The Powers of Petrocracy

[U.S. News] Fouad Ajami - The harsh Arabian Peninsula, where locusts were once a valued source of protein, is awash with wealth, and the modern global economy itself has been restructured in favor of the oil producers. A handful of sheiks in Abu Dhabi - sons of a once-simple ruler on the Persian Gulf - now dispose of a sovereign-wealth fund that approximates a trillion dollars. Oil is the dictators' dream and their weapon, their means of escape from accountability and from the limits societies have drawn for their rulers. From Russia under Vladimir Putin to Muammar Qadhafi's Libya - save perhaps for the atypical case of Norway - oil is a pillar of autocracy. The great democratic wave of the last quarter century has bypassed the oil lands. The clerical dictatorship in Iran is an oil-trust baby, as it were. Mullahs rule, but we should not be taken in by the cult of Shiite Islam, and by appeals to its symbols of martyrdom and solitude. Oil underpins the Iranian dictatorship, frees it from the scrutiny of the bazaar and the merchants, plays upon its nuclear ambitions, and buys it allies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. With oil wealth, the tiny principality of Qatar has launched and sustained a television channel, Al Jazeera, that gives this small land a voice way beyond its demography and weight in the balance of nations. Right next door in Saudi Arabia, an antimodernist cultural and religious ban on women driving cars persists because, at the very least, oil grants that society waiver from the imperatives of economic rationality. Society shrivels in the oil lands; the state grows more confident, casting aside popular will.

2008-01-01 01:00:00

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