Thursday, September 15, 2011

Oil Revenues In The Arab Revolutions

By Randa Takieddine
The new head of Libya's Oil Company has announced that the pre-uprising production level (of more than 1.5 million barrels a day) will be attained by the end of the year. This is good news for a country that spent 42 years in the shadow of the Gaddafi dictatorship, which used oil revenues only to finance war, terror against civilians and benefit Gaddafi and his cronies.
Part of this oil wealth is still controlled by Gaddafi; it allowed him to hide and flee to various places, helped by the gold and liquidity at his disposal. In the ideal world envisioned by all of the patriotic rebels who toppled Gaddafi, this wealth should turn into revenues for the Libyan people, and for building the country, in a climate of accountability and democracy.
International oil companies are waiting for the moment to return to Libya and receive a higher share of the business than in the past to start producing. But the dream of Libya, Syria or other countries that have experienced unrest, like Egypt and Tunisia, is to see a truly democratic regime replace the dictatorship. Such a regime should see its governments held accountable before Parliament, representing the people, when it comes to seeing the country's revenues spent in transparent fashion. Naturally, this is the aspiration of everyone who rose up in Libya, and in Egypt – they have suffered from poverty and difficult conditions, without benefiting from their country's wealth, because it went into the pockets of dictators. Is any Syrian, for example, aware that his country earned $2.1 billion in oil revenues in 2010? Did he benefit from these revenues? How were they spent? Where are the investments? The European sanctions that are now depriving the Syrian regime of these revenues will affect those who have been dividing up these revenues, with no accountability, and not the lives of people who are rising up against corruption and demanding freedom, accountability and democracy. Egypt, after the revolution, is asking that the price of natural gas that it sells to Israel and Jordan, at less than one-third of the market price, undergo an adjustment, because the former regime controlled the gas and the prices, as suited it. Can one believe that a country such as Egypt is selling its gas wealth at low prices in deals that involve no accountability? Tunisia also saw its wealth wasted, by the Traboulsi clan, while the country's poor were immolating themselves because of the desperation and oppression that the former bin Ali regime inflicted them with over decades. This also applies to Yemen, which today receives hard currency revenues from 5 million tons annually of natural gas exported to the Far East, and small quantities of petroleum exports. But where have these revenues gone? How are they being invested, and who is benefited?
Today, the Arab peoples that have risen up in these countries are planning for a better future, with freedom and democracy. Why don't we dream of an ideal, transparent model for spending oil revenues of some of these countries, in the manner of Norway, for example, where a fund with oil and gas revenues is monitored by Parliament, which oversees all investments and uses these funds?
Of course, it would be most difficult, if not a miracle, to see a move from the Gaddafi regime, or the Syrian Baath regime, toward Norwegian-style accountability. But the hope is perhaps that the new democracies in the Arab world will rely on accountability and transparency and benefit from their wealth and improve the conditions of the people in revolt. Certainly, for those who have taken to the street and risked their lives, in Libya or Syria, in the face of regimes that have used the country's wealth to muzzle them, steal from them and kill them, deserves to see such a dream come true!
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 14/09/2011

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