The oil exporters will meet in Caracas this week to levy another devastating price increase, which will cause new economic, political and social dislocations for the world.
Probably the only voice of restraint and reason at the OPEC conclave will be that of Sheik Zaki Yamani, the adroit, Harvard-educated lawyer who is now Saudi Arabia's oil minister. He has jumped the gun by announcing a $6-per-barrel increase on the eve of the conference, a move apparently intended to head off the higher boost sought by most other oil powers.
Intelligence reports from Saudi Arabia suggest Yamani is motivated by a growing annoyance with the oil companies, which have happily pocketed savings that the Saudis intended to pass on to the United States. The cautious Saudis are aware that their vast oil wealth is mismatched to a small, backward population -- an imbalance that makes the kingdom an incalculable booty, undefended except by the mossaic of bribery and manipulation that has long been their foreign policy. The Saudis, therefore, offered their oil to the mighty United States for $18 a barrel, a generous $6 less than any other oil sheikdom was charging. Unfortunately, the benefits never reached the American people; they were siphoned off by the oil companies.
This raises anew the question of how long the American people are going to put up with the antics of the oil companies, which have manipulated U.S. policymakers like puppets for half a century. Presidents and Congresses alike have slavishly followed the dictates of oilmen whose exclusive concern for profit has made them pitiful guardians of U.S. interests.
Today's oil catastrophe and Iranian confrontation can both be blamed squarely on the the undercover connivance between the oil barons and the politicians in Washington. This has produced festering resentments that have now ripened into hatred throughout the Middle East oil region.
Distrust of the oil majors -- and the nations behind them -- began to suface in the 1950s. Demands for higher oil prices, greater royalties, an end to restricted production, a sharing in profits and management, richocheted from oil country to oil country.
In the United States, two opposed philosophies were advanced for exorcising these omens. The politicians proposed that some Arab demands be finessed with under-the-table money, that others be circumvented by diplomatic coups and that still others be put down by shows of military force -- all the while using the great American oil companies as the instruments of U.S. policy.
From other quarters there came a series of extraordinarily prescient analyses by American mid-level civil servants -- analyses of the criminality of oil company operations in the Middle East, of the havoc that lay ahead if the United States proceeded by way of suppression and trickery, of the unreliability and dubious loyalty of the oil companies as the instrument of American policy.
This group had its program, too -- to restore to the Arabs much of the concession properties they had surrendered; to break up the cartel arrangements, introduce scores of new oil companies and open up the entire Middle East with all-out competition; to deal with the Arabs and Iranians on a government-to-government, not oil-company-to-government, basis; and to give aid to Arab states openly, not through oil-tax gimmicks.
And so the stage was set for what, in retrospect, was one of the most important inside confrontations of the century -- between a few middle-level officials who had logic, the law and the future on their side and the panoply of oil companies, Cabinet officers, military chiefs, national security agencies, powerful congressmen and, in the end, presidents who were dedicated to embalming the status quo.
The repercussions are now rocking the Western world with one shock wave after another, the latest about to roll forth from Caracas. Certainly it is time to break up the sordid romance between the oil profiteers and the politicians, and to chase the oilmen out of the back rooms of Washington.