Oil isn’t enough to buy political conformity forever

By Tom Odhiambo Oil is the engine that has defined modern technological innovation and advancement. Oil has made and unmade many nations since it was discovered. Countries have gone to war over oil. It would be difficult to define the past 100 years of the Middle East without oil. Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya etc are largely globally known and revered because of their huge deposits of oil. For a long time the political leaders of these countries bought political conformity using the oil. Some modernized their societies with the dollars from the oil. Others simply stole the petrodollars. Some build worthless grand monuments to satisfy their egos with this seeming endless cash. Oil, however, is no longer the black gold that it was just about 50 years ago. Having oil may still make a country feel wealthy today but it is uncertain wealth. For instance, when oil was discovered in northern Kenya there was jubilation all over the country. Government officers and politicians spoke as if Turkana was some kind of El Dorado. Poor Kenyans borrowed money to buy land in Turkana, convinced that unimaginable wealth would flow in soon. We will wait and see if indeed the money comes in millions considering that oil is increasingly becoming less admired in many parts of world. Alternatives to hydrocarbons are a fad in the West and even Asia. The USA and Brazil have been producing and exporting ethanol fuel for some time now. It is greener, its proponents argue. So, the economic, socio-cultural and political value of oil is seeing increasing diminishing returns. And the Middle East, which has depended on oil as its main export for decades, it will and has already started to suffer. This is the point that Christopher M. Davidson doesn’t highlight in his book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies (Hurst & Company, 2012), yet it clearly shadows the reasons that he gives in it to explain why Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, will struggle to maintain peace and stability this century. These states are ruled by traditional kings and emirs, many of them drawing their authority from what was once tribal political structures but supported by economies based on oil. However, these monarchies haven’t survived purely by relying on tribal support and loyalty and the petrodollars. They have tried to play the game of modernization as well. Davidson writes, “The Gulf monarchies have been particularly skilled at grafting seemingly modern political institutions onto essentially traditional powerbases. Over the past few decades a plethora of ministries, government departments, and other authorities have been created as the size of the state has grown. In some cases consultative councils and even parliaments have been set up. But for the most part these have remained extremely limited, often being dominated by staff members who have been automatically appointed, and with the institutions they represent enjoying only limited powers compared to those of the ruling families.” Thus, an artifice of a modern state and society has been carefully constructed in some of these countries but the rulers and the led know that the whole structure sits on tenuous grounds. However, the problems that afflict the Gulf monarchies are somehow global. For instance, they define many of Africa’s states. But the fact that the Gulf countries have had many years to develop due to revenues from oil sales, thus offer their citizens a better quality of life, be more just and equitable and democratic, yet they haven’t done so makes them an interesting case for other states in a similar situation or even poorer ones like Kenya. Davidson points out that there are internal and external factors that are already triggering the decline and probably collapse of these states in the near future. Indeed one only needs to look at the long-supposed development and stability of Syria and what it is today to understand the fears that many observers express about the Gulf monarchies. For the internal factors likely to undermine state stability, Davidson identifies “voluntary unemployment; squandering wealth; poverty and real unemployment; discrimination, statelessness, and sectarianism; censorship and limiting expression. He gives the external factors as “welcoming foreigners and eroding legitimacy; Western bases and armaments; antagonizing Iran; Israel; division and disunity; interference and coups d’état.” Add here high population growth, increasing numbers of educated youth who are connected via the Internet, global media and market liberalism etc. When citizens don’t want to be employed because they can live on state benefits, and the rulers waste the oil money, yet sections of the society are actually poor because the state welfare can’t meet all their needs and they lack skills to be employed, whilst the government discriminates, for instance, against women and those with a divergent political opinion, who it actively censors, jails or exiles, such a country is setting itself up for serious upheavals in future. Again, the Gulf monarchies have done more to damage their own legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens by hosting military bases for foreign countries such as the US and Britain, which some locals find offensive. These military bases are deemed to be some kind of ‘soft’ occupation by foreigners. To be friends with the USA, or to be accommodating to Israel, for instance, is to be some kind of enemy of Iran. If you add religious tensions between different sects of Islam to the mix, one gets an incendiary situation. Dwindling revenues from oil can only add further fuel to the situation. So, although Davidson doesn’t spell in bold letters how oil is central to the maintenance of stability in these states, one can trace its ebbs and flows throughout the book, leading one to conclude: what will happen when the oil wells dry and the state purse empties?

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