Political and economic dovecotes all over the world normally flutter like crazy when the OPEC cartel of oil-exporting countries holds its annual meeting in December. But this week, as OPEC gathers in Caracas, it is getting a blind eye from chancelleries of the West, the financial gnomes of Zurich, New York and Tokyo, and the capitals of the Middle East from which I have just come.
Their relative inattention announces the principal fact about OPEC - and indeed the world economy - today. Because of long-term slump in the industrialized world, oil has become a weak weapon against both Israel and the West.
Behind all this is perhaps the most underreported - if not unreported - story in the world. It is the story ofa well-nigh universal expectation that did not materialize. I mean theexpectation of an oil shortage, and accompanying international financial crisis, now or in the next year or two. The expected crisis was postponed by an even bigger development. That is the willingness of the industrial countries of the West to accept slower economic growth rather than the inflation and shaky finances implicit in total surrender to the oil exporters.
The slowdown in growth has been universal among the industrialized countries of the non-Communist world. In 1974, they underwent the most severe recession since World War II. Industrial production suffered far more than any other parts of the advanced economies.
Recovery, and particularly recovery of industrial production, has been slow. The U.S., Japan, West Germany, Britain and France are all still operating at italy, Britain and Canada, the gross national product is still growing at a slower pace than the rate from 1961 through 1972.
The consequence of the slowdown has been a huge falloff in the projected consumption of that prime industrial commodity, oil. In 1973, when the oil weapon was brought into play in the form of an embargo during the October War, oil consumption among the industrial countries of the non-Communist world was 47.8 million barrels a day.
It fell for the next two years, and in 1976 got back to where it was before, plus a tiny fraction: 47.9 million barrels a day. This year the estimate is for consumption at about 50 million barrels a day.
In the interim, productive capacity has risen, partly as a result of continued development in the exporting states, and partly with new sources (notably the North Sea and the North Slop) coming outstream. There is now a considerable suplus of oil in the world. The OPEC countries, which have the capacity to produce over 39 million barrels a day, are actually producing only 31 million barrels a day. They are shutting in 20 per cent of their potential production.
The oul glut coincides with changes in the economic and political relations of the largest producers - Saudi Arabia, the biggest of all, is heavily dependent on the United States for both defense and economic modernization. It has a very distinct interest in not causing any further economic disturbances in the West.
Iran, which used to play the forcing role in OPEC, has also become more dependent on the United States. Washington has been much less forthcoming on the new military technology so close to the shah's heart, and his ambitious economic plans have run into difficulties that require Western help.
In both countries, moreover, the ruling rightly or wrongly believes itself highly vulnerable to subversion from the left - notably by the regimes of two smaller oil-exporting countries, Libya and Iraq. Any increase in OPEC prices works to give money to the Libyans and Iraqis, who only use it to weaken the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
For all these reasons, the Saudis and Iranians are now holding the lid on oil prices. For the time being, at least, they cannot use oil to force the Israelis and their friends in the West to accept intolerable terms. That suggests that if there is an increase in prices at all this week, it will be very modest.
However, the present set of circumstances is not apt to last. Sooner of later supplies are sure to become tight. Indeed, one grim possibility is that serious technical problems may severaly cut back production in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. So there is all the more reason to push now - while there is room to maneuver - for such objectives as an energy policy in America and a political settlement in the Middle East.