Hollywood has unveiled a recent triumph in Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, a complex cinematic narrative on geopolitics and oil in the Middle East. Syriana follows the interwoven storylines of an energy analyst, a Washington lawyer, a big oil company in Texas, a radical Islamic group and the royal family of a fictitious Arabic state. Syriana’s startling reality reminds American audiences of the tragedy of oil-rich states and the black gold’s greater implications for democracy in these regions.
The Greater Gulf Area, encompassing Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has played a significant international battleground since the discovery of oil there in the early 20th century. American prominence in these regions began in 1945 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with the founder of the modern Saudi regime, King Abdel Aziz, and secured an enduring strategic partnership.
Ever since, ownership of the Persian Gulf’s key oil reserves has inspired countless international military engagements, regime endorsements and corporate mergers.
According to Syriana’s depiction of American involvement, westernization and democratization of the Middle East have been merely attempts to place a permanent economic stronghold on the globe’s most valuable resource.
As quoted in a Los Angeles Times review, director Stephen Gaghan said that while Syriana is “a very real term used by Washington think tanks to describe the hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East,” the title in his movie suggests “the fallacious dream that you can successfully remake nation-states in your own image.”
Syriana demonstrates the cultural clash of two distinct civilizations, but it more urgently elucidates the global economic addiction to oil and how this greed negatively impacts the growth of democracy in the Middle East.
Oil is accompanied by antidemocratic properties that impede the transition from dictatorships, like Saddam Hussein’s former regime, to a true democracy, according to political scientist Michael Ross. Three causes for this include what he termed the rentier state, the repression effect, and the modernization effect.
A rentier state is one that raises a majority of its national revenue by renting out valuable resources, like oil, to external clients Where in democratic states, taxation guarantees some level of representation, oil-rich states have very low or no taxes and rely on patronage to sustain the government.
Repression, on the other hand, refers to the ability of the government to build internal security completely from within and intimidate forces that threaten the regime’s power.
Compounding these conditions, the dependency on oil exportation stunts modernization in the Middle East by not allowing the economy to develop and diversify with the times.
Toward the conclusion of Syriana, a successor is chosen from the royal family to lead the Arabic state. As a concession to American pressure, the former king chooses his younger son because he has promised drilling rights to the United States over the People’s Republic of China.
The older son, who had hopes of establishing a parliament and a true modern economy, is maneuvered out of power by the U.S. government because of his resistance to American involvement, a perfect example of corruption in the rentier state.
In a final dramatic climax, the film illustrates the true curse, which inevitably results from the presence of oil.
While Syriana utilizes the vehicle of a fictitious Arabic state, the modern reality is unmistaken: Oil means trouble for democracy in the Middle East, the political entities that seek to control it, and all the forces that get in the way.
Erin Cusack can be reached at email@example.com.