Al-Jaber proved uniquely placed to bring recalcitrant fossil-fuel producers like Saudi Arabia into the consensus. Now, with the summit concluded, some previously-skeptical environmentalists are willing to admit that the agreement’s language on fossil fuels shifted their view of al-Jaber, and that a diplomatically astute fossil-fuel executive, counterintuitively, may have been exactly what COP needed to finally directly address the primary causes of climate change.

“Despite facing initial skepticism due to his background, Dr. Sultan’s commitment to open dialogue and understanding diverse viewpoints was instrumental in shaping the outcomes and fostered an unprecedented level of consensus,” Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy for the activist group Climate Action Network International, told me. “His leadership at COP28 marked a significant shift towards more effective climate negotiations.”

Al-Jaber may be one of the world’s most experienced leaders in dealing hands-on with the hard choices of the energy transition. The UAE, while clearly still a major oil and gas exporter, is more economically diversified than most of its Gulf neighbors or other OPEC member nations. Among al-Jaber’s many other hats is that of a renewable energy exec, having founded the Emirati clean-energy firm Masdar. It’s easy to imagine him making a case behind closed doors to these peers in support of the transition that would be far more credible than if it came from a European country or other more conventionally climate-friendly government.

At the same time, the COP’s outcome proves that the summit’s success or failure was never up to al-Jaber to begin with, said Alden Meyer, senior associate of international climate policy at the think tank E3G.

The open secret of any COP summit is that the final agreement — although it sends an important political signal about the long-term trajectory of the global economy — is ultimately toothless without specific national policies to back it up. Over the next couple of years, Meyer said, the U.S., China, and other top emitters need to scale back their fossil-fuel production plans, encourage private investors to shift more into clean energy, take more aggressive steps to curb consumers’ oil and gas demand, and finally act on a pre-existing commitment to phase out fossil-fuel subsidies.

“I admit I was skeptical when [al-Jaber] was appointed that he would be able to deliver much,” he said. But “if these things happen, the Dubai COP will join Rio, Kyoto, and Paris as one of the most consequential climate summits in the history of this process.”