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Less Oil, More Unrest: Are Declining Resources Driving the Arab Revolutions?

It's no coincidence that the countries that are feeling the first effects of peak oil are also the ones going through revolutions.

Back in early February, we wondered about the role that oil played in Mubarak's downfall. Of course, the citizens themselves who took to the streets deserve all the credit they've been given. But what of the underlying economic conditions that set the stage for revolution? The fingerprints of peak oil are all over the Arab Spring.

Here's the simple math: Egypt and many other growing, arid Arab states depend on persistent and significant food imports. Historically, these countries have covered for those imports by producing and exporting a surplus of oil. When oil production peaks, and eventually sinks below domestic consumption, suddenly these countries become an oil importers. And that's a bad place for a nation to be, particularly if it also needs to import food.

As Chris Mortenson of the Post Carbon Institute wrote of Egypt:

Any country that has to import both oil and food is living on borrowed time. It was only a matter of time before something gave way, and apparently that time is now.


Here are Egypt's oil imports and exports laid out.

In the case of Egypt, oil production peaked in 1996, and in 2007 the nation became a net oil importer. Economic conditions within the country were dire. A callous regime had no jobs or answers. Revolution.

But Egypt isn't alone. You can see the same pattern of declining oil revenue in other volatile Arab states. And as rising food and oil imports create broader economic problems, citizens become increasingly dissatisfied with their autocratic regimes. When there was oil money to ease the pain, arbitrary dictators could pretty easily hold on to the throne. When that oil money dries and the suffering on main street intensifies, the people start to make new demands.

Here's Syria, where, like Egypt, production peaked in 1996. Syria is still a net exporter of oil, but not for long.

In Syria, president Bashar al-Assad is facing protests and a growing anti-government movement.

Here's a look at Yemen, where production peaked in 2001, and domestic consumption is fast closing the export gap.

There are widespread anti-government rallies in Yemen right now.

The Arab world has relied particularly heavily on oil exports in recent years and that has made it particularly vulnerable to economic problems that go along with declining oil supplies. But other countries are facing the same basic situation. Indonesia was forced to start importing oil in 2004. China has been importing oil since 1993. Here in the United States, production peaked in 1970, and our country has always been a net oil importer.

And globally speaking, we're all running out of oil. The International Energy Agency's 2010 World Energy Outlook pegged 2006 as the year that total oil production peaked. Many of the world's nations can afford to import it for a while by exporting food or other goods. But none can escape the fact that supplies are declining from here on out. As we've seen over the past few months, failing to plan for that reality can help set the stage for revolution.

All charts are courtesy of Crude Oil Peak with data from the EIA.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user -Ahmad.Hammoud

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