Skip to main content

The Correlation Between Oil & Democracy - The Geopolitics Behind


Among the most widely accepted notions is one that Political Islam is incompatible with democracy. The last few decades have corroborated this position given that there is no semblance of representative governance in the Islamic world spanning across middle-east Asia. The failure of Arab Spring to dislodge authoritarian rule appears to testify these notions.
We will argue that the prevailing chaos in Middle-east is the result of discovery of oil which has been the main culprit that toppled democracy and people’s rights.
While Islam’s core theology is indeed backward, what needs our consideration is that Christianity was equally if not more regressive in the pre-Reformation period. It is Reformation sparked the ascendancy of West. In fact, post World War II, it appeared that zeitgeist of global democracy will find its way in Islamic countries too. And things in early 50s and 60s actually moved in this direction, until one thing changed it at once – the discovery of oil.
What started this was the fall of Ottoman Empire after World War I. Till then, Muslims had a fairly stable and strong political entity to support it worldwide. The fall of this empire was the biggest blow to the Muslims worldwide (Khilafat Movement in India in 1922 was to protest the British involvement in Ottoman crackdown and not a contribution to the Indian National Freedom movement).
The Return of the Primitive
Saudi Arabia was nowhere the financial centre of Islamic world though it indeed was the exclusive religious centre of Muslims worldwide as the owner of Mecca and Medina mosques – the founding mosques of Islam. The Islam as practiced elsewhere like the Mediterranean circle (Cairo, Istanbul, Casablanca, and Damascus) and even India (Sufis and Ahmediyas) were more urban and pluralistic rather than the desert cult purist Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia which believes that Islam must return to its roots as practiced by Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors as practiced in 7th century Arabia.
Before 20th century, the desert-cult of Arabia (also known as Salafiyyah), the purist version of Islam had little influence outside Arabia. Not anymore. Flush with the petro-dollars, Saudi Arabia today is the financial centre of Islamic countries and has tremendous influence on all Muslims worldwide. Its clout is felt in cultural, ideological and societal dimensions of all Muslims worldwide.
The trends are disturbing as the trans-national loyalty to Ulema (Muslim Brotherhood/Community) and not the “man-made nations” can be profoundly disruptive to communal amity throughout world as seen through fallouts of Multiculturalism in Europe.
But it is the West that is indirectly responsible for the rise of this aggressive version of Islam.
The fuel-addicted western countries buy oil from the Saudi Arabia indirectly strengthening the most fanatic, regressive, West-hating, purist version of Islam that it follows. This dependency has in turn, has also financed the toppling the democratic institutions as seen in Russia, Latin America and elsewhere.
Further, this dependency has forced the west to overlook the ugly truth of oil-rich nations due to diplomatic self-interest. USA the harbinger of democracy elsewhere is mum about the repressive reign in the gulf countries. The heavy purchase of oil is indirectly funding the terrorist organizations which receive considerable sums through charity etc.
A country which doesn’t host even a sizable number of Muslims as against the Muslim population worldwide has unlimited power on all the Muslims countries due to the financial clout. This power has enabled it to buy approval from all countries and impose its purist version. This has led to a massive Arabization of all Islamic countries replacing a more modern, pluralistic society with a purist and anti-pluralist version. The situation now reeks of Arabic Cultural Imperialism seeking to root out native cultures of different nations and imposing its purist version.
For example, Egypt was a more cosmopolitan country with a decent film industry of its own. Now, the same Egypt is inconvenient about the fact that Pyramids which predated Islam is the major tourist attraction. The film industry has been quite progressive; this is now under scrutiny and extremely gender-sensitive. Elsewhere, coed education was quite a norm in universities of 50s, which is unthinkable today.
The oil-addition of west has ensured that it places its self-interest above democratic concerns of these nations. A basic logic is that democratic countries are hard to handle as all government actions are under public scrutiny and the government itself is liable to change within every few years. It’s difficult to manage so many people who themselves keep changing constantly. India for all its negatives stands out precisely because of this reason.
How this hurts representative democratic movements?
In a modern economy, a country can grow only if it educates its people, equips with them requisite skills and makes them employable in the globalized economy. This calls for investment in education, incentives for industries and moreover a liberalized economy which ensures the freedom necessary for free market economy. For free market economy to function, it’s important that the state policies are attuned accordingly, which automatically calls for representative government.
The West has every reason to topple democratic governments and place a puppet dictator who depends on western assistance to crush local opposition. A dictator is must easier to handle for he is the permanent feature and is not under public scrutiny and is not likely to be replaced. He can have his cut from the business while western corporations exploit the local resources freely.
We observe the discovery of oil has high correlation with loss of democratic institutions. For example, Bahrain, a country very much in gulf, had recently decided for a makeover. The labour laws have been improvised to make them more productive. Their stated aim to break free of oil-dependency, and shift to a more modern economy with due recognition to manufacturing and knowledge industry. Why? Bahrain was one of the few nations which were actually running out of oil and total exhaustion of oil was a matter of time. The state needed its entrepreneurs, business and other human resources to manage its growth henceforth.
This is unlike oil-rich nations which do not need its people to help them grow. The state can simply drill a hole and run the economy; it has no necessity of equipping its people to meet the nation’s challenges. Since the taxation is negligible, it holds no responsibility to function in line with people’s expectations. A live example of this peculiar sequence is Russia. Back in early 90s when USSR disintegrated, Russia was rapidly democratizing and was actively befriending the West (esp. USA). With oil toppling $ 100 / barrel, we find a resurgent Russia meddling with USA’s power in Georgia. When oil was priced below $ 20, Iran elected reformer Mohammed Khatami as president. Today with oil-price accelerating skyward, its current President Ahmadinejad denies holocaust.
Concluding Notes
When will world run out of oil? Experts are divided on this question. Yet, we could be fairly certain that by mid 21st century, oil-production will plateau. Until such time, oil will influence geopolitics more powerfully than before. In fact the final stages can be severe – resulting in worldwide disturbances.
As discussed repeatedly, democratic pace is inversely proportional to oil-price. Higher the oil-price, more are the chances of toppling of democratic movements and installation of authoritarian governance. As oil dips lower, it rapidly increases the democracy in the country.
Solution? Innovation to make better use of renewable resources! Few companies are faced with dilemma – if they innovate fast enough so that they arrive at a comprehensive solution before oil reaches total depletion – they are directly affecting the fortunes of the cash-rich oil organizations. These organizations will ensure that the innovation remains firmly within control and doesn’t interfere with their current profits. Meanwhile, these companies need to show some progress as a justification for their existence.
However if someone indeed breaks the jinx by producing an alternative to oil, it will directly result in decline of the Middle East. We must thank our stars if that happens.              

Comments

  1. My friend Jeswant had kindly sent me this feedback via mail. I've reproduced it here and attempt to discuss his points.

    "The failure of Arab Spring to dislodge authoritarian rule appears to testify these notions."

    The Arab spring did dislodge dictatorships in Egpyt, Tunisia and Libya. It is simply too soon to tell if this will lead to enduring representative democracies. All of their current leaders were, or will be elected. This is representative democracy. Arab spring is ongoing in Syria. Indications are that change will happen here as well. So how has it failed?

    We will argue that the prevailing chaos in Middle-east is the result of discovery of oil which has been the main culprit that toppled democracy and people’s rights.While Islam’s core theology is indeed backward

    (this is your opinion. Proponents of every religion believe theirs is the only path to god. A muslim scholar could quite convincingly argue that the theology of every other religion is deeply flawed),

    what needs our consideration is that Christianity was equally if not more regressive in the pre-Reformation period. It is Reformation sparked the ascendancy of West

    (the west took the ascendancy once they separated religion and the state. Modern Christianity is no more liberal than its Islamic cousin).

    And things in early 50s and 60s actually moved in this direction, until one thing changed it at once – the discovery of oil.

    Most of the oil in Saudi, iran and iraq (the three biggest middle eastern oil producers) was discovered between 1900 and 1930. The discovery of oil had nothing to do with these countries not adopting democracy.

    What started this was the fall of Ottoman Empire after World War I. Till then, Muslims had a fairly stable and strong political entity to support it worldwide. T

    Yes the ottomans were a strong and stable political entity, just like the Sauds are today.

    The fuel-addicted western countries buy oil from the Saudi Arabia indirectly strengthening the most fanatic, regressive, West-hating, purist version of Islam that it follows.

    Saudi arabia has the largest reserves of conventional oil worldwide and is the largest oil producer. The world needs this oil for its needs. The fact that it buys from Saudi is a matter of simple supply and demand. This is free market economics at its purest. Putting aside your stigma against Saudi for a second: Saudi is one of the most stable nations in the Middle East. On the one hand you extol these virtues in the Ottoman Empire but you cry foul over Saudi providing the same stabilizing influence?

    Remember that it isn’t just the west that buys Middle Eastern oil. India, Japan and S. Korea are among Saudi arabia’s biggest customers. They are also the biggest buyers of all Middle Eastern crude (including iran). Going by your premise, shouldn’t they also be blamed? Why blame the west alone?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Are you suggesting that replacing one authoritarian rule (dictator) with another (military)amounts to democracy? We shall wait and watch how events unfurl. However, at the moment, Arab Spring is far from successful.

      Not all proponents of religion believe in their exclusive monopoly on truth/God. Eg. Hinduism. I will honestly doubt the rationalism of a person if he gets convinced that Islam is the only true religion.

      What you refer as separation of state and religion viz Secularism caused reformation of church. I was also indicating the same. Modern Christianity is more liberal than Islam. Most Christians today are no longer fanatic about even the historicity of Jesus Christ. And of course, most no longer believe that non-believers should be prosecuted, through they still feel Christian Theory is superior.

      Democracy became a fashion only after WW2 when most colonies were liberated. I'm speaking about correlation with democracy, NOT causation of democracy.

      You must put all in perspective. British Empire was also a matter of simple supply and demand. Britishers didn't kill/prosecute traditional producers in India. They simply controlled the distribution lines, and the rest they say is history. British was a stable superpower for close to three centuries. Britishers weren't the only people who attempted to rule India. Portuguese and French tried their best and lost out. So Britishers were mostly responsible for looting India though many others took part.

      Major wealth for Saudi is generated from the West. That others too buy oil is a smaller concern when compared to wealth generated through West.

      Delete
  2. Further, this dependency has forced the west to overlook the ugly truth of oil-rich nations due to diplomatic self-interest. USA the harbinger of democracy elsewhere is mum about the repressive reign in the gulf countries.

    The west does alter its buying habits depending on how certain countries act. Iran’s oil exports have fallen dramatically in recent times following its nuclear ambitions; Iraq’s did too after the Gulf war; Libya’s exports fell away when the arab spring first broke out. But any time the west stops buying from the Middle East, the oil simply gets re-routed to the east (India, china, korea, japan, Pakistan etc).

    USA is not a harbinger of democracy. It never has been. It is merely protecting its own interests, just like any other country would. You can’t blame the “west” for inaction. They have no obligation to take any action.

    What is the ugly truth of oil rich nations? That they export their ideology? Of course they do. They are allowed an opinion. Venezuela, Canada, Norway, Brazil and mexico are also all oil rich nations. What is their ugly truth?

    For example, Egypt was a more cosmopolitan country with a decent film industry of its own.
    Now,It is not our place to judge what goes on in Egypt.India, despite its thriving film industry, has a lot of the problems that you claim Egypt has. So where is the correlation?

    Elsewhere, coed education was quite a norm in universities of 50s, which is unthinkable today.

    Name one place where female education was the norm in the 50s and unthinkable today? Even in the west, women only started getting equal rights in the twentieth century.

    The oil-addition of west has ensured that it places its self-interest above democratic concerns of these nations.

    Again, it is not just the western countries that buy oil. Besides, the west has no obligation towards any of these countries. In fact, please do elaborate on what they should be doing instead?

    India for all its negatives stands out precisely because of this reason.

    There are several democracies that provide stable business environments (e.g. USA, Canada, Australia etc). India, despite being a democracy, is not the easiest place to do business. The business environment in a country has nothing to do with who rules it.

    In a modern economy, a country can grow only if it educates its people, equips with them requisite skills and makes them employable in the globalized economy.

    Not necessarily. GDP growth in Saudi Arabia and other oil rich Middle Eastern nations has been quite steady over the past few years. No conclusive evidence exists that “freedom” is the only way to grow a country. China has grown quite rapidly over the last few years. Do you honestly think, china is a bastion of human rights and personal freedom?

    For free market economy to function, it’s important that the state policies are attuned accordingly, which automatically calls for representative government.

    A dictatorship can just as easily setup a free market economy and take all the steps that you said good governments should. Look at Qatar.

    The West has every reason to topple democratic governments and place a puppet dictator who depends on western assistance to crush local opposition. A dictator is must easier to handle for he is the permanent feature and is not under public scrutiny and is not likely to be replaced.

    Yes they can. They also have reason to invade those countries, rape their women, kill everyone inside these countries and pocket their wealth. Sensational claims have no place in a rational discussion.

    We observe the discovery of oil has high correlation with loss of democratic institutions.

    How does anything you write about in your article lead you to conclude that oil is to blame for the lack of democracy?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. West has altered its habits to force these countries work on their terms. They are to be properly understood as pressure tactics if you will.

      USA, being harbinger of democracy, was meant to be satire. Of course, every nation places its own interest above others.

      The ugly truth is that human rights are flaunted, religious minorities are suppressed and no open exhibition of their culture allowed, woman are prosecuted. These happen in every corner of earth including US. But the sheer proportion caused these countries to be specifically named.

      China has made two contradictory ideologies bedfellows in a strange manner. It combines capitalist exterior with communist interior. Though the dragon is zooming past all and is determined to establish its supremacy by mid-century, we should agree that this curious pattern cannot be replicated elsewhere. My two cents, Tibet and Xinjiang cannot be under China for long. Political repression cannot continue forever. Also, China's trade is heavily dependent on exports to West. If West collapses, China cannot retain its edge for long. Anyway, at the moment, I am willing to concede that China makes it possible despite lack of liberalization because its a communist nation.

      Free market NEEDS democracy for long-term sustenance. Economics and politics are deeply interwoven. One cannot exist long without another. Qatar, much like Spain under General Franco, manages well. It remains to be seen how long it can continue without its people being equipped to deal with modernization.

      Exaggeration has no place in rational discussion either. I've said these countries are exploited. Do you by chance feel that these countries deserve to be exploited?

      Delete
  3. For example, Bahrain, a country very much in gulf, had recently decided for a makeover. The labour laws have been improvised to make them more productive.

    Yes. A country should diversify its economy. This is just good sense. Bahrain is in the situation it is in now because it didn’t diversify its economy in good times. Same goes for any other nation that doesn’t invest in its future. Norway, one of the worlds biggest oil producers has been putting away a big chunk of its oil revenues in a future fund. When Norway eventually does stop producing oil, they will have a big chunk of cash sitting in their bank account. They are also leading the way in renewable energy development and diversifying their economy into service sectors. This is forward planning. Bahrain didn’t indulge in this and now they are paying the price. What does this have to do with democracy?

    This is unlike oil-rich nations which do not need its people to help them grow. The state can simply drill a hole and run the economy; it has no necessity of equipping its people to meet the nation’s challenges.

    Again, what does this have to do with democracy and peoples rights? Russia, as a big oil producer gained more cash when the oil price increased. This gives them more clout. So?

    When oil was priced below $ 20, Iran elected reformer Mohammed Khatami as president. Today with oil-price accelerating skyward, its current President Ahmadinejad denies holocaust.

    Iran is the stable democracy that you have been screaming out for! Ahmadinejad was elected by his people in an election. Iran has a multitude of problems, a crazy leader among them. His views on the holocaust had nothing to do with the rising oil price.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Though I hadn't clarified in my post, in countries where democratic institutions are firmly rooted before discovery of oil, this problem is not as acute. They are able to deal with it better like Norway. I should have mentioned this in my post. Thanks for asking.

      In Russia, Putin had 20% approval before oil-price rise. After oilprice rise he has a whopping 80% approval. So something changed people's mind, or Putin was able to buy allegiance of many using Petrodollars. Which sounds logical?

      I've indicated the huge surge of confidence post-oilprice rise. Iran's mention is purely in that context. If oilprice reduces, these guys won't have the guts to speak thus.

      Delete
  4. When will world run out of oil? Experts are divided on this question. Yet, we could be fairly certain that by mid 21st century, oil-production will plateau. Until such time, oil will influence geopolitics more powerfully than before. In fact the final stages can be severe – resulting in worldwide disturbances.

    This prediction has been around for centuries. The consensus view amongst all credible sources (IEA etc) is that there are enough proven oil reserves for 200 years. This takes us well beyond the middle of the 21st century.

    As discussed repeatedly, democratic pace is inversely proportional to oil-price. Higher the oil-price, more are the chances of toppling of democratic movements and installation of authoritarian governance. As oil dips lower, it rapidly increases the democracy in the country.

    Again, a huge leap of faith. There are several stable democratic oil democracies (Norway, UK, brazil, Canada etc). You cannot assume that oil is the only reason that there are no democracies in the middle east.

    if they innovate fast enough so that they arrive at a comprehensive solution before oil reaches total depletion – they are directly affecting the fortunes of the cash-rich oil organizations.

    You couldn’t be further from the truth. Global oil demand has been slowing recently but is tipped to rise as asian and African countries develop their economies. The world consumes 80 million barrels of oil every day and this number is tipped to rise to 105 million bbl/day in 2035. the reason renewable technologies haven’t made a big dent is because the renewable energy technology as it exists today cannot hope to compete with fossil fuels. This technology needs to significantly evolve before it can compete with oil and gas.

    These organizations will ensure that the innovation remains firmly within control and doesn’t interfere with their current profits.

    Again, nobody is stopping anybody from innovating. Renewable technologies are being developed at a furious pace. They just have a long way to go before they are competitive.

    However if someone indeed breaks the jinx by producing an alternative to oil, it will directly result in decline of the Middle East. We must thank our stars if that happens.

    The only thing in your article I agree with. If anyone does invent an alternative to oil AND it can be commercialized quickly AND Middle Eastern countries don’t bother diversifying their economies, then yes, it follows that they would decline. All credible evidence suggests that that particular day is quite some time away.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I said production will plateau. It means it will be stable and doesn't imply depletion.

      You will appreciate that for any technology to become commercial, it needs to make business sense first. Innovation comes later. At this point, renewable technologies aren't being developed at a furious pace, as it will affect powerful oil companies. These oil companies have been keen controlling this pace. Nobody can stop innovation. But they sure can stop implementation, especially if stakes are too high.

      Delete
  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The concept of Dharma in Ramayana

The concept of Dharma is not adequately understood by Hindus themselves, not to mention others. Dharma is not a set of do’s and don’t’s or a simplistic evaluation of good and bad. It requires considerable intellectual exertion to even begin understanding Dharma, let alone mastering its use.

Is Dharma Translatable?
Few words of a language cannot be faithfully translated into another without injuring its meaning, context & spirit. English translations of Dharma are blurred and yield words like religion, sense of righteousness, discrimination between good and bad, morals and ethics or that which is lawful. All these fall short of fully grasping the essence of Dharma.
Every language has an ecosystem of words, categories and grammar which allow a user to stitch words together to maximum effect such that meaning permeates the text without necessarily being explicitly explained at each point. Sanskrit words such dharma, karma, sloka, mantra, guru etc., now incorporated in English, lose thei…

The Controversial Caste System of Hinduism

Imagine concepts like feudal system, slavery, capitalistic exploitation and anti-Semitism being used to define the core of Christianity! Christians will be outraged at this inappropriate mixing of the core universal values of Christians and societal & historical aspects which merely existed in a Christian world.
Now this raises the question – why is caste system defined as the core of Hinduism? Especially as “caste” itself is a western construct. Sounds irrelevant?
Okay. Now imagine concepts like slave-trade, war on infidels, brutal subjugation of masses, temple destruction, and forceful conversions marking the core of Islam.
It is considered sensible to first understand what the core scriptures speak about the religion and its universal values. The ills of the community & its societal aspects are differentiated from its core philosophy.
Now, this brings us to the most interesting question – why is Caste System (caste based on birth) propagated to be the defining feature of Hindu…

How Linguistic States strengthened Indian Unity

Be like a garland maker, O king; not like a charcoal burner.” --Mahabharata
[It asks the king to preserve and protect diversity, in a coherent way. The metaphor used is that of a garland, in which flowers of many colors and forms are strung together for a pleasing effect. The contrast is given against charcoal, which is the result of burning all kinds of wood and reducing diversity to homogeneous dead matter. The charcoal burner is reductionist and destroys diversity, whereas the garland maker celebrates diversity.]
Unification of Germany and Italy populated by similar people was achieved by huge armies spanning across decades. In sharp contrast, India under Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel managed to unite a much larger area divided by culture & languages within few years.
The European experience where new nations were carved over little differences in identity, made the Indian experiment appear poised for a breakup sooner than later. Yet, India managed to stay united though the journey wa…