IN WRITING THE AUTHORIZED biography of the world's most hated 13-headed monster, Ian Seymour has attempted one of the most audacious feats in leterature since John Gardner turned Beowulf's adversary into the sympthetic protagonist of Grendel. Seymor's history of OPEC asks its readers to veiw the oil ministers dispassionately and in their own context, and to understand rather than reflexively deplore the revolution in the global economy that has occured since 1973.
That is tall order, given the complex and unwelcome aspects to the wishful thinking and simplistic attacks that dominate much of the public discourse in the United States about the Organization of Petroleum Exproting Countries and North-South economic issues in general. Having been one of those who were so specatcularly right inthe early 1970s about the decade's coming "energy crisis," Seymour has earned a hearing, however.
A British reporter and anlayst who works for the weekly industry newsletter Middle East Economic Survey, and a colleague with whom I have covered several OPEC conferneces, Seymour wrote this book with financial help from the OPEC secretarait. Knowing both that organization's ineffectiveness and Seymour's innate prudence, I can believe his contention that OPEC did not interfere with the conclusions of the author, who is any event stands to OPEC as Boswell stood to Johnson.
For most of its existence, Seymour aruges, OPEC has been a collection of 13 empty chairs on which oil ministers sit for a few days twice a year to coordinate oil price levels, rather than the all-powrful, all-evil cartel as popularly depicted by newspaper columnists and cartoonists.He chronicles OPEC's founding in 1960 as a defensive reponse by producing countries to efforts by British and American oil comapnies to force price cuts on them that had little to do with market conditions.
His history of OPEC inevitably becomes a history of the enormous powers that those oil companies held and have now reluctantly transferred, under market pressures, to the Middle Eastern African, Latin American and Asian nations of OPEC. In detail that is at times numbing, Seymour explains how an dwhy the cheap energy erea came to an end a decade ago in various hotel confernece rooms around the world.
Written to appear last November at the 20th anniversary summit of OPEC, which was abruptly cancelled because of the Iran-Iraq war, this book arrives now at another moment of transtion, as OPEC digests the lessons of its short life. A crucial one cited by Seymour is that "the pace of development should not be accelerated beyond the capacity of the country to absorb it in a meaningful way -- economically, politically and socially." If Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait were to act on that lesson, they would cut their rates of production so sharply that the current glut would begin to disappear overnight.
Seymour detects a strong swing in OPEC away from "the 'macho' attitude toward oil output volume" prevailent inthe 1970s when a ruler like the Shah of Iran "was wont to measure his power and prestige in terms of barrels exported" toward production policies dictated purely by national "development needs and oil reserves balance." Gone are the halcyon days, we are told, when forecasters would proejct the industrial world's demand for oil imports and them accurately predict the amount of oil OPEC would produce as the world's "residual supplier of energy."
From now on, the forecasters willhave to estimate first the amount that OPEC will be willing to produce. Then they will have to subtract the rapidly rising domestic (CONTINUED ON PAGE 8) (CONTINUED FROM PAGE 3) consumptionwithin OPEC nations, and the amounts that will go as a next priority to Third World nations. The reuslt, Seymor's figures strongly suggest, will be a much deeper, and more sustaind, shortage in crude oil supplies in the mid 1980s than the world has ever seen.
Despite its value, there are serious shortcomings in this book. Stylistically, it plods at times, reading like a compilation of the weekly proce analyses and reports that the Survey publishes.
More importantly, Seymour avoids a detailed discussion of the internal forces behind Saudi Arabia's production policies over the past three years, an omission that is perhaps not surprising since the Survey is so closely identified with Saudi Arabia, but one that is crippling to the book's authenticity since the Saudi policies are the key to what has happened in OPEC and in world markets for tha tperiod. And the book fails to explore the broader implications of the OPEC story for raw-material exporters in general and for world trade.
Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreibers, the French author and politician who dazzled his nation in the 1950s and 1960s with the brilliance of The American Challenge and the hard-hitting journalism of L'Express magazine, does make that conceptual leap in The World Challenge. Unfortunately, the book falls flat on its face.
Servan-Schreiber posits that we are leaving the energy era dominated by the Arabs and moving into the microporcessor era which will be dominated by the Japanese because of their mastery of the raw material of information. The world's challenge is to match the Japanese in high technology and to work with the Arabs in recycling petrodollars in a way to bring the Third World into the productive mainstream.
It is an engrossing idea, and Servan-Schreiber's ability to aruge it in highly romanticized and simple terms amde this book a best seller in France. Its fawning description of Japan's many qualities has made it a big hit there. But it is essentially a cut-and-paste job with thoughts, facts, semi- and non-facts and descriptions plucked from a confusing welter of sources, mashed together and presented with a fals tone of importance and intimacy that is intended to convey credibility but instead destroys it.
servan-Schreiber is also saddled with a clumsy translation from French. What is one to make of the sentence: "Among the B-29s was one that was identical to the others -- the Enola Gay"? In French, Le Defi Mondial is at least supple, but the U.S. translation adds insult to injury.