As we watch Venezuela, once dubbed a “terrestrial paradise” by Christopher Columbus, disintegrate, we are reminded that despite their enormous wealth, many of the world’s oil-rich states have delivered very little to their people.
Developing oil exporters face a unique set of challenges. Most had only rudimentary political and economic institutions prior to the discovery of petroleum, a resource that creates well-documented distortive effects on development. And, while organizations such as USAID associate “democratic governance” with “long-term sustainable development,” oil states that have experimented with participatory government, such as Iraq and Venezuela, have fared as badly as, if not worse than, their autocratic peers.
In view of these challenges, the relative success of Saudi Arabia, whose leadership prioritized stability, the delivery of services, and geopolitical maturity (i.e., avoiding the pitfall of foreign adventurism, which oil wealth tends to encourage) over that of her peers—Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Angola, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Nigeria, and Venezuela—deserves attention.