THE ENERGY CRISIS IS OVER, at least for the short term. Almost all oil output around the Persian Gulf has been cut by half since 1980. The Iraq-Iran war has slashed the production of those two countries -- from a combined output of 9.3 million barrels per day in the mid-1970s -- to less than 3 million barrels per day now. Saudi Arabia, which was daily pumping 10.3 million barrels in 1981, has tumbled to an unprecedented 2 million barrels per day just a few months ago.
Yet the world is awash in an oil glut unparalleled in the dozen years since the first OPEC price shock of 1973, and the glut will last at least through 1990. Energy conservation, alternate energy use, and the rise in non-OPEC oil production have conspired to drive the price of oil down. Once as high as $40 a barrel and seemingly headed inexorably for $60, $80, $100 or more, the price of oil will probably hit $25 this winter on its way down to $22 on the Rotterdam spot market by spring.
Adjusted for inflation, this is less than half the price of oil just six years ago. In fact, adjusted for inflation, it is less than we were paying for oil in 1974, after the dust of the first Arab oil embargo settled.
Who won and who lost from this reversal of fortunes? For that matter, how important is the Middle East any more? The answers to these questions will not be found simply by looking at petroleum and petrodollars. The answers are also tied to the amount of world turmoil these commodities can cause.
The biggest apparent losers, of course, are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates -- the Middle Eastern nations with the most reserves, and the most production capacities. The Saudis, for example, who earned some $106 billion in 1981, will have total oil revenues this year of no more than $30 billion -- far less than their expected national spending of $55.4 billion this fiscal year starting March 22.
But at least in the short run, Saudi Arabia has financial reserves of almost $100 billion, a tiny native population of only 6 million, and, already in place, mostly all the magnificent schools, hospitals, housing, cars, highways, airports, jet fighters, refineries, pipelines and petrochemical complexes any country its size could possibly absorb.
Therefore, the impact of Saudi Arabia's reduced circumstances will initially be felt far more by other Middle Eastern players who had gotten used to Riyadh's subsidies, which now must be cut.
Already, the Saudis have reduced financial assistance to Iraq from over $1 billion a month since the war began in September, 1980, to $400 million a month and even less. The Saudis have also reduced their payments to Jordan and the PLO. Kuwait has slashed its payments from $561 million in 1984 to $340 million in 1985 for Syria, Jordan ad the PLO. The United Arab Emirates have suspended some of their financial aid to Syria and Lebanon.
The end of these subsidies means upheaval. In the case of Iraq and Iran, it could mean the intensification of war. In the case of Jordan and the PLO, it could mean steps toward peace.
The oil-producing world certainly has been content to watch Iran and Iraq stack up hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides of the Shatt al-Arab waterway in their indecisive war. It takes no outstanding oracle to predict that if the 5-year-old war between the two countries were ever to end, both Baghdad and Tehran would flood the markets with crude -- some say a combined 3.5 million barrels a day of added oil production initially -- to recover from their war devastation.
Thus, the last thing other oil producing nations want is peace in the Persian Gulf -- it would make them helpless spectactors as a new ocean of crude is dumped on world markets driving prices down even further.
However, nobody wants unlimited war, either. Everyone in the Middle East knew that if Iraq's Saddam Hussein tried to break the stalemate by bombing Kharg Island -- the shipping depot for most of Iran's oil -- Iran might retaliate by doing something desperate.
As long as the Saudis were financing Iraq to the tune of $12 billion a year, Hussein was restrained. But now that lowered oil prices have reduced Saudi contributions to $4.8 billion and less, Hussein, who has little to lose, has raided Kharg almost daily since Aug. 15. As a result, Iran reportedly is only pumping 800,000 barrels a day. And, once again, the specter looms of Iran trying to do something such as blocking the Straits of Hormuz in an attempt to shut off all the world's oil coming out of the Persian Gulf.
Such a threat, however, is of much less concern to the Western world than it was in 1979 when the rise of the Ayatollah forced the last great price increase.
First, tankers coming out of the Persian Gulf are not as important as they used to be. No country wanted their source of wealth totally threatened by Khomeini. So new pipelines from the region have sprawled across Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and soon, Jordan, to terminals in the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. The Persian Gulf, which in the late 1970s used to supply over 55 percent of the world's oil markets, is now down to almost 32 percent.
And even if the Straits were shut down, other producers would be more than happy to take up the slack. The new pipelines make winners out of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They make losers out of Syria and Lebanon whose pipelines from Iraq were cut by Syria as a favor to Iran in April '82. The unlikely event of a successful shut-down in Gulf shipping would make winners out of earthquake-shattered Mexico, as well as non-Gulf, debt-ridden OPEC members such as Algeria, Nigeria, Indonesia and Venezeula who would pump furiously.
For that matter, the truly cynical point out that the leaders of Iran and Iraq themselves would not be directly served, in present circumstances, by an end of the war. If the troops return home, all of Iran will realize the damage done to the economy as a result of five years of "mad war." Anyway, as long as the Iranian army is busy on the western front, it has no time to muck around in government. By the same token, any Iraqi officer busy fighting Persians is one less Iraqi officer plotting against Hussein.
Thus, the main winner in the Persian Gulf war is not even an oil producer. It's Turkey, which has capitalized on its two warring neighbors allying Islamic sentimentalism with Levantine mercantilism. Prior to the war, Turkey was just another developing country depending on U.S., European and Japan subsidies to survive. Today the traffic to the Persian Gulf is brisk in such important Turkish basic manufactured goods as shoes, candles, nails, dinner plates -- even body shrouds. So far, these good-neighborly relations have redressed Turkey's balance of payments -- that is over and above the new pipelines and their oil -- to a $151 million surplus in 1983 and $104 million last year. Not bad for a country that has been suffering from a financial deficit for more than a decade.
Another winner is also a non-starter in the oil-export game. Syria shut off the Iraqi pipeline terminating on its Banias Mediterranean port in April 1982. For this it was amply rewarded by Iran: 20,000 barrels a day of free oil, another 100,000 barrels a day at $2.50 lower than the OPEC official price, plus a $1 billion revolving loan, still unpaid.
And one of the truly big losers is not even in the Middle East -- it's the Soviet Union. It could lose more than $6 billion in export revenues if oil prices drop to $19 a barrel next spring, calculates Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates. Not only would it lose money on the 1.5 million to 1.8 million barrels per day of oil it exports, but it would also face lower prices for its gas exports to Western Europe. In addition, the Soviets would lose sales on their second most important export -- arms. Some of the Soviets' best customers -- Libya and Iraq, for example -- are bartering oil of declining value for their weapons. Other countries will have to reduce their purchases significantly. Arms and energy accounts for nearly 80 percent of Soviet exports to nonsocialist countries, according to Wharton.
By contrast, a drop in oil prices might be good for Israel's chances of peace with its neighbors.
Financial assistance from the oil-rich Arab countries partially helped to keep Jordan's King Hussein and PLO leader Yassar Arafat in their intransigent posture vis a vis peace talks with Israel. Critical cutbacks in this aid have certainly pushed those two leaders back into reality. This was a factor in their timid suggestion to hold some negotiations with Israel since their joint statement of last Feb. 11.
Of course, there's no small irony in Israel thus being a potential winner in this oil-price game. For right now Israel is the party that lost the most during its three-year adventure in driving the PLO out of Lebanon. Even official accounting has $3.5 billion going down that hole between June 5, 1982 and June 5, 1985, plus 654 dead and 3,890 wounded.
That is, of course, unless you count the price paid by Lebanon, which is said to have lost some 200,000 people killed and wounded during their 10-year civil war. Lebanese academic studies also calculate that 300,000 Lebanese emigrated during that period -- almost 10 percent of the population. Once one of the most flourishing countries in the Arab world, Lebanon has turned so desolate since civil war broke out on April 13, 1975, that even the PLO departures -- in August 1982 and December 1983 -- came to be regretted by Lebanon's Central Bank. The Palestinians, a resented presence by the Christians and Western-oriented factions, nonetheless used to spend $1 million a day for their food, lodging and arms in Lebanon.
According to official sources in Beirut, oil- producers' subsidies to various factions from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc. to fund the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1982 added an estimated $75 million per month, or a welcome $900 million per year. The Syrians alone reportedly spent $500,000 a day to maintain a 35,000-strong force in Lebanon during their 9-year occupation. Most of this money came from the Arab League, which, for practical purposes, means it came from Saudi Arabia.
Lebanese bankers are not the only ones toting up their winnings and losses.
Banks with loans out to oil-producing nations are watching the oil glut with great apprehension. American banks, such as Manufacturers Hanover and Bank of America, who have extended jumbo loans to oil- producing nations like Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria or Indonesia, worry about these nations' ability to repay in a glut. A $5 cut in the average price of oil might knock $2.6 billion off Mexico's annual foreign earnings, the same amount off Venezuela's, and $2.8 billion off Nigeria's.
Of course, these countries are helped by lower interest rates that accompany the world-wide economic tonic of lower oil prices. For that matter, it is quite a welcome relief for oil importers in Western Europe to settle their oil bill in dollars devalued relative to their own currency.
And the United States should tap foreign oil as long as it can. This policy enables Washington to accumulate more reserves in its strategic stockpile while sparing America's petroleum resources in case of dire emergency, such as war. The oil glut, meanwhile, helps reduce inflation and unemployment.
Elsewhere, though, the drop in oil production and prices, like Iran's earthquake, is sending its tremors to the nearby Arab, Islamic and Third World countries. The Persian Gulf producers have imported foreign labor in the millions from neighboring Arab countries, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and as far east as the Philippines and South Korea. Those migrant workers have been sending back home remittances which helped not only their families but, better still, their governments' balance of payments deficits.
Now that money is scarce and development plans are cut back in the Gulf, those workers are asked to return home. Saudi Arabia alone plans to send back 650,000 foreign workers by 1990. Remittances to dependents by Jordanians working in Arab Gulf countries used to reach $1 billion a year; There are 800,000 Jordanians in the Gulf, mostly of Palestinian origin, who once back home, will increase the already 60 percent proportion of Palestinians living in Jordan.
Egyptian remittances were cut from $3.5 billion in 1983-84 to an estimated $2.6 billion this year. The Lebanese remitted $1.5 billion, the Turks $1 billion, the North Yemenis $1.2 billion a year. Once home, those returning unemployed workers could turn into a massive explosion that could destabilize more than one regime from the eastern Mediterranean to the Far Eastern confines of the Pacific.
The question again, is: Is the Middle East still an important region in the world? The answer, obviously, is, yes. Because even as the supply of oil from the Middle East is in decline, the amount of turmoil it can create worldwide seems to be on the increase.