Ministers of the oil-exporting countries, unable to reach a compromise on pricing, today took the extraordinary step of passing the dispute on to their heads of government, who were expected to confer, presumably by phone, before ministerial discussions resume here Friday.
It was the first time in the organization's 21-year history that the heads of the 13 member governments of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries were called on directly to resolve a deadlock. The move reflects the seriousness of the current split and its perceived threat to OPEC's cohesion.
A compromise proposal, put forward by Iraq this morning, offered a new common reference price for OPEC oil of $35 a barrel and a freeze until the end of 1982. Iraq's oil minister, Tayeh Abdul-Karim, said after the morning session that acceptance of the compromise depended on Saudi Arabia.
When talks resumed later, Saudi Arabia's oil minister, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, signaled that his country still would refuse an increase in its oil price to anything above $34 a barrel, which is $2 a barrel above Saudi Arabia's current price.
This left the other OPEC ministers with little to do but ask their heads of government to appeal directly to King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, as Iraq's President Saddam Hussein did yesterday. But Yamani indicated to reporters that these contacts would fail to change his king's mind.
Asked whether Saudi Arabia could be persuaded to go above $34 per barrel, Yamani said, "No, never. I told you this on the first day" of consultations. He also reiterated that his country would be happy to stay at its current price of $32 per barrel.
Saudi Arabia apparently could raise its oil price by $2 a barrel without causing a net increase in the world price of oil, provided the increase was balanced by a substantial drop in the prices of other OPEC producers, which is what the Saudis have been seeking. But any Saudi increase greater than $2 would likely pressure world oil prices upward in view of Saudi Arabia's dominant position.
The Saudis have been trying to force prices down because rapid price increases in the past have accelerated the movement of consumer countries into other forms of energy.
"I think the market is not really justifying supporting raising prices by $3," said United Arab Emirates oil minister, Mana Saeed Otaiba, who also rejected the Iraqi proposal and sided with Saudi Arabia. "There is a glut. There is a dull market."
Otaiba said the decision to refer matters to the OPEC chiefs of government represented "the final shot we have to fire." But he also said in an interview that he was "not very optimistic" about reaching an agreement Friday. "We will just shake hands and walk out," he predicted.
OPEC council president Subroto of Indonesia, although not foreclosing the possibility of a last-minute compromise, told reporters, "We are entering into quicksand that we had not seen before."
Failure to agree this week would leave OPEC to muddle through the pricing issue until December's conference in Abu Dhabi. Pressure would remain on OPEC's high- priced African producers -- Libya, Nigeria and Algeria -- to reduce prices to hold on to what is left of their drastically reduced shares of the world oil market, which is experiencing a slack in demand while being flooded by the high production of relatively cheap Saudi oil.
Nigeria, the poorest of the three, has already said it would lower rates for its high quality crude oils, now set at around $39-$40, regardless of the outcome of the meeting.
As a result of the worldwide oil glut and increased competition, Nigeria's output has fallen from about 2 million barrels a day in January to 700,000. Similarly, Libya is down from 1.75 million barrels per day to about 750,000, according to industry experts.
Saudi Arabia had offered the African producers relief if they and other OPEC members would agree to a substantial and long-term drop in prices pegged to a new reference price of $34 per barrel instead of the current $36. It was also understood that this arrangement would have resulted in a cutback in Saudi oil production from an estimated current level of 10.25 million barrels per day, about half of OPEC's total production.
The Saudi plan appeared to founder on Venezuela's insistence on holding to the $36 price at which Venezuela claims to be having no trouble selling its roughly 2 million barrels per day. Supporting Venezuela have been Libya, Algeria and Iran.
Venezuela's oil minister Humberto Calderon Berti today said he would be willing to come down to $35 "if everybody agrees" to that figure as a base. But he also said he would stick to $36 "under the present circumstances."
OPEC's technical experts say their recommendations for pricing reunification are not being accepted by some member governments, largely for political reasons.
"On an economic basis, we found what looked like a good price and good differentials," said Marc S. Nan Nguema of Gabon, OPEC's secretary general, without specifying the figures. "The question is whether the ministers want us to talk economics or politics." He complained that some OPEC members were "feeling themselves stronger than others" and attempting to impose their will on the organization.