Natural Resources and the Arab Spring

While the human factor has shown its epoch-making power all over the Middle East this spring, there is still something to say about the role of natural resources in the region’s past, present and future trajectories.  But it’s not just “the oil, stupid” I’m referring to. It’s also natural gas and water.

During the past four decades, a number of authors have paid attention to the distorting impact of oil on exporting states’ political economies and development. To the Gulf monarchies, which I specialise in, oil export dependency has brought uneven economic growth, dependence on external patrons, wasteful natural resource consumption, government unaccountability, laziness of the national workforce and, most significantly, surprisingly persistent authoritarianism. Nevertheless, Gulf governments and citizens undoubtedly consider their fossil fuel riches as a blessing - while are at the same time increasingly aware of the associated negative externalities (I’ll be writing a lot about this latter issue here at Emissions).

The global price of oil, some have argued, inversely correlates with democratisation in the exporting states. Thomas Friedman, who coined the “First Law of Petropolitics”, showed in his famous Foreign Policy piece how electoral reforms in “petrolist states” have been implemented , and how “freedom” has increased in times of low oil prices while regimes in places like Iran and Nigeria have tightened their grip when oil prices have boomed again.

While Friedman’s “law” is a gross oversimplification torn apart by critics, the late 2000s did see strikingly few political reforms in the Gulf monarchies. Neighbouring Iran, as well as Chavezian Venezuela, followed even more worrisome trajectories. The knee-jerk reaction to the regional revolts in the Arabian Peninsula also took place amidst a growing flow of oil money to state coffers. But finding a direct causal relationship in the 2011 developments would of course be like concluding that religious attendance causes illegal drug use.

The relationship between oil and authoritarianism in the contemporary Midde East needs a more accurate, refined description. The Arab Spring is unravelling in countries as different as Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain despite a simultaneous comeback of triple-digit barrel prices. In addition to global oil prices, what ensures regime survival is the government’s wealth allocation capability (in most cases alongside different kinds of repressive capabilities). During the past decade, depleting oil reserves, underdeveloped or lacking natural gas reserves, population growth, and industrialisation have strained authoritarian governments’ welfare provisions across the region. Tiny, gas-rich Qatar is the only clear deviation from this rule.

Simultaneously, 2011 has been a year of new, sociopolitical change in the Arab countries, bringing the regional division of resource haves and have-nots into much sharper focus. Compared to the resource divide, the hype of a GCC 2.0 (with the region's two remaining monarchies Jordan and Morocco joining in the six-nation rich boys´ club) and its consequent division into monarchies and republics, is only a secondary trend. Those states with low or depleting oil, natural gas and water reserves - Yemen and Syria are good examples - will experience both social unrest and lower socioecononomic development. On the other hand, in the confluence of revolutions, reform and increasing natural resource scarcity, these states also have the best chances of carrying out badly needed improvements in resource governance, management and adequate pricing.

Those states with sufficient fossil fuels to provide for export, domestic use and wealth allocation (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait), in turn, will remain strong and authoritarian. Money and cheap energy can buy pretty much everything, from desalinated water to political passivity, it would seem. However, 2011 has already demonstrated that spreading the wealth – a conventional regime survival strategy among the major oil exporting states – isn’t enough. From now on, an additional element of intimidation will necessarily accompany it. Over the longer term this bode ill for power-greedy regimes and well for democracy. For the next few years at least, though, we’re likely to witness more of the usual, in the form of high ecological footprint scores and low democratisation and human rights ratings.

To sum up, it's not just the price of oil, but how much of it (and how much natural gas) you own in relation to the size of your national population that matters. That would be my first principle for understanding the relationship between fossil fuels and authoritarianism in the Middle East. 

And unlike Friedman, I have more than one rule of thumb to suggest. Welcome to "Emissions", where I’ll be discussing, among other issues, the paradox of low-carbon development and political liberalisation, and the negative domestic externalities of fossil fuel abundance in the Middle East.