Forty years have passed since the Arab oil embargo went into effect on Oct. 16, 1973, triggering a period of incredible change and turmoil. After the United States provided support to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, a cartel of developing-world countries (via the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC) banned the sale of their oil to Israel's allies and thereby set in motion geopolitical circumstances that eventually allowed them to wrest control over global oil production and pricing from the giant international oil companies -- ushering in an era of significantly higher oil prices. The event was hailed at the time as the first major victory of "Third World" powers to bring the West to its knees. Designed in part to bring Arab populations their due after decades of colonialism, the embargo opened the floodgates for an unprecedented transfer of wealth out of America and Europe to the Middle East. Overnight, the largest segment of the global economy, the oil market, became politicized as never before in history.
But four decades later, the shoe may finally be on the other foot. Now, on the 40th anniversary of the 1973 embargo, the United States has a historic opportunity to lead a counterrevolution against the energy world created by OPEC as innovation in the U.S. energy industry looks poised to end the decades-long, precarious "dependence on foreign oil." Washington should seize the opportunity and push to democratize energy globally, just as its Silicon Valley giants have democratized information.
In the run-up to 1973, two-thirds of global ownership of oil moved from the private sector of American and European companies to public-sector national oil companies. Rather than let the forces of supply and demand determine prices, post-1973, the lowest-cost oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, artificially shut production and discouraged capital investment, creating a lasting wedge of rents or financial profitability that market conditions never warranted. (Today, oil prices in real terms are more than four times higher than in 1972.) A massive industrial restructuring occurred over the course of a half-decade, as state-owned enterprises, with limited project-management skills and bloated workforces, surpassed the oil majors like Chevron and Shell in both capitalization and size.
The 1970s witnessed a profound and unprecedented transfer of wealth to the Middle East that continues to have significant repercussions today -- from democracy movements to terrorism to civil wars. The region's leaders failed to set up long-term mechanisms to distribute the benefits of that wealth transfer broadly to their populations and to establish an equitable stake in governance of resource proceeds that would have brought a newfound stability to the region. Instead, they bought lavishly, gilding their palaces and buying fleets of luxury autos. For decades, they squandered the opportunity to use oil wealth to modernize their societies and train their populations for future global economic competition. The result -- unfolding not just in the Middle East but in other oil-producing countries as well -- is a crisis of governance that is itself triggering a round of oil-supply disruptions.
Massive petrodollar inflows brought with them a new political paradigm of "rentier" patronage, characterized by financial excesses, corruption, repression, and billions of dollars in accumulated weapons purchases. Populations of oil-producing states, for the most part, are little better off today than in 1973. Many of the countries have been war-ravaged or riven by sectarian hatreds. And, even with decades of relatively high oil prices and associated worker remittances, most countries of the Middle East still see modest GDP per capita, below $30,000 person on a purchasing-power-parity basis.
Deep income inequality means that much of the region's population is in fact still living in poverty, even in places like Saudi Arabia. So it should be no surprise that 40 years after the 1973 embargo, citizens of the region are rising up against those who squandered their futures. Tired of waiting for the day when rising oil revenues would somehow magically bring back the promise of prosperity, youth are taking to the streets; port and oil workers are mounting strikes; and jihadists are taking up arms to end the oil curse once and for all. Their frustrations do not unfold in a vacuum. High oil prices associated with all this unrest is propelling energy investment elsewhere to great success. Energy efficiency is also getting a boost, shrinking the long-term market for Middle East oil. The upshot will be that it will be harder and harder over time for Arab rulers to count on oil money to keep them in power. And that has a trickle-down effect to the populations they've been keeping quiescent with handouts for decades.
Ironically, just when political revolutions were gaining momentum across the Middle East, a different kind of revolution was emerging that looks likely to bring a new epoch of dislocation and distortion to prevailing oil and gas structures. This second energy revolution is also ameliorating the impact of the first.