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Is Oil to Blame for the Lack of Democracy in the Middle East?

Following yesterday’s post on the the democracy deficit in the Middle East, I noted with interest Thomas Friedman’s op-ed where he brought up my point about the inverse correlation between the price of oil and democracy. Friedman writes: “Iā€™ve long argued that the price of oil and the pace of freedom operate in an inverse correlation ā€” which I call: ‘The First Law of Petro-Politics.’ As the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up.”

He also sites Larry Diamond’s excellent new book The Spirit of Democracy, which we liked very much and have added to our library of resources for studying democracy and democratization–along with others from Diamond, including Developing Democracy: Towards Consolidation. According to Diamond, none of the 23 countries that rely on oil and gas for 60% or more of their exports are democracies–including Iran, Russia, Venezuela and Nigeria.

I’d like to see some empirical analysis of oil prices against democracy indicators–similar to what Mike Best has done with Internet penetration against Freedom House indicators. Another major question that remains unanswered is what happens when the price of oil goes back down. The price of oil has traditionally fluctuated in boom and bust cycles, similar to the business cycle. Perhaps not coincidentally, in 2003, when the price of oil was in the $30 to $35/barrel range, Iran’s reform movement was going strong, while today the price has recently reached near $120/barrel and the conservatives are firmly in control. Obviously, this may be no more than correlation, but it is indisputable that Iran is highly dependent on oil. A crash in the price of oil could lead to a major economic, and perhaps political, crisis.

However, experts now debate if the price of oil will ever come down, as demand is expected to continue to climb from the developing world including China and India, supply may not be able to keep up. If we believe Friedman’s law of petro-politics, that is not a good sign for democracy.

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