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From the myriad of evils that the Middle East has come to know, no other entity has ever been such a vice, such a tool for the disenfranchisement and vitiation of such an eclectic group of peoples as the curse that is oil.
What initially swayed the Bedouin to exchange his camel and nomadic garb for a newly acquired Mercedes-Benz, Rolex watch, and Armani Shoes, all the while cleaving to the medieval Islamic mores that were deemed convenient to retain, has created vicious systems of autocracy that not only impose their dogmatic will on their respective societies but has produced a reality where the average citizen has become solely dependant on the state.
Apposite scrutiny of a region that is home to such disparate populations yields an indisputable axiom. Whether Persian or Arab, Shia or Sunni, American ally or foe- the overwhelming majority of the nations that comprise Southwest Asia are headed by inept tyrants who have become impediments to the social, political, and economic progression of the masses they rule.
Generation after generation, this cycle is able to repeat itself by reason of mankind's thirst for oil. The possession of this commodity or even geographical proximity to nations who own this natural resource has enabled tyrants to consolidate absolute power and virtually eradicate all domestic opposition to their rule, so long as Western interests are addressed and the Islamic Socialism of each oil-rich nation tends to the basic and only the basic needs of their citizenry.
The billions of dollars that flow into the coffers of the House of Saud, the Persian Gulf Sheikdoms, or the Islamic Republic hierarchy is seldom trickled down to their respective populations. Furthermore, adjacent nations like Egypt and Jordan, who are oddly lionized by the American government as being "model states", receive an abundance of US foreign aid, VIP access to the latest military technology, and are granted 'Most Favored Nation' trading status while their individual populations are rarely the recipients of such benefits.
Coming to terms with this dynamic explains how a region that has been endowed with the most sought after resource in the history of mankind has also the world's highest exodus of human capital.
What is tragically endemic to some nations that have been gifted with natural resources or even geographic pleasantries that annually draw hoards of tourists is the utter failure of their governments to develop the technological and industrial capabilities of their populations. The possession of oil only compounds this phenomenon. For as much as petroleum profits have enriched despotic regimes throughout the Middle East, it has seldom motivated them to invest into economic diversification.
Consider the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ever since the nationalization of Iranian oil some fifty years ago, both the Shah and the Mullah oligarchy have depended on oil revenues as the primary source of state income.
In keeping their tight control over this lucrative industry, they not only have failed to introduce foreign investment into the country and take a pragmatic approach to international trade but have also made the calculated decision to prevent their citizenry from involving themselves in other business ventures that would most likely result in a newly found economic potency for the average Iranian. With economic clout comes political empowerment. Yet, the one-dimensional economy that the Mullahs have built not only chains their population to the survival of a theocratic welfare system but also denies them self-determination.
The same parallels can also be found in the Arabian Peninsula, specifically Saudi Arabia. For decades, the self-appointed rulers that comprise the House of Saud have lived out their playboy fantasies while their population chafed under the Wahabbist socialism that is imposed upon them. Except for the "tourism" profits that come from all and anything associated with the yearly Hajj ritual, the primary source of Saudi income is also petroleum. As they've watched their treasury be filled with the profits of oil mongering while they yearly receive both political and economic support from the West, they have failed to invest into the capabilities of their population. An economically empowered middle class and the subsequent political self-determination that it most always accompanies is an internal threat to the House of Saud. Therefore, as in the Islamic Republic of Iran, only the oligarchs manage the nations most profitable export.
Strangling the Purse
Unchallenged dominion over the state's primary source of income mingled with the Islamic social structure of these oil-rich nations has given birth to a reality where each autocracy possesses an inimical stance towards technological advancement, the tourism and entertainment industries, and the economic empowerment of their own people. In both Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with the Persian Gulf Sheikdoms, the choice for the average citizen is quite simple. Either cede to the Islamic paradigm that you were born into or leave. Those who are fortunate enough, opt for the latter.
There is nothing inherent in the peoples of the Middle East to impede upon their quest for reaching economic prosperity. A nominal understanding of the Iranian and Arab Diasporas clearly manifests their potential. The overwhelming majority is highly educated, assimilated, and affluent. After all, it was an Iranian who invented EBay and now one is currently the mayor of Beverly Hills. It is an Arab who owns the famous Harrods in London and the Ritz in Paris.
If given the opportunity, each population could easily emulate the economic success of nations such as Germany, Britain, Japan, Israel, China, or India. Yet the vehicle that denies them this reality is not only the authoritarian acumen of those who rule them, but the agent that provides the permanence of each of their regimes. Countries such as Japan, Britain, or Germany do not possess a valuable commodity that can produce a one-dimensional economy.
They do not possess an industry that can act as the single life-blood of the nation. In order for them to have a viable economy, the concepts of market diversification, foreign investment, and international trade drive each of them to nurture their human capital. "Necessity is the mother of invention" so says the old adage. Yet the economic lethargy spawned by the possession of oil usurps all potential.
In facing the growing realities of a waning petroleum supply, governments like that of the UAE has in recent times turned towards diversification, resulting in an influx of social and economic freedoms to the country, eventually turning Dubai into the Las Vegas of the Middle East.
When economic prosperity relies on the minds of a people rather than the materials they possess, each individual citizen acquires self-determination and a stake in the future of their country. In nations that lack resources of value such as oil, government hegemony over the economy is improbable.
Yet, the presence of such a lucrative item provokes governmental intervention upon the exportation and sale of the commodity, which eventually leads to a one-party monopoly within the nation. As a result, encroachment upon a citizen's political freedoms soon follows. With government consolidation of the state's monetary activities, economic adjustments are soon made amongst the population leaving the average citizen with a diminished influence upon the state of their nation and giving rise to a Diaspora for those who will not tolerate it.
Constant American pontification about the importation of democratic principles into this region is merely a theory that has not reconciled itself with global realities. As long as oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf Monarchies acquiesce to Western energy concerns and the proverbial siphon of the People's Republic of China is buried deep into Iranian oil fields, no significant effort will ever be made to change the status quo.
Simply put, the dilemma is that Western and Chinese energy consumption and the security concerns of all Middle Eastern tyrants have merged. All of these despots have their purpose and irrespective of whose interests they serve, it is seldom, if ever, the welfare of their own citizens. The West could care less if the average Saudi woman is treated like a mule in her own country or if journalists suspected of anti-Mubarak sentiments are tortured in Egyptian political prisons. As long as oil shipments are uninterrupted, the social and political plight of the average Iranian is irrelevant to loyal petroleum customers such as China and India.
If it were not for this highly sought commodity, the role of America in this troubled region would be virtually non-existent. There would no be reason for the US Secretary of State to make her yearly rounds of meet-and greets and photo ops with incompetent oligarchs in order to assure them that American protection is at their disposal. There would be no need for Security Council members, China and Russia, to act as a bulwark for the Iranian regime against the asperity of UN sanctions and consequential resolutions.
In a perfect word, nations would make the creation of alternative sources of energy the focal point of their governmental aspirations. The devaluing of oil or the absence of this commodity from the Middle East would provoke the same interest in this region as World Powers have for inconsequential places such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji, or Myanmar.
Yet as long as oil constitutes the primary means of satiation for mankind's thirst for energy, global powers will continue to court the nefarious tyrants who impede upon the progression of the Middle East.