Follow the money to bury dictators
By Hossein Askari
The United States and other Western governments in fact support their favorite strongmen no matter how egregious their policies, while publicly condemning dictatorships, unrepresentative governments, oppression and corruption. Confronted with their own duplicity and shameful support of dictators, they invariably wring their hands and profess impotence to engineer positive change because effective change must come from the inside.
While Western governments shed crocodile tears, they have the means to break the vicious circle of Middle Eastern dictatorships if they only had the will. The answers to three questions point the way to burying these dictators: Why do dictators reign supreme and hang on to power in the Middle East? Why does the US
continue to support these strongmen and risk the ire of Muslims for generations to come? What can the United States and the rest of the West do to reduce the stranglehold of dictators in the region?
Dictators in the Middle East, their families, cronies and other supporters are dependent upon the wealth to be had from oil and natural gas, wealth that does not belong to them and that is being rapidly depleted. Unfortunately, Western corporations and politically wired individuals have also bitten from this fruit and are similarly hooked. The two sides acting together make a circle that is tough to penetrate. This is how it works.
In the past, Westerners exploited the oil and gas resources of these countries as colonialists pure and simple. But for the last 40 years the two sides have joined hands and have practiced a friendlier form of exploitation or what could more accurately be called collaborative colonialism. The main reason Middle Eastern dictators want to hold on to absolute power is to reap untold wealth, to live lavishly and to stash billions of ill-gotten gains abroad. And Westerners, especially the United States, support dictators for the benefit of their corporations and powerful individuals.
Not only are dictators keen to hold on to power, their backers are just as determined to keep them in place and share the spoils. Even when dictators are overthrown, the new boys on the block have the same incentive to hold onto absolute power and exploit the oil and gas wealth for their own benefit. The dictators and their backers use the time-tested tactic of divide and conquer and exploit religious, sectarian, ethnic and tribal differences as their weapons of division.
The flames of these differences are fanned and kept alive. The raging sectarian divide of today, namely, the Sunni-Shi'ite chasm that risks embroiling the entire region into open conflict, had its origin some 1,400 years ago and has lost its original passion and relevance. The succession of the Prophet Mohammad and the assassinations and strife that followed have little connection to Muslim lives today, except that the sectarian divide affords a ready-made instrument for oppressive dictators to garner support to mask the pillage of national wealth.
The struggle to control these resources and to determine who benefits from them has in turn become the major source of resentment toward rulers and their Western supporters and the fuel for most intrastate and interstate conflicts in the Middle East region.
The oil and gas wealth at stake is truly eye popping and runs into the tens of trillions of dollars. The ongoing robbery of depletable oil and natural gas wealth that rightly belongs to every citizen of all generations may go down in history as the biggest theft of all time unless it is stopped rapidly in its tracks.
What can be done to put an end to this ongoing robbery and bring justice, hope, prosperity and some peace to the region? What can the United States do? The key is to eliminate the incentive to seek absolute power. Those who seek absolute power in the region do so for preferential access to wealth, which they largely squirrel away in foreign lands - in bank accounts, financial investments and in real estate holdings. Two initiatives would go a long way to hammer shut the coffin of Middle East dictators.
First, publicize to the world and have the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank uphold the policy recommendation that countries with constitutions (Koranic or otherwise) specifying that depletable resources belong to the state, and thus equally to citizens of all generations, should manage these resources in ways that reflect their constitution.
Second, all banks must disclose the bank accounts of foreign heads of state and their immediate families and of senior foreign government officials if they exceed US$1 million; all non-bank financial institutions must similarly disclose their non-bank financial investments; and governments must similarly disclose their real estate holdings. (Note: these cover foreign holdings and do not apply to the domestic assets of rulers, their families and their backers.)
These two initiatives would make it more difficult for rulers to rob their countries by exposing their export of acquired wealth and making it more difficult for foreigners to support their corrupt practices and deprive citizens of their birthright. Such an initiative should not be considered intrusive because in most democratic countries senior officials already disclose all their assets, domestic and foreign.
As important, the initiatives would reduce the incentive of rulers to hold on to absolute power and impede all reforms, such as effective institutions, that would threaten their tight grip on power; and with foundational reforms, sustained prosperity and growth should begin to appear and conflicts recede.
Hossein Askari is Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)