Oil and Dictatorship

By John Bacher | 1998-05-01 12:00:00


Before we examine the linkage between dictatorship and oil ownership, we should explain the units of comparison. Oil reserves are measured in multiples of billion barrels (bbl). In these terms, the big oil producers range from Sudan's low .3 to Saudi Arabia's high: 258.

There are five countries in the world - the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia with more than 70 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves that are commercially exploitable with existing technology. None of these petroleum superpowers is deemed "free" in the most recent ranking by Freedom House. The entire Persian Gulf, bordered by seven states, is an ocean of despotism where all but Kuwait are "un-free." The smaller oil producers of the Middle East and North Africa are un-free. Only Morocco is partially free and it has no oil. Israel and the lands governed by the Palestinian Authority are the only areas in this region that can be considered full democracies. Their serious human rights problems are minor compared to the repression of neighboring oil rich states. All other partial democracies in the Middle East besides Kuwait lack oil. Among the top five petrol giants only Kuwait is a semi-democracy, or "partially free," with an elected parliament, although voting citizens amount to only 15 per cent of the adults and civil liberties are restricted.

Ten of the 21 countries rated worst by Freedom House for their lack of respect for human rights are oil producers with at least .5 bbl in oil reserves. Only eight are not important for the international petroleum industry.

Measured on the global scale, all stable democracies with more than three decades of continuous free government are small oil producers. Canada's reserves are only 5 billion barrels, and even U.S. reserves come nowhere near any one of the top five leading producers in the despotic Persian Gulf/Caspian sea zone. Europe is the region with the least oil; its total reserves are only 18.3. The oil-free post-Communist states in Eastern Europe have all undergone successful democratic transitions, except for the former Yugoslavia and Romania, which is the only significant oil producer. Almost all the stable democracies outside North America and Europe, except Australia, lack oil.

In Latin America, oil-free Costa Rica is the only country to have protected civil liberties since 1950 without breaking into dictatorship.

In Eastern Asia, Japan, an oil-less island state, was the first democracy. It has been joined in this club of freedom by Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. In East Asia, as in the Persian Gulf region, democracies obtain their oil from dictatorships.


Oil oligarchs include such ideologically diverse characters as the Sultan of Brunei, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, the King of Saudi Arabia, the old guard of the Mexican Party of Revolutionary Institutions (PRI), the leaders of Iran's Shiite Clergy, the ex-Communist nomenclatura of Kazakhstan, and the secular Arab Nationalists of Iraq's Baathist Party. By creating inequality, oil wealth encourages anti-democratic ideologies, such as both secular Arab nationalism and religious extremism. Proponents of both ideologies dream of acquiring the oil wealth of their region. In Algeria, both sides of the bitter civil war love oil and are anti-democratic. One side champions military rule, whereas its foes promote an "Islamic Republic." Reverence for the earth is found in all the world's major religions. Unfortunately, oil is commonly a corrupting feature of faith traditions, especially in their fundamentalist forms.

Oil oligarchy characterizes both national and private ownership. Nationalizations have neither increased social benefits nor reduced the environmental damage of oil extraction. In Latin America, ecologists and native people even prefer American oil corporations over those owned by their own national governments. This is because U.S. oil companies, subject to pressure from environmentalists back home, behave in a more environmentally responsible manner.


Oil oligarchs are flexible on the question of public or private ownership, but not on environmental matters, especially when environmentalists and a democratic opposition form an alliance. Predictably, oil power opposes democracy's emergence in oil rich states, for only in democracies has the environmental movement successfully challenged oil interests. Where democracy has triumphed, people have defended clean air, water, and wildlife, even enduring dousings by water cannons and bashings with truncheons.

A common environmental democratic victory was in requiring lead-free gasoline; Japan and the United States led the way. The partially-free states of Thailand, Malaysia, Korea and Taiwan followed. The remaining un-free states such as Indonesia, China, Burma, and Vietnam, keep lead in their gas.

Both democracies and dictatorships have regulations, but these differ. The fragile sand dunes of the Persian Gulf attract dirt bikers and off-road vehicles. Saudi Arabia's absolute monarchy prohibits women from riding bicycles, which are a sacred icon to the western environmental movement. Democratic states do not restrict female cyclists, but do forbid off-road vehicles on the fragile desert.

While democratic politicians can be held accountable by environmentally concerned voters, oil dictators need only worry about their control over petroleum revenues, the source of funds for their bribes and expensive security establishments. Thus oil dictatorship fosters unsustainable economic development, geared to the military and a rich elite. Oil companies join them in encouraging fuel consumption, with a fume-producing car for everyone.


The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) is based, not only on national wealth, but also on life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, and the elimination of poverty. It shows the poor performance of petro-dictators. Wealthy oil dictatorships are among the top 25 nations in terms of per capita GNP. However, they do not make the grade in terms of the HDI, but rank between 26 and 43. This means they are less efficient than democracies in turning wealth to improvements in human welfare such as better health care, literacy, lower infant mortality, and greater life expectancy.

By supporting dictatorship, petroleum corporations perpetuate oppressive conditions for women. The failure of rich dictatorships to invest in female education is one reason for global population growth, since uneducated women can be pressured into having larger families. Some of the lowest rates of female literacy are in oil dictatorships, or in countries where ruling factions are given military aid by such regimes. Thus in northern Nigeria, after marrying (commonly at the age of 12), women must stay in seclusion. Life expectancy of males there is only 46, and of females even less: 36 years, primarily because of the heavy mortality among teenage mothers. Oil wealth has not trickled down; indeed, the oil boom has increased the misery of the region, save for a tiny elite.

Oil rich states compare poorly in the relief of poverty. Democratic Chile, Costa Rica, Jordan, Panama, Uruguay, Mauritius and Jamaica, despite their lower per capita income and absence of significant petroleum production, all have a higher HDI ranking than the rich United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, and Nigeria. India's HDI ranking is significantly superior to that of the oil-rich dictatorship of Nigeria, despite having a lower per capita GNP. Oil-free democratic Costa Rica likewise outperformed the oil dictatorships. Its per capita income of $1,100 delivers far more in human development than the oil dictators can muster. Costa Rica achieved a life expectancy of 75 years and an adult literacy rate of 93%.


Oil dictatorships spend more on the military than on primary health and education services.The current world champion in military spending is North Korea, with the oil dictators just behind, in terms of the percentage of their GNP spent on arms.

Two un-free countries, Afghanistan and Somalia, receive substantial military assistance from oil-rich, authoritarian Iran. Iran's military assistance to both Sudan and Afghanistan also helped perpetuate some of the world's most repressive dictatorships facing full-scale civil war. Iran has an alliance with China for its nuclear power program, and has bought over $1 billion in Chinese weapons since 1989. It also has a weapons program with North Korea to develop missiles capable of hitting Israel.

Since the end of the Cold War global arms expenditures have dropped by 70%. One big exception to this has been rising military expenditures in the two zones of oil dictatorships - the Persian Gulf/ Caspian Sea region, and the South China Sea. When China made a decisive break from a democratic transition process after the Tienanmen Square massacre, its military expenditure soared. From 1989 to 1993 China's defence budget went up by 49%; Vietnam's rose by 25%, Singapore's leapt by 53%, and Malaysia's jumped by 67%.

With the economic collapse of the oil dictatorships of the South China Sea, the IMF has offered a bailout, while stipulating conditions. Tax-payers in democratic states will pay the bill for the anti-ecological and militaristic policies of oil dictators. Debates over the IMF conditionalities have ignored the role of military expenditures in bringing about the collapse. The strange silence in the democratic world over the military and anti-environmental policies of the Asian oil dictators reflects the interest in selling arms to these regimes and supporting the petrochemical-automotive complex.

Growing military expenditures in both the South China Sea and Persian Gulf/ Caspian Sea highlight the environmentally destructive, anti-democratic nature of these economies. Oil wealth is transferred to arms exporters in Russia and the First World, encouraging consumption of fossil fuels, ozone depletion, and pollution from arms manufacturing, including mining and metal processing.

Oil dictatorships create conditions for civil war and increased arms production. They repress environmental and peace movements, while stimulating nationalist and fundamentalist passions. They promote consumption of luxury products based on oil. They provide a market for military products, whose production is declining in the democratic world. How can these disastrous conditions be reversed?

Lessons can be learned from the Caribbean states of the British Commonwealth and nations in Latin America with strong democratic cultures - Costa Rica, Chile, and Uruguay. They have pointed to social and ecological efficiencies. Their lack of oil has helped them resolve the "ingenuity gap" between scarce resources and human needs. A powerful oil industry would have allied itself with anti-democratic elements and distorted politics through corruption. Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Senegal are the only African countries with continuous democratic rule since their independence. Their level of human development is the best in Africa. The key to their success has been high levels of investment in education and health services, achieved through progressive taxation.

Oil power is broken most easily where there are no oil and related vested interests. Thus Holland, with no auto industry, can be a land of the bicycle more easily than Detroit. A public utility in Sacramento receives less opposition to placing a solar water heater in every home than a similar initiative would receive in Dallas.

Ultimately, the only way oil power can be defeated is through democracy. Canada can contribute to democratization by upholding a universalistic foreign policy instead of double standards. Political conditions are now imposed on loans and other agreements with oil-less countries such as Jordan - but not on oil dictatorships. We should insist that the same respect for human rights and democracy be demanded equally of all the states with which Canada deals.

John Bacher is teaching this year at McMaster University.

Peace Magazine May-June 1998

Peace Magazine May-June 1998, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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