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Will Oil Drown the Arab Spring?

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Michael Ross in his article Will Oil Drown the Arab Spring?, discusses the governance conflicts that the oil rich Arab countries face as a result of the autocratic style of leadership by leaders, who use the oil revenue for their personal gains. Oil wealth in this case is the independent variable that leads to dictatorship and consequently conflict (Ross, 2011).

According to the Ross, oil resource in Arab countries is the main obstacle why democracy has remained elusive for many years, leading to dictatorial regimes. Michael Ross asserts that the Arab’s uprising last year was because the whole Arab region was being ruled by Authoritarian governments. Such leaders overstay in power to control the oil revenue and to keep the same oil revenue from other possible political players. His argument is supported by the variables that the richer a country is the more corrupt and authoritarian leadership becomes, leading to widespread conflicts. He argues that Arab countries with little or no oil resource are more democratic, compared to oil rich nations. He also notes that when the uprising started in the region, the richer nations used the oil revenue to silence those who attempted to unseat them (Ross, 2011). Libya only succeeded in disposing its leader with the support of NATO to the rebels; otherwise the oil revenue could have succeeded in silencing rebels.

The Author’s Theory

The theory behind the argument is that dictatorship is as a result of greed of leaders, to keep revenue from natural resources of a country for selfish gains. He also asserts that democracy has spread widely in the last three decades around the world, except in the Arab world. The Arab countries which embraced democracy seem to be those with little or no oil, while the rich countries have remained under dictatorial rulers. This is what scholars call the oil curse. This dictatorship is by design due to the essential oil (Okonta & Douglas, 2003).

It is therefore agreeable that oil wealth results into autocratic rule, economic instability, fierce conflict and corruption. Arab countries that produce and sell oil are less democratic. The author also argues that the giant western oil companies ceased from dominating the oil industry of Arab nations from which they made profits when Arab governments took over the oil industries by nationalizing them, to enjoy huge profits. As a result, such governments have more wealth and more power over citizens. Oil being very essential to all economies has fueled global political alliances, and led to the shielding of dictators by the big oil consuming countries

Oil producing countries organized their trade under trading blocs such as OPEC, which has increased the price for oil since the period of oil embargo and Arab-Israeli war. Nationalization of the oil industries brought new wealth and made careers on many politicians. Leaders who had come to power through coup and revolutions used the huge revenues to buy off powerful tribal chiefs who could have weakened their rule. Revolutionary leaders also turned to be dictators, to control the oil money. This brought good and bad tidings to their citizens. Wealth that was controlled by foreign companies was handed to politicians and rulers who used the wealth to fund beneficial social programs, to improve public services and to endear the populace to the dictators. This helped them avoid being forced to adopt democracy in 1980s and 1990s, a period when many dictators were toppled.

Underlying Assumption: Focus On Power

The main reason why leaders retain power at all cost in oil-rich Arab countries is to control oil revenue. The leaders use the oil money to buy their citizens, by providing them with benefits with virtually no taxation. The rulers also avoid increasing taxation rates so that they do not demand accountability from their government expenditures. Whenever people try to demand accountability from the governments, leaders pretend to show concern by lowering taxes on commodities, and give some financial benefits to make the poor happy. They often invest in new infrastructure and increase wages of public servants, give unemployment benefits and housing construction support. Some governments give citizens cash gifts and free food. Autocrats with less or no oil revenue end up giving less financial benefits, which are less effective in keeping people silent from demanding better governance and consequently end up bowing to the pressure to adopt democracy faster than the richer leaders (Okonta & Douglas, 2003).

Autocratic leaders do their best to keep their countries’ financial productivity secret. This secrecy helps then to use the oil wealth to avoid democracy by manipulating the public. This is because citizens are usually happy when taxes are lowered and when government appears as being generous and beneficial to citizens. They remain unaware of theft, corruption and government incompetence since the rich countries never release the figures of what is earned from oil exports, as compared to countries that produce little oil, which release some information. It is a fact thet revolts in some countries were sparked by people’s growing awareness of government corruption. Oil wealth also necessitates the tyrants to excessively fund and acquire the allegiance of their military, by awarding huge contracts without bidding to businesses associated with the military elites as well as using a chunk of their national oil income in paying the military. This makes armies to be silent and to suppress the critics of the regime (Licklider, 1988)

The Author’s Diagnosis of the Situation

Dictatorial leadership is not driven by the characters of leaders, but dictators are born out of greed of leaders who want to benefit from the natural resources of their nations at the expense of all other politicians and other potential leaders. That oil will not drown the Arab spring and the oil producing countries will not remain under dictatorship forever. This is because a number of countries have adopted democracy, regardless of the quantity of oil that they produce. The oil dependent rulers in Middle East will therefore fall gradually and embrace democracy, especially as a result of the internet and social networks which make it hard for autocrats to hide government waste and their endemic corruption. When corruption deals that benefit the elites are highlighted, the lower and middle class are hurt and become rebellious, leading to democratization (Okonta & Douglas, 2003).

Even if the Middle East oil-dependent dictators were replaced by elected leaders, the authoritarian leadership would still linger for some time, since the dictators in Arab countries have created political dynasties and monarchies and have used the oil revenue to establish strong political connections. This will entrap the elected leaders and will take suppress the democratic reforms to maintain the status quo. The countries also lack independent civil societies, since the existing ones get finances through such questionable donors. With no strong civil society to keep government in check, elected governments easily return to authoritarianism (Licklider, 1988).

Weaknesses of the Author’s Points

I do not agree with the author’s suggestion that all the nationalized industries be listed in the New Stock Market Exchange (Ross, 2011). This will only serve interests the western foreign companies, which have been looting oil resources of the Arab countries for years. Nationalized companies should become autonomous and transparent in their sale of oil, so that the public may benefit from the sale of oil. The author also has a weakness in assuming that oil will lose its demand in the foreseeable future. Instead, the demand for oil is expected to rise, especially at a time when China’s economy rising in the global market. This means that earnings from oil will still increase, and there is need for transparency from oil buyers to declare the payments they make to oil-producing countries. The author’s suggestion that oil prices will fall and make it less lucrative and less attractive for leaders, in not realistic. Equally, the suggestion by the author that the countries should stop buying huge quantities of oil from Arab countries, to force prices of oil to fall, may not work since all countries depend on oil as their source of energy.

Possible Argument’s towards the Author

To overcome the myriad of problems facing the oil-rich nations, responsive governments should aim at increasing awareness among the populace to end the oil curse. This is because bigger oil consumers such as U.S. and China are showing increase in their consumption despite the high oil prices. Sanctions will also not work in restricting sale of oil unless the demand for oil fall, to make the political leaders lose the grip on power (Ross, 2011). The biggest consumers of oil such as the U.S. may help in democratization of the oil rich countries; buy by embracing transparency in oil markets. This can be achieved through open declarations of payments made to oil producing governments, which may undermine the authoritarian governments so that citizens are aware of the revenue from oil. When transparency is embraced by the buyers, the oil exporting governments may be compelled to disclose their income to the citizens and corruption will be reduced.

All countries that import oil should adopt U.S. style of accountability that reveals payments made by each state to foreign governments. The international community should also lobby for the oil-rich countries to list the oil companies in the New York Stock Exchange in order attain international disclosure standards (Ross, 2011). This suggestion is weak and is only meant to benefit investors in countries that do not produce oil.  This is why the uprising has not achieved much in Arab countries. The high oil prices and the rising global demand, the improved drilling technology and the increased importation of oil and natural gas indicate that Arab rulers will continue to earn oil wealth. [iii]Other countries that mismanage their oil revenue will also fall prey to the oil curse and the obstacles to democracy will remain as long as autocratic leaders can hid the looted finances. The goodwill such leaders enjoy enables them to manipulate the legal system to remove presidential term limits and to increase restriction to the media. They also use oil money to make it impossible for crucial legislations to be passed in parliaments, to ensure the management of oil revenue remains in the hands of the ruling class. Soldiers, gangsters and oil seem to go together in all the oil rich countries, as in the case of Nigeria, where leaders scramble for oil (Okonta & Dougls, 2003, pg 21).

Alternative Strategies and Solutions to the Problems

One of the solutions to the Arab oil crisis is the use of big oil consumers to transparently reveal information on oil revenues. However, some suggestions are only meant to protect the Western interest in the Arab world. The main challenge facing the people in Arab countries is lack of awareness regarding the wealth of their nations. Internet access and the social network should be used to create awareness so that all people have access to the information about the revenue generated from the sale of oil. Even if the ruling elites were replaced by new leaders, the patronage that has been created would still destabilize the new governments, unless institutions are created to replace the politics of personality. It is good governance structures that can benefit all the citizens of rich countries, who languish in poverty as opposed to their leader who live in opulence.

 For long term goals, all nations and especially the biggest oil consumers should lead in the search for renewable energy, other than democratizing the Arab world. This is the fossil oil may be depleted not to meet global demand. It is also true that many conflicts arise due to the desire to plunder the oil wealth of other countries. This is something short of what the author should have mentioned. When Western companies were replaced by nationalized industries, armed conflicts and invasions are still used to plunder oil during and after the conflict (Licklider 1998)

Better Policy to Overcome what the Author Outlines

Oil producing countries need to develop governance structures, so that leadership is not based on personality but on institutions. This will avoid situations in which dictators are toppled, while the new leaders continue using oil money to control key security institutions and disguise themselves under the fight against terrorism, because they take over power when no structures are in place for managing the wealthy oil industry (Licklider 1998). Governance structures will prevent silencing of the media and opponents, activists and intellectuals who normally lead in the march to democracy. The international community should also encourage oil producers to follow the principles of Natural Resource Charter regulations, which help citizens and governments to use their wealth resource in a more socially beneficial way. This would make the oil-producing governments to give shares in national oil companies or give annual cash dividends to all their citizens, like in the case of Alaska since 1970. This may enable the citizens to closely monitor government finances. In the Middle East the oil revenue has been used to create monarchs and political strongholds, and to keep citizens poor and weak. This is what has been termed in Nigeria as a game of spin doctors (Okonta & Douglas, 2003).


It is true that dictatorship has been perpetuated in Arab countries that produce more oil. Such countries also face conflicts and instability due as a result of the desire of all leaders to control the oil revenue. To democratize the Arab world, the industrialized countries should oversee the emergence of green and renewable energy sources, since democracy is lacking in countries with substantial petroleum wealth unless alternative sources of energy are found, many sophisticated dictators who are supported by big oil consumers will still emerge. This will lead to poverty of their citizens and abuse of human rights. To overcome the restrictions that have been put in place by dictatorial regimes, citizens need to aware of the productivity of their oil industries, so that they may demand accountability from their leaders.

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