years. I think Penny Pinch’s descending-price auction may have some merit. The market for art has always been odd — obviously art doesn’t provide any of life’s absolute necessities. The degree to which buyers are purchasing prestige along with a painting or sculpture has often been a stumbling block to selling art made by someone who isn’t already famous or infamous.
I analyze financial legislation and regulations around the world for a living, and the main theme around central bank digital currencies is the conspiratorial belief that cash will somehow be outlawed because of it. It won’t. It seems like fringe movements are moving from Covid vaccine conspiracy theories into what I think will be the new topic they latch onto worldwide.
Thank you for your skeptical piece on direct air capture of carbon dioxide. All such ideas have a fundamental flaw: No amount of government subsidies or marketing hype can overcome thermodynamics. It will always be far more cost-effective to avoid generating carbon dioxide than to generate it and try to remove it later.
Brian A. Gregg
The writer led a basic research group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for 25 years before his retirement.
Quote of the Day
“Corporations portray themselves as results-based and performance-oriented. But where there isn’t anything material being produced, objective standards for job performance are hard to come by. What is a manager to do? He is encouraged to direct his attention to the states of minds of workers, and become a sort of therapist.”
— Matthew B. Crawford, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work” (2009)