Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Where Will This Middle Eastern Upheaval End?

Tunisia has transformed. Egypt appears to be on the brink. Jordan, Syria, and Yemen could be next. The wave of revolution looks to be spilling across the Arab world. Where will it stop?

The simple answer and the correct answer in this case are the same. While short term the answer may well by Egypt, long term this revolutionary wave stops as soon as it reaches an oil producing country.

Algeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates will either be unaffected by this protest movement, or will have a unique ability to crush it.

Yes, the governments of many of the above countries (all
OPEC members) have governments that are as inefficient and corrupt as the countries experiencing protests. However, the dependence of these economies on oil gives these governments several advantages that Tunisia and Egypt lack.

Outside of oil production, there are almost no other significant sources of revenue for these governments. In fact, several don’t have income taxes due in part to the high revenue from oil and the low level of income from most the country’s people.

Additionally, oil production doesn’t require much in terms of manpower, and most oil producing facilities are fairly easy to secure. The governments of these countries do not depend on their people at all economically, making violent repression a feasible option for them governments.

Iran’s elections in 2009 provide the best manifestation of this theory. The people protested the results of a rigged election and made demands similar to those in Tunisia and Egypt. The outcome? The Iranian government overtly puts down the unrest with whatever means necessary while the United States and the ‘Allies of democracy’ sit on their hands. A year and a half later, the West has all but forgotten about what transpired in 2009, and the Iranian regime is still as strong as ever.

If similar protests were to erupt in Saudi Arabia, the government would move swiftly to crush the demonstrations. It would be an ugly scene that would be covered by CNN with anecdotal stories coming in from Twitter, 140 characters at a time. The governments of the West would issue strongly worded statements, but take no real action.

When governments have unlimited resources (as Saudi Arabia and others have) with legitimately don’t require their people to attain said resources, oppression is an option. A national general strike would have a minimal impact on the production of oil and could be overcome. These countries will only democratize if a foreign power forces it upon them (see Iraq, 2003), or after the oil runs out and the money reserves from oil production start to dwindle.

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