LOOK AT THE PRICE of oil, for moment, from OPEC's point of view. No doubt you aren't brimming over with fellow-feeling for OPEC at the moment, and have enough troubles of your own over oil bills and gasoline lines without listening to OPEC's worries. But Americans tend to overestimate OPEC's strength. And that leads them to miss their own opportunities to counter what OPEC is doing.
OPEC's meeting in Geneva last week was a political failure. None of the most urgent questions was answered. The cartel -- if it actually is a cartel, in any real sense -- remains deeply and publicly split.
If there is friction among the countries that import oil, it is nothing compared with the disarray among the exporters.
Some of OPEC's members, like Libya, are radicals who want to push up prices to punish the rich and arrogant West. More are like, say, Nigeria, with a population of 80 million people and a pressing need for income to finace development. The Saudis are different. They have a small population, vast resources, many envious and well-armed neighbors, and very little in the way of national security. They are not longer sure that the United States would or could protect them in a crisis, but there is mot other protector in sight.
The Sadis are reluctant to run the price of oil up rapidly because it's bad for a world economic system in which they now have a very large stake. Too high a price would not only be bad for Saudi holdings but for all of OPEC's sales. Each meeting of OPEC becomes a test of wills between the Saudis on one side, and the hotheaded and the hungry on the other.
Last week at Geneva the Saudis took the middle course. If they had really wanted to force the highpricers into line, they could have raised their production. Another million barrels of oil a day for sale would make it extremely difficult for any other producer to take prices higher than the Saudis wanted to go. But that would have drawn down on them the enmity of the others. On the other hand, the Saudis wanted to saw the peril to worldwide economic stability in a sudden rush to prices at the Libyan level. While the Saud is have not increased production, they also are continuing to sell for less then the other exporters.
It is a wait-and-see policy. If the market weakens and the high-flyers have to discount, Saudi caution will have been justified. If the market stays strong, the Saudis will in due course lift their oun prices again and join the others. The point is, of course, that much now depends on the buyers' behavior and whether they continue to buy as much as ever, regardless of price and the drain on their own wealth. As the largest and most influential of the world's buyers of oil, Americans hold the answer to that question.