Maliki Isn’t The Problem. Oil Is.

An Iraqi Shiite Turkmen gunman in the village of Taza Khormato, in the oil rich province of Kirkuk, Iraq, on June 20, 2014.

AP Photo/Hussein Malla

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An Iraqi Shiite Turkmen gunman in the village of Taza Khormato, in the oil rich province of Kirkuk, Iraq, on June 20, 2014.

Oil states are almost always autocracies and rarely politically inclusive, and it’s easy to understand why. By Nora Bensahel

During the past few days, the United States strategy for addressing the escalating violence in Iraq has emphasized diplomacy to achieve political reconciliation. The Obama administration and many members of Congress are blaming Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for having fanned Iraq’s sectarian flames. Maliki has indeed systematically concentrated power in his own hands, and has excluded Sunnis, Kurds, and even other Shiite groups wherever and wherever possible. It’s no surprise, then, that many Sunnis have rightly concluded that the current political system will never benefit them, and that some of them are taking up arms to help a Sunni extremist group overthrow that political system.

But the fundamental political problem in Iraq isn’t Maliki himself. It’s the fact that Iraq is an oil state – and any new Iraqi leader, whether Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd – would likely govern in much the same way as Maliki has.

Oil states are almost always autocracies, and it’s easy to understand why.  They don’t depend on taxing their citizens in order to generate revenue, the way that most states do. Instead, they generate tremendous revenues simply by selling oil.  Controlling the state means controlling the oil, which means controlling oil revenues, which translates directly into political power. And that means that whoever controls the state will do whatever they can to maintain that control – by providing lavish benefits to their supporters while seeking to quash potential opposition before it arises. 

By their very nature, oil states are rarely politically inclusive. They often create government structures that seem to include other groups, but nominal opposition parties are usually fig leaves with no real political power. It is very hard for leaders of oil states to make credible commitments to share power with other groups, because oil is an indivisible resource – either you control it or you don’t. The oil sharing agreements that do exist, like the one between the Kurds and the central Iraqi state, often cause tension and instability because neither side believes that it benefits sufficiently. And that’s because more oil revenue means more power.  Those who control the state rarely share that power voluntarily, because they know that every other group in the country wants to unseat them and take over the state – and the country’s oil wealth. 

Many studies have documented this trend around the world.  Saudi Arabia, for example, is one of the world’s leading oil producers, and according to Freedom House, is one of the least free countries in the world.  It has a consultative council to advise the king – which is considered a legislative body even though the king appoints its members – but it possesses little independent power or authority. Kuwait, Azerbaijan and Venezuela provide other examples of oil states where strong central leaders have sought to consolidate power in their own hands and suppress or repress potential political opponents.

Maliki’s behavior may have been all sorts of negative things – exclusive, repressive, and sowing the seeds that allowed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, to gain a foothold in Iraq – but it was also predictable. 

The administration’s diplomatic push for other Iraqi political parties to form a government without Maliki might help during this immediate crisis, if it convinces some of the Sunnis who have taken up arms – and the Shiites who have taken up arms in response – to lay them down for a while. But it is not likely to be a successful strategy for long-term reconciliation. The roots of this crisis are far deeper than Maliki and make very clear the incredible difficulties – and perhaps even the impossibility – of sustaining democratic governance in an oil state. 

Replacing Maliki may be a necessary step towards political reconciliation but it is only a first step. U.S. policymakers must understand that Iraq’s next leader will face many of the same incentives that Maliki has faced in the past few years – and may respond in a very similar way. The United States can do little to encourage genuine political reconciliation given the winner-take-all nature of political power in oil states.

Nora Bensahel is senior fellow and co-director of the Responsible Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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