A NOTE of caution: Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani is not promising a reduction in the world price of oil. Nor is the current much-advertised glut in oil supplies likely to last long.When Sheik Yamami, Saudi Arabia's oil minister, appeared on "Meet the Press" Sunday, he did little more than restate his country's long-held positions.
Saudi oil pricing policy has been unchanged for some time. Saudi Arabia wants the 13 members of OPEC to return to a fixed achedule of prices based on Saudi crude oil. Why? In part, it's a matter of pride -- a conviction that Saudi Arabia, by far the world's largest oil exporter, is entitled to leadership in pricing. In part, it's pure economics. With their huge reserves, the Saudis are playing a long game that requires a degree of stability in the world's financial and industrial markets. They dislike being hustled and elbowed by the radicals, led by Libya, who care nothing for stability. Conswquently, they are now producing enough oil to make it impossible for any other government to raise prices. That policy also demonstrates to the industrial countries -- above all, the United States -- the value of Saudi cooperation.
If the rest of OPEC ultimately accepts unified pricing on Saudi terms, the Saudis will carry the main responsibility for balancing the market -- that is, reducing their own production to avert further price cuts. Then OPEC would begin to discuss formulas for price increases that would be steady but gradual and, for the consumers, predictable.
There was talk of an oil glut last summer, and the Saudi strategy was on the point of working. Then war broke out between Iran and Iraq, and overnight the glut vanished. When a tacit truce evolved and both countries began exporting again, the glut reappeared. What are the chances that the Saudi strategy will work this time? Not bad -- but you might keep it in mind that Iraq seems to be embarking on a new round of threats against Iran, and the course of their war remains totally unpredictable.
The Persian Gulf is a region of fragile and threatened governments, none confident of its military capacity. In his television interview, Sheik Yamami was elliptacally reminding Americans that, as heavy consumers of oil, they have a large interest in the security of his country and the survival of its present government. For the United States, the dilemma is that Saudi security and the world price of oil have become inseparable.