World Politics

Research Article

Does Oil Hinder Democracy?

Michael L. Rossa1*

a1 University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


Some scholars suggest that the Middle East's oil wealth helps explain its failure to democratize. This article examines three aspects of this “oil impedes democracy” claim. First, is it true? Does oil have a consistendy antidemocratic effect on states, once other factors are accounted for? Second, can this claim be generalized? Is it true only in the Middle East or elsewhere as well? Is it true for other types of mineral wealth and other types of commodity wealth or only for oil? Finally, if oil does have antidemocratic properties, what is the causal mechanism?

The author uses pooled time-series cross-national data from 113 states between 1971 and 1997 to show that oil exports are strongly associated with authoritarian rule; that this effect is not limited to the Middle East; and that other types of mineral exports have a similar antidemocratic effect, while other types of commodity exports do not.

The author also tests three explanations for this pattern: a “rentier effect,” which suggests that resource-rich governments use low tax rates and patronage to dampen democratic pressures; a “repression effect,” which holds that resource wealth enables governments to strengthen their internal security forces and hence repress popular movements; and a “modernization effect,” which implies that growth that is based on the export of oil and minerals will fail to bring about die social and cultural changes that tend to produce democratic government. He finds at least limited support for all three effects.

Michael L. Ross is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is the author of Timber Booms and Institutional Breakdown in Southeast Asia (2001). He is currently writing a book on the resource curse.

* Previous versions of this article were presented to seminars at Princeton University, Yale University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, and at the September 2000 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington, D.C. For their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts, I am grateful to Pradeep Chhibber, Indra de Soysa, Geoffrey Garrett, Phil Keefer, Steve Knack, Miriam Lowi, Ellen Lust-Okar, Lant Pritchett, Nicholas Sambanis, Jennifer Widner, Michael Woolcock, and three anonymous reviewers. I owe special thanks to Irfan Nooruddin for his research assistance and advice and to Colin Xu for his help with the Stata. I wrote this article while I was a visiting scholar at The World Bank in Washington, D.C. The views I express in this article, and all remaining errors, are mine alone.