SAUDI ARABIA and its two smaller allies have now imposed a jarring increase on the price of oil. OPEC, the producers' cartel, is to meet Monday in Caracas to set prices for the coming year. The Saudi move was clearly what the military calls a preemptive strike. The strategy seems to be to impose a compromise policy on OPEC, as an accomplished fact, even before the meeting begins.
It is a risky move. But OPEC is coming unraveled -- not for reasons that will do its customers any good. The customers themselves have fallen into panic and are driving prices mindlessly high. The Saudis have repeatedly shown that they understand very clearly the economic damage that high oil prices threaten. Severe and repeated recessions, steadily higher inflation and bank collapses do not serve anybody's interests -- least of all those of the poor nations with fragile economies. But the xenophobic spirit that currently guides Iran does not perceive that point, and doesn't much care. Several of the radical Arab states take a similar view. There is an impulse here and there among them to use oil as an instrument of political revenge against the rich and mighty. But the Iranians can sell their oil at $45 a barrel only as long as there are buyers under orders to get it at any price.
The Saudis' announcement makes their oil -- OPEC's cheapest -- suddenly much more expensive, rising from $18 a barrel to $24. But if the buyers show restraint, the top price -- nearly twice as high -- may sink. That's what the industrial countries' governments were talking about earlier this week in Paris. Last Monday they agreed to limit their imports next year to a level slightly lower than this year's. If they do not stick to those quotas, and perhaps drop below them, they will deserve the consequences.
Even if this strategy of restraint works as well as the most vigorous of optimists can hope, it is necessary to recognize that oil prices are already dangerously high. The price of crude oil coming into this country from all foreign sources, in all kinds of deals, averaged about $15 a barrel a year ago. By June, after the Iranian revolution, it was up to $23. Currently it is getting close to $30, and by January it will certainly be over $30.
That raises two challenges, both of them urgent and grave. How is the world's banking system to recycle the enormous increases in the flow of funds from the industrial world to the producing countries -- in particular, to the Persian Gulf? During the last great surge in oil prices, it was accomplished mainly by lending the money to underdeveloped countries through the multinational banks. That won't work a second time; the underdeveloped countries can't carry much more debt, and the banks are -- with very good reason -- getting apprehensive about their exposure.
The oil price is also a direct threat to the internal stability of the American Economy. The increase from 1973 to 1974, in the last crisis, pitched this country into the worst recession in a generation. Rising to $30 a barrel, the price of oil will have a greater impact on the United States this time than it did six years ago. The only question now, unfortunately, is whether the effective price can be held as low as $30 in the months ahead.