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Arab Democracy Will Remain a Mirage Until Renewable Energy Replaces the Combustion Engine

Oil renders Arab democracy a fantasy. Democratic ideology cannot defeat Islamic theology until green energy drives petrol engines out of use


Oil Against Arab Democracy 

It is contended here that as long as oil imports by America’s rivals, like China, continental Europe, India, and Japan is strong, Washington will want to influence/control Saudi/GCC oil production volume and price politics, not because the US needs Arab oil, but because oil can be used as a strategic non-lethal weapon of mass destruction in the event of a serious conflict between the US and its major oil-importing rivals. The oil weapon adds to the two other non-lethal WMD in US arsenal: Dominance in global food exports and trade, and the US dollar as the main reserve currency for world central banks. 


To this end, the US has for the past seventy years, protected Saudi/GCC non-representative dictatorships before and after 9/11 despite their archaic reign, institutional corruption, and human rights abuses. To protect the oilfields and the kings, emirs, sheikhs, and sultans, 35,000 American soldiers are stationed in air force and naval bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. 


Washington would not seriously pressure the Saudi King and the other GCC rulers on religious or political reforms for two reasons: First, dealing with one absolute ruler who owes his throne and life to US protection is far easier than having to manage the scores of parliamentarians and religious and political leaders in democratic settings. Secondly, the fear that confrontations could weaken the rulers’ hold on power and cause chaos in oil markets.


Not only the oil exporters must remain under dictatorships, Egypt must remain under military dictatorship as well. Egypt is the Arab world’s center of gravity. It has a profound influence over the Arab world in general, but especially Saudi Arabia/GCC. With more than 90-million in population, 90% being Sunnis, Egypt has for more than fifty years supplied the Saudi/GCC labor markets with talent. The supply accelerated greatly since the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973. Since that time, millions of Egyptians worked and continue to work in GCC States. The Arabic language and Sunni culture enabled a good proportion of Egyptian expatriates to become school teachers. Cairo’s al-Azhar, the world’s oldest university and the leading center for Sunni scholarship and authoritative religious opinions (fatwas) helped bond Egyptians and GCC citizens in education, culture, investments, and marriage.


Culture Against Arab Democracy

Not only oil stands in the way of democracy, culture plays a role too. Notwithstanding that Arab rule is tribal, corrupt, non-meritorious, mired in favouritism and nepotism, Arab rulers typically remain in office until death, be it from natural causes, palace intrigue, or a military coup. No Arab king or president, however, spares an opportunity to display the loyalty of his subjects. The monarchs draw mile-long queues of happy-looking men (women are disallowed) on every national and religious occasion to demonstrate their people’s love and allegiance. The presidents stage-manage uncontested referendums. They invariably contrive near 100% approvals. 


The influence of Islam is strong on the Arab peoples. The Quran describes them as the “best nation evolved to mankind” (3:110). The Prophet, His Companions, the Quran, and the Sanctuaries in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are Arabic. Arabs feel they are the guardians of an Arabic religion. Additionally, political frustrations during the past half-century over US policies in the Middle East and Israeli humiliation have been drawing Arabs closer to Islam.


Obedience to authority is the hallmark of Islam’s political theory. In the harsh environment of the Arabian Desert, disobedience and strife could waste scarce water and staples. Islam is a way of life guided by the Quran and the Prophet’s actions and words in the Sunnah. The Prophet Muhammad, a product of desert living, enshrined obedience to authority into the Islamic Creed. In 4:59, the Quran orders: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” The Prophet has also reportedly said: “Hear and obey the emir, even if your back is whipped and your property is taken; hear and obey.”


Muslims' strong belief in predestination makes tyrannical rulers seem as if they were ordained by God’s will. Many popular Islamic jurists opine that in the name of societal peace, years of unjust ruler are better that a day of societal strife. Resistance to change is also grounded in the fear that change could bring a worse ruler. 


In the Arab home, poverty drives the father to transform his children into a ‘security blanket’ for old age. Fear of destitution makes the father into what Nobel Laureate Najib Mahfouz calls the “central agent of repression,” constantly threatening his children with the wrath of God if they disobey him. At school, corporal punishment terrorizes students into blind obedience in classrooms. The manager at work, a product of the Arab milieu, demands obsequiousness from subordinates. In the thin Arab labor markets, the employee finds that blind obedience averts financial catastrophe. 


Obedience to Muslim authority is at the heart of ulama’s teaching. Representative democracy is not a natural choice for most Arabs, save for minorities of Jihadists, on one hand, and Western influenced liberal activists, on the other. 


It should be noted that obedience to authority refers to the obedience of the adherents of a specific Islamic sect to the rulers of their own sect. The Shiite partisans of Ali have been rebellious against the religious and temporal order of Sunni rulers since the early Islamic state. In 657, in Siffin, near the Syrian city of al-Raqqa, the army of the fourth caliph, Ali, faced the army of Syria's Umayyad governor, Muawiya. Ironically, the forces of the Asad Alawite (a distant Shi'ite sect) clan lost to Sunni forces in 2014 the city of al-Raqqa. Shi’ites and Sunnis are at war with each other in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003, and in Yemen, war between the Houthi Yazidis (a branch of Shi’ism) and Sunnis has been burning since March 2015. 


Significantly, Muslim, but non-Arab countries, such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, together representing almost two thirds of world Muslims, conduct democratic elections and allow female prime ministers and presidents. Obviously, these non-Arab Muslims have a more relaxed attitude towards Islamic dogma than the Arabs peoples. 


A Crystal Ball Prediction 

Democracy and religious reforms in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the rest of GCC States must wait until demand for oil by the world’s big oil importing rivals of the US is replaced by sustainable sources of energy. When that happens, US protection of Saudi Arabia/GCC will wane and democracy will have a chance to take root in Arab lands. 


Blunting the oil weapon will be on the horizon before too long. Two thirds of global oil demand is burned in combustion engines. By around 2030/2040, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, India, Norway, the UK, among others, aim at selling only non-petrol and diesel vehicles.


Future spark of democratic change will almost certainly come from Egypt. Egypt’s cultural roots are anchored in its age-old progressive culture. Life in Egypt is rather gentle, less austere, and less extreme than life in GCC States, particularly in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. Prominent Egyptian thinkers in the modern age led the call to modernize interpretations of the Islamic script. Among those are: Rifa’a Badawi Al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), Muhammad Abduh(1849-1905), Muhammad Farid Wajdi (1875-1954), Mustafa Abdulraziq (1885 –1947), Qassim Amin (1865-1908), Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyed (1872-1963), Ali Abd Al-Raziq (1888-1966), Taha Hussein(1889-1973).


During the Arab Spring, Egypt conducted the first free and democratic presidential elections in its history. Mohammad Morsi won the presidency on June 30, 2012, with 51.7% of the votes cast. He formed a coalition government. But, a year later, on July 3, 2013, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, with support from Saudi Araabia and other GCC States, staged a coup d'etat against Mr. Morsi's government, returning Egypt to the yoke of military dictatorship. On June 3, 2014, al-Sisi was elected president of Egypt, with 97% of the votes cast.