That Russia loses badly from sagging world oil prices is obvious, but so do a bunch of other countries run by thugs, autocrats, kleptocrats, theocrats, religious fundamentalists, left-wing populists and even some democrats who govern their countries poorly.
Oil has been predominantly found in undemocratic, corrupt and often unsavoury states where it has contributed if not to the "curse of oil" than at least to being a mixed blessing.
Yes, there are some exceptions – Norway, the United States, Britain, Canada, Mexico in recent years. But for each of these, there have been three or four unlovely governments that benefited from the resource. In some cases, oil has contributed directly to corruption, since rulers used it to enrich themselves and their entourages. An obvious example is Nigeria, long among the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International.
Many Arab states have oil in abundance, but it's hardly helped them raise their people's living standards: Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Syria. (Egypt has some oil but not very much.) None is a democracy and, like Arab states with little or no oil, they are way down the United Nations Human Development Index.
UN reports on the Arab world, compiled by Arab scholars, paint a dismal picture by almost every measure of political freedom, economic well-being, social progress, the role of women, education, governance and literacy.
In Latin America, the worst-run country is the one with by far the most oil: Venezuela. That country is a tragedy, blessed with so much oil but crippled by crime (Caracas, the capital, has one of the world's highest murder rates), poverty, social cleavages and left-wing populism.
The best-run Latin American countries – the ones with democratic governments and sensible economic and social policies – have little (Colombia) or no oil to speak of (Chile and Peru). Brazil, the country with a bright future whose future never comes, has some oil and will some day produce more from deep offshore supplies, but not at today's prices – it remains a country with widespread corruption and serious crime.
Argentina has less oil than Brazil, and hopes some day to develop its shale gas deposits in the southern part of the country, but again, not at these world prices. Argentina usually manages its economy badly, oil or no oil, as it is doing today. As a result, there has been one recent devaluation of the peso with another being a possibility. A sure sign of mismanagement is the existence of two currency exchange rates: the official one that almost nobody uses and the "blue," or unofficial, rate.
Iran, the world's sixth-biggest oil producer, will be hurt by these lower prices. Its economy was already suffering from sanctions and a very poorly organized economy, including massive subsidies to the retail price of gasoline. So inept is the Iranian government that it actually imports refined gasoline.
Moderate reformers, by Iranian standards, are now in elected positions. They are trying to ease sanctions and improve the economy by negotiating a nuclear deal with the Security Council countries and Germany. Whether a deal can be reached in the teeth of a long history of suspicions between Iran and other countries, and in the face of fierce opposition from the Revolutionary Guard, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Israel lobby in Washington, is the great unknown. But such a deal would allow Iran to resume exporting oil to markets now closed to it. On past record, new oil revenues would not necessarily be wisely used.
China is actually the world's fifth-largest producer of oil, but it still needs to import vast quantities of it. So on balance, low prices are a net plus for China, as they are for countries such as South Korea and Japan, both democracies that built strong economies without oil. Other democratic Asia-Pacific countries with insufficient domestic supply should benefit: Australia, New Zealand, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, among others.
On balance, Asia should be a winner, as should oil-poor continental Europe. Canada is a bit of a net loser. Iran, Venezuela and Russia will be the big losers. The geopolitical question is whether being a big loser will produce political change in regimes or attitudes – such change comes hard in the unlovely regimes that have oil.