On a recent tour of India, I was visiting with an Indian Muslim community leader,
Syed Shahabuddin, and the conversation drifted to the question of why the Muslim
world seems so angry with the West. "Whenever I am in America," he said, "people
ask me, `Why do they hate us?' They don't hate you. If they hated you, would they
send their kids to be educated by you? Would they look up to you as a model? They
hate that you are monopolizing all the nonrenewable resources [oil]. And because
you want to do that, you need to keep in power all your collaborators. As a consequence,
you support feudal elements who are trying to stave off the march of democracy."
The more I've traveled in the Muslim world since 9/11, the more it has struck
me how true this statement is: Nothing has subverted Middle East democracy more
than the Arab world's and Iran's dependence on oil, and nothing will restrict
America's ability to tell the truth in the Middle East and promote democracy there
more than our continued dependence on oil.
Yet, since Sept. 11, the Bush-Cheney team has not lifted a finger to make
us, or the Arab-Islamic world, less dependent on oil. Too bad. Because politics
in countries dependent on oil becomes totally focused on who controls the oil
revenues — rather than on how to improve the skills and education of both their
men and women, how to build a rule of law and a legitimate state in which people
feel some ownership, and how to build an honest economy that is open and attractive
In short, countries with oil can flourish under repression — as long as they
just drill a hole in the right place. Think of Saudi Arabia, Libya or Iraq. Countries
without oil can flourish only if they drill their own people's minds and unlock
their energies with the keys of freedom. Think of Japan, Taiwan or India.
Do you think the unpopular mullahs in Iran would be able to hold power today
if they didn't have huge oil revenues to finance their merchant cronies and security
services? Do you think Saudi Arabia would be able to keep most of its women unemployed
and behind veils if it didn't have petrodollars to replace their energies? Do
you think it is an accident that the most open and democratizing Arab countries
— Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, Dubai and Qatar — are those with either no
oil or dwindling oil reserves? They've had to learn how to tap the talents of
their people rather than their sand dunes.
The Pentagon is now debating whether Saudi Arabia is our enemy. Yes and no.
There is a secularized, U.S.-educated, pro-American elite and middle class in
Saudi Arabia, who are not America's enemies. They are good people, and you can't
visit Saudi Arabia without meeting them. We should never forget that.
But the Saudi ruling family stays in power not by a democratic vote from these
progressives. It stays in power through a bargain with the conservative Wahhabi
Muslim religious establishment. The Wahhabi clerics bless the regime and give
it legitimacy — in the absence of any democratic elections. In return, the regime
gives the Wahhabis oil money, which they use to propagate a puritanical version
of Islam that is hostile to the West, to women, to modernity and to all non-Muslim
This bargain suits the Saudi rulers well. If they empowered the secularized,
pro-American Saudis, it would not be long before they demanded things like transparency
in budgeting, accountability and representation. The Wahhabi religious establishment,
by contrast, doesn't care how corrupt the ruling family is in private — as long
it keeps paying off the clerics and gives them a free hand to impose Wahhabi dogma
on Saudi society, media and education, and to export it abroad.
So while there are many moderate Saudis who do not threaten us, there is no
moderate Saudi ruling bargain. The one that exists does threaten us by giving
huge oil resources to the Wahhabi conservatives, which they use to build mosques
and schools that preach against tolerance, pluralism and modernity across the
Muslim world — and in America. And it is our oil addiction that keeps us from
ever confronting the Saudis on this. Addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.
Until we face up to that — and curb our consumption and encourage alternative
energies that will slowly bring the price of oil down and force these countries
to open up and adapt to modernity — we can invade Iraq once a week and it's not
going to unleash democracy in the Arab world.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company