In Venezuela, a common expression captures that nation's ambivalent mood about its bounty of oil: "Columbus discovered us, Bolivar liberated us, and oil ruined us." On the face of it, and at a time of astounding hikes in the price of oil, that commodity is deliverance. 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. Beyond the great economic questions posed by this transfer of wealth lies a political matter of increasing importance: the connection between petroleum and autocracy. 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 oil lands are distributive states. Wealth comes to the rulers, they dispose of it, they distribute it to cronies, they punish and overwhelm their would-be challengers at home, and they use it to sustain adventures abroad way beyond the limits of their societies. Qadhafi, a deranged, comical figure, has been at the helm of Libya since 1969. Who would dream up such an odd man, bringing his tent with him, as he just did, on a visit to France? But he has ruled for four decades, cruel dictatorship and buffoonery side by side. He has cut off his society from the outside world and scared and diminished the Libyan people; in the wings stands a son ready for political succession.
Qadhafi may be an extreme perversion, but the curse of oil plays havoc with other lands, too. 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, buys it allies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
In the same vein, the rise of Vladimir Putin owes less to Russia's autocratic tradition than it does to the oil bounty of recent years. After Saudi Arabia, Russia is the world's second largest oil exporter. The oil windfall gives Putin his confidence and authority; there isn't much that the chess champion turned democratic politician, Garry Kasparov, could do in the face of the power granted Putin by the oil wealth. Russia's yearning for order trumps its desire for liberty, and a hand-picked successor of Putin is set to inherit the presidency next March, with a privileged special place for Putin as "father of the nation." The free media of post-Soviet Russia, the parliament, and the business class have lost out to the ruler, a modern-day czar.
Irrationality. 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. Younger, more educated people agitate against this ban, but the caravan proceeds, as a desert expression might put it. Over the past five years, the Saudi kingdom took in more that $800 billion of oil wealth: The arguments of modernity and economic rationality can be swept aside. Saudi Arabia today is the largest consumer, per capita, of energy, exceeding the United States. In that desert realm, oil consumption is an annual 33 barrels per person, versus 26 barrels per person in the United States. Liberty can wait—the need for air conditioning is more pressing.
Society shrivels in the oil lands; the state grows more confident, casting aside popular will. There is an exception to every rule: the decent people of Venezuela who turned back Hugo Chávez's recent bid for personal dictatorship handed petrocracy a rare defeat. By a perilously close margin of 51 to 49 percent, they affirmed their attachment to constitutional liberty. The Yankees did not intervene. The students and those determined to keep alive their country's democratic hopes rejected the rule of the man on horseback and his irrational populism. Other oil lands should behold and ponder that Venezuelan verdict.