Freedom from the curse of oil
Is the writing on the wall of the house of cards? Will dictators across the Middle East fall? While Mubarak clings to power Yemen and Jordan have already seen significant upheavals. From Bahrain to Algeria, Arab people are revolting. How many will win democracy? We shall see.
We’ve written here before about how these protests are tied to the UK’s anti-cuts struggles. Each demonstration is complex, and each country has its own circumstances. But from Tunis to Amman, it is not just concentrations of political power that have mobilised people. Tunisia’s uprising started with a protest over the economy – as food prices go through the roof. In Jordan, banners demand the government combats price hikes. Around the world food prices are going through the roof.
These spiralling prices are happening for a bunch of reasons – among them, extreme weather in Russia, Canada, Australia as climate change kicks in, rising fuel prices, and, crucially, speculation. Bankers who destroyed our economy by gambling on the housing market are moving into food markets, pricing meals off people’s tables. The ability of the money men to smash and grab in our globalised economy is ruining us. And the new, democratic governments of the Arab world will need our support if they are to gain control of prices and their own economies.
And if we look to who it is that were first to hit the streets, we will see the same, young faces – people whose futures are disappearing ahead of them, who know they must fight for tomorrow. The fruit stall holder in Tunisia who set himself on fire was a university graduate with little prospect of a good job. Mass youth unemployment is even more pronounced in the Arab World than in the UK. The jilted generation is not only a British phenomenon.
But of course it is not just the state of their economies that has triggered revolt in the Arab world. Tunisia is poor, but it isn’t the poorest of the Arab states (it has a lower infant mortality rate than Detroit, for example). For decades, brutal dictators have ruled. There are, of course, domestic reasons for this, but it’s hard to ignore that it’s been our governments who have propped many of them up, in the hope of maintaining “stability” in the region and so in the price of oil.
And now that a stability delivered through the electrodes of Mubarak’s Mafia looks to crumble, and instability of that system of human organisation called democracy may be ushered in, our fate will be tied to the Middle East once more.
Because while our governments were wrong to prop up the murderers and torturers and dictators, they were right that oil price stability is tied to Middle Eastern stability. As Nouriel Roubini points out in today’s FT, three of the last five global recessions have followed a Middle Eastern geo-political shock that led to a spike in oil prices. We don’t know how this will play out. We must do all that we can to support the democracy movements of the Middle East, even if they elect governments we don’t like. But if oil prices go through the roof, then our economy, under assault from Osborne’s austerity, will surely fall through the floor.
And so we must learn, finally, that oil isn’t just killing our planet. It has been used as an excuse to back the murder and torture of Egyptians, and Saudis and Yemenis. It leaves us dependent on a false stability enforced at the barrel of a gun. It leaves our economy vulnerable to others’ democracy. Its time has passed. Our fight to build a new green economy must intensify. Our battle to rein in our bankers must quicken its pace – not just for our children, but also for the people of Egypt.