53 (April 2001), 325–61
DOES OIL HINDER DEMOCRACY?
By MICHAEL L. ROSS*
OLITICAL scientists believe that oil has some very odd proper-
ties. Many studies show that when incomes rise, governments tend
to become more democratic. Yet some scholars imply there is an excep-
tion to this rule: if rising incomes can be traced to a country’s oil
wealth, they suggest, this democratizing effect will shrink or disappear.
Does oil really have antidemocratic properties? What about other min-
erals and other commodities? What might explain these effects?
The claim that oil and democracy do not mix is often used by area
specialists to explain why the high-income states of the Arab Middle
East have not become democratic. If oil is truly at fault, this insight
could help explain—and perhaps, predict—the political problems of oil
exporters around the world, such as Nigeria, Indonesia, Venezuela, and
the oil-rich states of Central Asia. If other minerals have similar prop-
erties, this effect might help account for the absence or weakness of de-
mocracy in dozens of additional states in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin
America, and Southeast Asia. Yet the “oil impedes democracy” claim
has received little attention outside the circle of Mideast scholars;
moreover, it has not been carefully tested with regression analysis, ei-
ther within or beyond the Middle East.
I use pooled time-series cross-national data from 113 states between
1971 and 1997 to explore three aspects of the oil-impedes-democracy
claim. The Frst is the claim’s validity: is it true? Although the claim has
been championed by Mideast specialists, it is difFcult to test by examining
only cases from the Middle East because the region provides scholars with
* Previous versions of this article were presented to seminars at Princeton University, Yale Univer-
sity, and the University of California, Los Angeles, and at the September 2000 annual meeting of the
American Political Science Association in Washington, D.C. ±or their thoughtful comments on ear-
lier drafts, I am grateful to Pradeep Chhibber, Indra de Soysa, Geoffrey Garrett, Phil Keefer, Steve
Knack, Miriam Lowi, Ellen Lust-Okar, Lant Pritchett, Nicholas Sambanis, Jennifer Widner, Michael
Woolcock, and three anonymous reviewers. I owe special thanks to Irfan Nooruddin for his research
assistance and advice and to Colin Xu for his help with the Stata. I wrote this article while I was a vis-
iting scholar at The World Bank in Washington, D.C. The views I express in this article, and all re-
maining errors, are mine alone.