Unfinished Revolutions: How the Arab Uprisings Were Drowned in Oil

by David Wearing

4 March 2021

Design: Bronte Dow

Ten years ago, a wave of popular uprisings erupted across the Middle East, threatening not only local monarchs and dictators but the strategic interests of the Western powers that backed them. In this series, David Wearing looks back on these events, their causes and consequences, and asks what they can teach us about the nature of imperialism in the twenty-first century.

The spread of democracy worldwide has been one of the most significant developments in the modern history of international politics, especially over the last 50 years. Pro- and anti-democratic forces have fought it out in every region of every continent, with the latter suffering a series of defeats. Why, then, have the Middle East and North Africa proved almost uniquely resistant to these wider trends?

One familiar answer, steeped in the intellectual legacy of colonial racism, is that despotism is a product of regional culture, in contrast to the enlightened values of the West. But as previous articles in this series have shown, the reality is that a huge popular appetite for democracy has been thwarted, with considerable violence, by authoritarian elites mostly armed and supported by the Western powers. The roots of that authoritarianism lie not in regional culture, but in a nexus of power straddling the region and the Global North.

Still, more explanation is required. A similar nexus of power could be found sustaining dictatorships in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-twentieth century – and yet pro-democratic forces have made real advances in those regions since then. The real question is: what has made the specific anti-democratic forces at play in the Arab majority world so powerful, so entrenched and so committed?

The answer is complex, but one that can be summarised in crisp and straightforward terms. Fundamentally, the Arab uprisings were drowned in oil. In a historical epoch where the world economy remains carbon-based, oil was the factor that rigged the contest for democracy in favour of regional elites and their Global North patrons, shutting the public out of politics in the energy heartlands of the planet.

When we think about the geopolitics of oil – in terms of the invasion of Iraq, for example – we tend to think of Western states securing access for their own consumption, and profits for big energy corporations. But this masks a richer and more nuanced reality of how oil shapes politics and geostrategy under twenty-first-century capitalism.

Oil remains the lifeblood of the world economy. It accounts for a third of global energy consumption, and its use in transportation binds its price to that of manufactured goods, food and other commodities. In addition, petrochemicals derived from oil are central to the production of plastics, synthetic fibres, fertiliser, detergents and pharmaceuticals. Oil is not merely valuable – it is central to the very functioning of what currently passes for human civilisation.

From the colonial era to the present day, it has been well understood that whichever imperial power dominates the world’s oil reserves will hold decisive structural power in the world system. This is why control over oil fields was a major consideration for the belligerents during the two world wars. Today, nearly half of the world’s proven oil reserves are located in the Middle East, and virtually all of these are in the Gulf region, encompassing Iraq, Iran and the six Gulf Arab monarchies.

Increasingly, the production from these reserves flows less to Europe and North America and more towards South and East Asia. The UK, for example, consumes next to no Middle Eastern oil, while energy-poor China takes 44% of its imports from the region. So long as its main superpower rival is dependent on Gulf hydrocarbons, the US will seek to dominate the Gulf. This would remain true even if the US itself became 100% energy self-sufficient.

Naturally, the trillions of dollars of wealth generated by the sale of oil are also a major factor. ‘Petrodollars’ are a source of profits for energy corporations and arms manufacturers, but also flow into Wall Street and the City of London as bank deposits and equity investments. Oil is traded in dollars, which further buttresses the greenback and helps maintain its status as the world reserve currency. These factors are dictated not by market logic, but by geopolitics – specifically, the bond between the Gulf producer monarchies and their Anglo-American patrons and protectors.

Hence the strategic imperative that the oil-producing states remain compliant and under the wing of the US and its European allies. The logic extends to the wider region, including neighbouring non-producer states such as Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, who are also lavished with arms and bound into the Western alliance network. Truly securing the oil heartlands of the planet necessitates keeping the whole region under some balance of direct or proxy control, free from the threat of destabilisation or disruption – not least from the peoples of the region themselves. 

This is why Western states have maintained a large, permanent military presence in the region, and equipped their local clients with the considerable means of violence required to keep the latter in place. Thanks to their wealth and geopolitical value, the oil-producing monarchies and their neighbouring allies have acquired a resilience incomparable to any of the dictatorships that have fallen elsewhere in the world over recent decades.  

The fact that oil revenues flow directly to the ruling monarchies has given those patriarchs a form of patrimonial power that they have used to further entrench their domestic position. Wider elites have been co-opted through patronage, while the acquiescence of certain sections of the population has been won at key moments through extensive state spending.

As we have already discussed, Gulf oil wealth was deployed region-wide during the Arab uprisings to shore up allied dictatorships and fund counter-revolutionary forces. Oil fuelled the counter-revolution, as the monarchs worked to prevent any domino-effect of democratisation starting in the wider Middle East and then threatening the oil-producing core.

Of course, the US and its allies were not the only counter-revolutionary forces at work during the Arab uprisings. While Russia has nothing like the capacity to challenge the US for the status of regional hegemon, it has worked to create and retain certain footholds in the Middle East in order to enhance its own power, leverage and influence. The most significant of these is in Syria, scene of one of the darkest chapters in the story that began ten years ago – a subject to which we will turn in the next article in this series.

David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.

Part one: What Were the Roots of the Arab Uprisings?

Part two: How the West and the Rest Conspired to Thwart the Arab Uprisings

Part three: How the UK and Gulf Monarchies Helped Crush Bahrain’s Pro-Democracy Movement

Part four: How the Arab Uprisings Were Drowned in Oil

Part five: How Syria’s Uprising Turned Into a War

Part six: What’s the Future of the Arab Uprisings?

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