The Oil and the Glory

Tidal waves swallow up all houses

The spreading turmoil in the Middle East is spooking oil traders, who have bid up the price of oil and gasoline to two-year highs, and may be about to claim its third official victim — President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has agreed to state by the end of the year when he will leave ...

Mohammed Mahjoub/AFP/Getty Images
Mohammed Mahjoub/AFP/Getty Images

The spreading turmoil in the Middle East is spooking oil traders, who have bid up the price of oil and gasoline to two-year highs, and may be about to claim its third official victim — President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has agreed to state by the end of the year when he will leave office, suggesting to critics that the date will be soon after.  Even the relatively mild King Mohammed VI of Morocco appears to be in trouble. But should all the region’s petro-monarchs and -dictators be detested with equal venom?

In an interesting essay in the Financial Times, Robert Kaplan argues no, they should not. For instance Libya’s Col. Moammar Qaddafi and Oman’s Qaboos bin Said (pictured above) are both rulers of Middle East petrostates, producing a combined 2.7 million barrels a day, or 3 percent of the world’s total supply. But the two men are "not remotely in the same category," Kaplan says — the former should be overthrown, but not the latter, who is a "benevolent dictator."

Yet the paradox is that, for different reasons — because benevolent dictators such as Qaboos observe a social contract with their people, and their youth come to "expect more and more — he, too, faces people in the street and possibly "his own eventual downfall."

This particular brand of turbulence in the always-roiling Middle East looks unlikely to die down soon. A peace deal could quiet Libya, as reports suggested this morning. Yet everyone, including the region’s more visionary rulers, seems less solidly in place than just a month ago.

That is what is also roiling the oil markets, and seems likely to continue to do so. The first quarter of this year is looking more and more like 2008, when a perfect storm of events kept sending up prices. Even though it’s highly unlikely that every single ruler of every petro-state in the region will be swallowed up in this tidal wave, oil traders — finding their wedge in the uncertainty — are bidding up the price. Where will it end — can the wave reach the Caspian Sea’s own dug-in autocrats?

One hopes that the outside world continues to keep a distance and not go to war — the strength of the movement is that it’s been indigenous. That said, on a coda, one notes that not only are U.S. warships headed to the Libyan coast, but so are four Chinese planes and a frigate.

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