Even before this year's Arab uprisings, the Middle East was not an undifferentiated block of authoritarianism. The citizens of countries with little or no oil, such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia, generally had more freedom than those of countries with lots of it, such as Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. And once the tumult started, the oil-rich regimes were more effective at fending off attempts to unseat them. Indeed, the Arab Spring has seriously threatened just one oil-funded ruler -- Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi -- and only because NATO's intervention prevented the rebels' certain defeat.
Worldwide, democracy has made impressive strides over the last three decades: just 30 percent of the world's governments were democratic in 1980; about 60 percent are today. Yet almost all the democratic governments that emerged during that period were in countries with little or no oil; in fact, countries that produced less than $100 per capita of oil per year (about what Ukraine and Vietnam produce) were three times as likely to democratize as countries that produced more than that. No country with more than a fraction of the per capita oil wealth of Bahrain, Iraq, or Libya has ever successfully gone from dictatorship to democracy. Scholars have called this the oil curse, arguing that oil wealth leads to authoritarianism, economic instability, corruption, and violent conflict. Skeptics claim that the correlation between oil and repression is a coincidence. As Dick Cheney, then the CEO of Haliburton, remarked at a 1996 energy conference, "The problem is that the good Lord didn't see fit to put oil and gas reserves where there are democratic governments."
But divine intervention did not cause repression in the Middle East: hydrocarbons did. There is no getting around the fact that countries in the region are less free because they produce and sell oil.
OIL'S DIRTY SECRETS
Oil has not always been a barrier to democracy. Until the early 1970s, oil-producing countries were no less likely to be democratic than any other state. Ironically, this