THE QUARREL over oil pricing has raised much excited speculation about the future of OPEC. A much more important question is the future of Saudi Arabia. Everyone knows that the prospects for political stability in the Persian Gulf are uncertain. But the point is worth further consideration, for events in the neighborhood of the gulf will influence the price of oil far more powerfully than the survival or collapse of OPEC.
The antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia goes well beyond oil and money. The latter are only the weapons in a larger struggle. When the OPEC meeting collapsed Monday, the Iranian oil minister, Mohammad Gharazi, triumphantly exclaimed, "We have also succeeded in breaking the political power of Saudi Arabia, which stems from oil." He meant that the Saudis were no longer unilaterally setting OPEC policy, but the choice of words suggests further meanings as well.
Like everything in that part of the world, friction between the two countries goes back a long way. It was well established before the Iranian revolution, but the revolution carried it to a new pitch. Populist Moslem fundamentalism of the Khomeini variety sees its true and essential enemy in the immensely wealthy and cosmopolitan hierarchy across the gulf. Iraq's attack on Iran, followed by more than two years of war between them, has added another kind of tension since the Saudis have been giving the Iraqis financial support. In terms of national power, the Saudis have more oil but the Iranians have more people. Iran's population is about 40 million. The Saudis have always been extremely sensitive, not to say secretive, about their population figures; they claim 9 million people, but other estimates range as low as 5.5 million.
As for OPEC, it never pushed up oil prices, and the collapse of OPEC would not bring prices down. The price of oil shot up in the 1970s because the industrial economies had been growing so rapidly that they suddenly began pressing the limits of the world's oil supply. OPEC only followed the market upward. It has been less important as an attempted cartel than as a rallying point for all of the Third World's hopes for global redistribution of wealth on a grand scale. If the price of oil now begins to slide downward and OPEC falls apart, there is going to be a great vengeful hunt among the poor countries along the equator, and particularly in the Middle East, for villains.
All of that is a reminder that the two great upward surges of oil prices in the 1970s followed, respectively, a war and a revolution in the Middle East. There is no reason to assume that it can't happen again.