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Oil-Rich Dictatorships Will Not Be Overthrown by Armed Rebellions

This study explores two main arguments behind the Resource Curse:

  • Violent domestic conflicts occur more frequently in oil-producing states than they do in non oil-producing states.
  • Oil-producing states most commonly support autocratic regimes (characterized by long lasting regimes and low levels of democracy) than non oil-producing states.

The study is guided by the following question: If oil-rich states are prone to violent conflict and are often run by autocratic governments, then why don’t they experience a democratic shift in governance like oil-poor states do after experiencing violent conflict?

The research uncovers a large gap in the way most people understand the resource curse, as well as an encouraging example of the power of nonviolent protest. The data shows that oil’s role in blocking the democratic shift generally occurs only when domestic revolt manifests itself in a violent way. When the population of an oil-producing state calls for a regime change in a nonviolent manner, there is a much greater chance for a democratic shift than if their demands result in civil war or other forms of violent protest.

Past studies have found that if more than one-third of a state’s export revenue is from oil, they are twice as likely to experience civil war than states with lower oil exports. These findings are most commonly based on two of the most prominent ways an oil-economy can stimulate rebel groups: grievances and funding. The grievance hypothesis states that an oil economy creates strong grievances within the civilian population that can lead to rebellion, such as inequality or poor economic, environmental or agricultural environments. The funding hypothesis states that rebels in oil-producing states have additional access to funding than those in nations with little or no oil; therefore, they are better equipped to wage war.

The study suggests that although oil income can influence violent motives of both the rebelling forces and governments, the government has an upper hand in fending off any attempt of violent regime change because they usually have more control over the oil revenue. However, a government’s advantage is weakened when they face a regime change through peaceful, nonviolent political methods.

Why, then, do rebels fight if they were less favored to win? There are two possible explanations:

  • Many rebel groups are not trying to effect regime change. Or even if they were, they would be satisfied with some sort of compromise such as a policy change or larger political representation.
  • Rebels may choose to fight without any political interest. In many developing countries, joining a rebel group may be the best economic option for individuals, especially when the group has access to oil revenue.

As an example, a similar analysis of resource-related conflicts, found looting had a large role in over 75% of the studied cases. The Colombian rebel group FARC extorted an estimated $140 million from their country’s oil industry every year: enough to provide an average salary of over $10,000 to every FARC rebel, four times the national average of $2,340.


This research provides an example of the effectiveness of nonviolent protest. This is especially significant when we consider the oil-producing capacity of the Middle East and the various violent conflicts that have sprung up against autocratic regimes of the region. This research also provides insight into the often misunderstood or under-represented motives of rebel groups, and how focusing on those motives can help to avoid violence.

Talking Points

  • In oil-rich nations, governments have the upper hand when opposition groups use violent forms of protest.
  • In oil-rich states, opposition groups have the upper hand when they use nonviolent forms of protest.
  • Violent conflict can be avoided through negotiating with opposition groups; who often don’t act with the goal of regime change but rather to encourage some sort of policy change or larger political representation.
  • Participation in some opposition groups can be non-ideological. In many developing countries joining an opposition group is the best or only economic opportunity, especially when the group has access to oil revenue.

Practical Implications

Practitioners can incorporate this research into their programs when educating about nonviolent ways to effect change in a social or political environment. Evidence such as this could influence dissatisfied groups and those working with them to pursue nonviolent means of addressing their political problems. With regard to the economic incentives of violent civil conflict, advocating for a redistribution of foreign and domestic aid in order to create alternative sources of income potentially limit those who turn to rebel groups as an economic necessity. Many rebel groups do not seek regime change, but often something much less costly to the government. By creating a path to negotiation between autocratic regimes and rebel groups, violent conflict can be prevented through a series of much smaller concessions.


Key Term: The Resource Curse suggests that a country or region with an abundance of natural resources tends to experience less economic and social development than those without a surplus of resources.

Key Words: civil war, democratization, resource conflict, resource curse, oil wars, dictatorships, autocracies

Citation: Colgan, J. D. (2015). Oil, domestic conflict, and opportunities for democratization. Journal of Peace Research, 52(1), 3–16.


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