The oil producers of the Persian Gulf have begun tightening their bulging money belts because of the sagging world oil market, but they are unlikely to suffer the devastating effects associated with a major economic recession in the West.
Most gulf producers probably can cope with disruptions in their multibillion dollar development plans with relative ease, according to Arab and western analysts here. But many of the western companies and traders that have benefited so handsomely from the profusion of oil dollars in recent years are likely to find the pickings much slimmer.
"Economically, I wouldn't worry about this part of the world even at reduced [oil] prices," remarked Gregory Krikorian, general manager of the Al Ahli commercial bank here. "I think economic stability will continue."
The oil states already have suffered sharp drops in revenues because of plummeting sales, and they now must face a cut in prices as well.
[Western industrialized countries hailed the 15 percent price cut by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries as a boost to economic growth, while OPEC members calculated how many billions of dollars they would lose.]
The biggest question mark is Saudi Arabia, which is halfway through a $235 billion, five-year plan and faces a drop in oil revenues that could amount to as much as $60 billion this year from the 1981 level.
After a decade of unprecedented wealth and spending, the seven gulf Arab producers, five of them members of OPEC, have accumulated huge reserves and are reaping handsome incomes on their investments in the West that in the case of Kuwait recently came close to equaling its annual budget.
The one exception is Iraq, whose 30-month-long war with Iran has drained its coffers, cut its oil exports sharply and left it deep in debt to its gulf neighbors.
The main impact of the oil price cut, according to bankers and economists here, is almost certain to fall on U.S., European, South Korean and Japanese construction firms that have reaped a bonanza in contracts to cement over the Arabian Peninsula coast with ports, roads, refineries, petrochemical and steel plants, hotels, housing and even entire cities.
The peak in this building boom came in 1981, when the total amount of contracts throughout the Middle East amounted to $81 billion, with Iraq and Saudi Arabia in the gulf and Libya in North Africa accounting for nearly three-quarters of the total, according to the annual tally of the respected Middle East Economic Digest.
Even before the recent price drop, the decade-long boom was beginning to slacken as major projects to build roads, communications systems and basic industries were completed or nearly so.
"The era of prestige projects is finished, and European and Japanese companies will be the first to suffer," Tariq Moayed, Bahrain's information minister, said in an interview. "I don't think it the recession will be felt for some time here, meaning two years."
This assessment seems to be shared by Arab and western bankers.
"The cancellation of projects is really irrelevant to the average man in the street," commented Khalid Fayaz, the Saudi general manager of the Gulf International Bank, in a recent interview. "If you take any project, 75 to 80 percent is spent outside the gulf economies. So the social and political pressure to continue high spending levels is not there."
Still, the gulf Arab governments are taking particular care to see that the coming recession does not undermine the high standard of living that their own nationals enjoy, seeking to prevent social unrest that could spark political explosions.
Analysts here say that the nations' job will be facilitated by the fact the Arab gulf states all have enormous foreign labor forces--1.6 million to 2 million in Saudi Arabia alone--that have provided the brawn for building new societies but can now easily be sent home. This is already beginning to happen.
Despite this built-in safety valve, there are multiple signs that the slide in oil revenues is having an effect here and elsewhere in the gulf.
For instance, the oil refinery on this island, which provides Bahrain with one of its major sources of income and employs 3,500 people, is processing at only 20 percent capacity because of the glutted market even for refined products. No Bahrainis are being laid off, but expiring contracts for some foreigners are not being renewed.
There also are unconfirmed reports that the giant Arabian-American Oil Co. in Saudi Arabia has begun to lay off as many as 5,000 expatriate employes due to the sharp drop in Saudi oil production from more than 10 million barrels daily in the summer of 1981 to less than 3.5 million today.
The Saudi government reportedly is delaying many payments to contractors far longer than usual, apparently because of the precipitous fall in its oil revenues.
Moayed sees the OPEC decision to cut prices dramatically as the "psychological shock" that was needed to bring home to the oil-wealthy sheikdoms that "the era of oil is fading."
Still, Arab and western analysts see a number of special circumstances cushioning the impact of a vast cutback in government revenues.
First, most of the Arab gulf producers have huge foreign currency reserves to fall back upon. Four of them--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar--together have piled up $267 billion, the Saudi kingdom alone accounting for close to $150 billion of this. Income from investment of a good portion of these reserves mounts into the billions yearly.
Second, the gulf Arab states, with the exception of Iraq, have virtually no outstanding national debts even after spending billions of dollars on development plans over the past decade. Their credit rating with banks would be excellent if they decided to turn to commercial borrowing.
Third, the budgets of most of the countries include four- or five-year development plans that are like accordions that can be expanded or contracted in size, and elongated in time, to match available oil income.
By far the biggest of these budgets is that of Saudi Arabia, which has a planned outlay for its 1982-83 fiscal year of nearly $92 billion. Today, the Saudi government faces an unprecedented deficit that analysts here estimate could range anywhere between $5 billion and $20 billion.
The Saudis are said to hold a sizable chunk of their reserves in liquid assets, which makes it relatively easy to dip into them. But there is an ingrained reluctance both in the kingdom and Kuwait to touch reserves.
What is certain now, however, is that the Saudi government is going to have to revise, or stretch out, its $235 billion five-year plan.
Just how much oil the Saudis need to pump to cover the plan and other commitments has been the subject of conflicting estimates even by Saudi officials. Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani several years ago said 6.2 million barrels a day was needed, a projection recently confirmed by the governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Fund, Abdelaziz Quraishi.
But Hisham Nazir, the minister of planning, has been quoted as saying that the plan was based on an estimated 5 million barrels a day at a projected price of only $15 a barrel. Adding to the confusion was another recent statement by Yamani that the kingdom needed at least 4.7 million barrels a day to generate enough associated gas--natural gas that is produced at the same time that crude is pumped out of the ground--to sustain its industrial and desalinization plants.
One American expert, John Shaw, has described the Saudi plan as little more than "a combination of wish list and statement of general intent," making it easy to adjust according to each year's revenues. Already, two desalinization plants costing $1 billion have been canceled.
Still, the Saudis are facing a drop of half or more in oil income from the $109 billion that they earned in 1981, assuming OPEC-agreed price and production levels hold.
Prince Sultan, the Saudi defense minister, also has let it be known that he is opposed to any cut in the $27 billion defense budget. If his view prevails, the kingdom will have about $23 billion from oil revenues to spend on other sectors of the economy and the plan.
In addition, the Saudis have heavy foreign aid commitments, which now include $2 billion to bolster the French franc, an additional $6 billion to the International Monetary Fund and possibly $6 billion more to Iraq.
The other gulf states are in a much better postion to manage big budget cuts because of far smaller size and proportionally larger foreign reserves.
Kuwait, for example, has an annual budget of around $10 billion with reserves between $50 billion and $70 billion.
The United Arab Emirates, with about $30 billion in reserves, began cutting back on its budget last year.
Because it was unable to spend one-fifth of it, this was easily done. It also has just told its ministries to keep spending this year at 1982 levels.
In Bahrain, the government is expecting a 20 percent drop in oil revenues, according to Issa Boursheid, the undersecretary of the Finance Ministry.
But since the government had only managed to spend 60 percent of the planned budget, it will be able to compensate by simply not trying to catch up.
The government has also decided to stretch its four-year development plan to six years, but only one or two envisaged projects, notably an aluminum rolling mill, are in danger of being delayed or scrapped.