Thomas Friedman’s so-called “First Law of Petropolitics” states that the price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions. As the price of oil rises and money floods into the hands of a “petrolist state”, the government of this state can use this money to crush the opposition, and also to gain the upper hand in their relations with the international community. They become less dependent on trade relationships with other countries and so they can do what they please domestically and internationally. They also are less dependent on taxation, and hence on democratic representation which normally evolves along with taxation. Revenues from energy sales allow for government spending to keep the population satisfied with autocracy and to dampen pressures for democratization.
I’ve been rather scathing about this “law” in an older post, and I’ve found some data to back me up. There seems to be no empirical evidence that high oil prices undermine democracy, help sustain autocracy, or prevent transitions to democracy.
This doesn’t mean that the West shouldn’t move away from its dependence on oil. It’s just that the reason is simply ecological rather than political: oil dependence isn’t bad because it supports autocrats elsewhere in the world; it’s bad because of the environment.