The Arab Spring represents a huge opportunity for EITI

The Arab Spring – now turned summer – represents an enormous opportunity for EITI and transparency more generally across the region. In Egypt and Tunisia, where I spent much of the first half of the year, calls for an end to corruption led the slogans chanted by peaceful protesters against the regimes of Zainuddine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. In Libya, you can hardly pass half an hour without people telling you they live in the richest country but are the poorest people. It is just as live an issue in other countries, such as Syria and Bahrain, where protests are still ongoing. From being a topic of refined policy debate, the issues EITI represents have taken the Arab street by storm and are still forefront among people's concerns.

GOOD GOVERNANCE - AT THE HEART OF THE REVOLUTIONARIES' WORLD VIEW

Traditionally, the Middle East has been seen, rightly, as a tough nut to crack among transparency activists. While close to two thirds of the world's hydrocarbons reserves are locked up in a few countries around the Gulf, secrecy is deeply institutionalised in most of those countries. But that's a picture the Arab Spring could blur at the edges in two important ways.

First, Egypt presents an interesting case because although natural resources are not a high proportion of GDP or exports, they still represent an important part of the country's political economy. The same is true of Tunisia, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Morocco and could even be true of Lebanon in the near future, depending on the size of gas reserves now in early stage exploration.

In Egypt, interest in transparency issues has risen not just among civil society activists but within the oil industry itself. Officials in the Ministry of Oil and managers in private companies see instruments like EITI as helping to establish a set of rules for the new era their countries are now entering, and perhaps also to help take the sting out of an industry which has become intensely politicised because of Egypt's gas sales to Israel. Two leading candidates for the presidential elections, Amr Moussa and Mohammed El Baradei, are both confirmed internationalists by career, and likely to be well disposed to EITI.

Second, there's the peer group and ripple effect factor. Certainly, economists and political scientists can tease out all the differences and specificities between the different Arab countries. Bahrain's GDP per capita is nearly twenty times Yemen's. A Bahraini woman is twice as likely to be working as her Syrian friend, and the Syrian, in turn, is twice as likely to be literate as her Yemeni friend. But if those “objective” differences didn't matter when the protests spread from one country to another, or to the protesters when they risked death to bare their chests, literally, to machine guns, they are unlikely to matter if and when the revolutions allow people to think about determining their futures according to their own dreams and aspirations.

What's more, this passion of the street is echoed in interest by the new decision makers. Senior managers at Agoco, the Libyan state oil company based in Benghazi, quickly announced their support for rebels and were keen when I met them to stress the importance they attached to good governance. There is a real hunger to rejoin the international community in the fullest sense, not just in form, state treaties and geopolitical alliances and so on, but substance, global norms and best practise. If the revolutions have been about “karama”, dignity or honour, which ordinary people felt they had lost in their relationship with autocratic regimes, that karama also applies to the way they and their countries are seen in the world. So many Tunisians, Egyptians and others say they just want to be able to hold their heads up when meeting foreigners. Although we might use more technical parlance, it is clear that good governance is at the heart of the revolutionaries' world view.

Transparency could go viral in the Arab World

Even in the Gulf there are chinks which could let in the light. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the number of male citizens who hold share portfolios on the local stock market is higher than in the United States. Petrochemicals – dependent on Saudi Aramco for feedstock – vie with the banking sector as the largest traded sector on the Riyadh exchange. Shareholder rights, in other words, represent a powerful constituency for transparency if only we can figure out how to reach them, all the more promising for being apolitical in the broader sense, and therefore less threatening to the powers that be.

If Egypt and a post-Gaddafi Libya, say, were to join Iraq and Yemen in implementing EITI, we could reach critical mass. Transparency could go viral in the Arab World.

Photo from Wikimedia CommonsCC-BY-SA-3.0.

Johnny West runs the OpenOil consultancy and advises the United Nations Development Program on EITI in Iraq, and governance in the oil industry in the Middle East. His book “Karama! Travels through the Arab Spring” was published in the UK last week. Learn more at http://johnnywest.net.