"Dear journalists, I am sorry this meeting was held behind closed doors," Iran's oil minister said to a frustrated press corps that had waited four days for an OPEC pricing decision that never came. "It should be held in a stadium so the people of Caracas and of the world could know what it is we do."
Seven years into a continuing identity crisis that has enlivened our times while flattening our pocketbooks, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has acquired its first truly "wild card" member and, in the process, lost a certain common sense of itself and the world.
Until the deadlock at the Caracas meeting that resulted in the group's abandoning its unified pricing system at least temporarily, the 13 princes, revolutionaries and oil technocrats who assemble twice annually under the OPEC banner seemed to see themselves as sort of a gentlemen's club, where argument might rage loudly and even angrily but where no furniture was broken.
But Ali Akbar Moinfar's proposal to fling OPEC's doors open for outside examination and other radical calls for change from the Iranian appear to have shaken the oil group's confidence that its members will continue to observe fundamental house rules.
The OPEC caught in the Caracas spotlight has undergone an amazing transformation in the 1970s, from multinational joke to a popularly perceived all-powerful cartel able to jack up oil prices 1,000 percent since 1972. But the group's success has made its original purpose irrelevant in a world where the scramble for oil by consumers drives up prices.
The true deadlock at Caracas was not about prices but over what OPEC's role in the changing energy world of the 1980s will be. By refusing even to discuss joint production ceilings, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani of Saudi Arabia was able to stop OPEC from becoming a true cartel. But not even the group's largest producer could enforce a common vision of a new identity on the now politically fragmented group.
Coded in technical discussions about pricing, the true arguments at Caracas were about Middle East politics and revolution, and OPEC's ability, and willingness to impose mandatory production ceilings on its members if prices do soften next year. To some extent, they also dealt with where and how to aply the pressure for the cuts in the standard of living that OPEC says the world must
"No news is good news at this conference," Yamani coolly told reporters asking him if OPEC was on the verge of breaking up over the group's failure to reach a "benchmark" compromise between Saudi Arabia's $24 for a 42-gallon barrel of crude oil and Libya's $30-a-barrel price for its low-sulfur petroleum.
Other observers of the conference agreed that obituaries for OPEC would be premature. "It's ridiculous, OPEC can't break up," snorted Ian Seymour, senior editor of the respected oil industry newsletter, Middle East Economic Survey. "OPEC is 13 chairs, where the ministers sit occasionally to consult on prices. How can 13 chairs 'break up'?"
Even after a decade of financial success that has astounded its own members and made its original aims largely irrelevant now, OPEC does not exist as a permanent organization. The ministers keep the OPEC secretariat weak and disorganized, frequently staffing it with members they want to get out of their countries for reasons of politics or general incompetence.
OPEC in a sense exists only for those few hours a year when representatives of four Arab monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar), of Arab radical socialist governments in Iraq. Libya and Algeria, and of two South American democracies (Venezuela and Ecuador) sit down semiannually to try to make common cause on prices with colledagues from Nigeria, Gabon, Indonesia and Iran.
But the ripples of the group's failure at Caracas for the first time to agree on a defined range of minimum and maximum prices for the same grades of crude oil will extend far beyond the U.S. gasoline pumps, where the new unilaterally-set price levels will add 4 to 8 cents a gallon next year.
In Yamani's view, consumers should not take even an apparent weakening of OPEC as good news. He argues that a functioning OPEC operates to restrain official producer prices in an oil-hungry world. It is political upheaval in the Middle East, Yamani believes, and not OPEC muscle, that has driven prices up precipitously twice in the past decade.
"The industrial countries should feel about OPEC the way a big company feels about a disciplined trade union when labor is scarce," a Yamani associate says. "You may hate it, but you are going to hate much more being witout it." to play Third World producers off against each other by manipulating production and forcing price reductions for the benefit of consumers, OPEC was officially ignored by the companies and most foreign
U.S. diplomats were instructed not to have any contact with it, according to James E. Akins, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The organization's June 1972 meeting in Beirut attracted fewer than a dozen reporters, some of whom wrote that OPEC demands for an increase of 25 cents on a $2-a-barrel price would rock the industry.
Successful nationalization of Western companies in Libya and Iraq enabled OPEC to being to move up its "floor" prices for oil in small increments until the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when the Arab embargo against the United States produced a wild scramble by oil importers. OPEC learned if could move its price up fourfold and still be besieged by buyers.
The scramble was repeated this year when the Iranian revolution and its aftermath again cut supplies and led to heavy stockpiling by industrial countries.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's advent to power in Iran has also changed the internal balances of OPEC. That fact became painfully apparent to the Saudis and their allies at the Caracas meeting, which ended the two-power hegemony that Saudi Arabia and Iran had exercised over the group since 1973.
Before 1979, most of the bitter arguments in OPEC over prices were carried out by Yamani and oil ministers of the deposed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Other nations ranged around the constant Iranian push for ever higher prices or the Saudi propositon that gradual rises would help the world economy and benefit OPEC in the long run.
With Saudi production standing at 9 million barrels a day and Iranian output at 6 million, the two nations together accounted for nearly half of OPEC's production in the mid-1970s and any agreement they reached had to be observed by the others.
"The Saudis and Iranians understood each other's limits and knew that they would not push a fellow monarch over the brink," a delegate to the Caracas meeting recalled. "Other countries had a good sense of where the final compromise would be and could cast themselves on the high side or low side, depending on what their domestic or diplomatic needs were."
But such role-playing was visibly absent here. This meeting turned into an extended confrontation between the Saudi monarchy, which is committed to producing extra oil to meet American needs, and Iran's Islamic revolutionaries, who have called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family and who have cut Iran's oil production nearly in half both for technical and political reasons.
The smaller producers scrambled to avoid firm positions at this meeting, seeking compromises that failed to materialize.
Saudi policies have been attacked in the past by the radical government of Libya, but the Libyans in fact have carefully manipulated U.S. oil companies to squeeze maximum profits from them. Libya's oil minister, Ezzedin Mabruk, is a member of the oil ministers' establishment in OPEC in a way that Moinfar pointedly chose not to copy.
The imagery of past OPEC meetings was that of two giants wrestling in friendly combat, with the smaller producers checking the gate receipts cheerfully. At Caracas, Saudi Arabia was a lonely Gulliver, hamstrung by self-imposed production limitations and by the hearty band of Lilliputians who insist that OPEC in times of high prices must become a real cartel.
That is done, they feel, by pushing prices up to the maximum and keeping them there through production cutbacks if the market weakens.
"OPEC is not a cartel, and we do not see it as such," Yamani said in response to questions about production ceilings. He also said that Saudi Arabia would not build to increase its sustained production capacity to 12 million barrels a day, a decision that had been put off for four years.
Decisions on production levels are perhaps the most sensitive political questions that many OPEC governments, and particularly the Saudis, face. Yielding any power over production levels to the diverse regimes that make up OPEC would be an enormous gamble for the Saudi royal family.
Yamani moved at Caracas to preempt a showdown on production levels this spring when, by his schedule, a deepening U.S. recession will cut demand and prices will start to tumble. His assessment appears to be that at $24 a barrel, the Saudis will not be forced into an explosive debate over cutting back on production because in a glut other producers will return to seeing OPEC as a consulting group for setting reasonable minimum prices.
Moinfar, in a separate press conference, projected quite different a aspirations for Opec. If a glut develops, the Iranian said, the group will drop prices "or we will drop the oil, and I see the second result."