Across the Middle East, common people are standing up to their governments in protest even as I write. This demonstration of resolve for self-governance, in protest of corruption, tyranny, and repression, is nothing short of inspiring.
Of course, the outcome of these protests is still far from clear. Democracy and good governance is far from certain, even if the current autocrats are ousted from power. And even if democracy does emerge, it will need a combination of great leadership and great luck to stabilize and take root.
Still, these protests are an opportunity the likes of which has not been seen in decades.
Being a scholar of global oil politics, I cannot help pointing out which countries are experiencing these opportunities, and which ones are not. Tunisia and Egypt, which have relatively little oil, have had the most significant protests; their oil-rich neighbors Libya and Algeria have not. The leaders in Jordan, Syria, and Yemen have been shaken; the monarchs in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf states have not. What's the common denominator? The oil-rich autocrats have a firm hand on power; the states with little or no oil are experiencing popular protests of far greater magnitude.
There are exceptions, of course: the government in oil-rich Iraq has also been shaken by the outbreak of protests. But then, I think it is fair to say that Iraq is exceptional in a lot of ways, and stability was not its strong suit even before the protests in Tunisia.
At the risk of only moderate simplification, the lesson ought to be clear: so long as the global economy remains dependent on oil, it continues to fund autocracy in the Middle East.