With war threatening at their border, their oil production facilities working near peak capacity to meet worldwide demand and international petroleum prices forced up by the intensifying Persian Gulf crisis, what are motorists in Saudi Arabia paying now for gasoline?
The same 55 cents a gallon that they paid before Iraq's army invaded and captured neighboring Kuwait -- in fact, the same price they have paid for years, as gasoline prices in many countries bounced up and down in response to a variety of international pressures and anxieties.
While Americans are paying about $1.30 a gallon for gasoline -- and grumbling about it -- Germans pay $3.04 a gallon, Japanese $4.18 and Italians $5.30.
But wait. Mexicans are paying only 90 cents, Colombians 65 cents and Soviets about 25 cents. And big American gas-guzzlers are still the car of choice in Saudi Arabia.
What's going on?
Taxes, subsidies and political decisions, that's what.
While the intrinsic value of crude oil and the costs of pumping it, refining it into gasoline, transporting it and marketing it play a role in determining its cost at the pump, the biggest role is played by each country's government. It decides whether to subsidize the price and keep it low for consumers, or to take the opportunity to tax them -- a little or a lot.
As a result, according to a survey by Washington Post foreign correspondents of the most popular variety of gasoline in countries around the world, things like these have happened:
Japan's high gasoline price includes a tax of $1.60 per gallon, more than the total cost of a gallon in many countries, and Germany's tax is $1.42 a gallon. By comparison, the price per gallon in the United States includes a federal tax of only 14.1 cents and an average state tax of 16.8 cents.
Poland's price of $1.99 a gallon is almost 2 1/2 times what it was just a year ago. The reasons, in addition to the gulf crisis: The Polish government decided to end costly subsidies to motorists, and the Soviet Union, which had long supplied oil to its Warsaw Pact allies at a generous discount, has cut its deliveries and raised its prices.
In Bulgaria, which has not yet made the tough political decision to end subsidies, the official price is still 55 cents a gallon -- but no gasoline is available to private purchasers.
Canada's price per gallon is now about $2, reflecting the recent imposition of a 7 percent value-added tax that has many Canadians more riled than anything that has happened in the Persian Gulf.
Brazilians now pay $1.66 a gallon for gasoline, but the prospect that a gulf war might drive oil prices up farther doesn't bother Leda Soares, a motorist interviewed in Rio de Janeiro last week. "My car runs on alcohol!" she said. So do 4 million other cars in Brazil, which has the world's largest alternative fuel program.
The government of India, where gasoline has gone up 25 percent during the gulf crisis to $3 a gallon, has begun a billboard campaign for conservation, to save money by reducing oil imports. The signs show a little man being crushed by a barrel of oil he is struggling to carry, and the slogan is: "Save Oil -- Save India!"
Most of the countries with low retail prices are producers that pump more than they need. Saudi Arabia is the world's biggest exporter, and other net exporters include China, Colombia and the Soviet Union. In Moscow, gasoline sells for 1.48 rubles a gallon, roughly equivalent to 25 cents, at the most commonly used exchange rate -- but one that does not clearly reflect the true financial impact in a country where wages are a fraction of those in industrialized nations with free-market economies.
Vastly differing living standards and salary levels can complicate many of the cost comparisons, however. Japan's affluent drivers, for example, may find it easier to pay $4 a gallon than Kenyans do to pay $2.45. Still, while the price has risen 30 percent in Kenya in the past four months, "the people still come," said John Mwangi, a manager of the Irera Caltex station in Nairobi, "but I think they buy less."
A service station's "service" plays a role in pricing, too. That $4.18-a-gallon gasoline sale in Tokyo is carried out by a team of four attendants in neckties and jumpsuits. They check tires and oil, wash windows and polish chrome, and then bow and shout, "Thank you, honored customer," as each car pulls out. Even South Africa's $1.98-a-gallon gasoline price includes the services of a cyclone of attendants.
Although their own government's taxes often account for half of the cost of the gasoline they buy, however, motorists around the world can blame a variety of other villains.
"The price is absolutely too high," Austrian businessman Wilhelm Weckbecker said in Vienna. "This is not due to the invasion of Kuwait. There is enough oil. The consumers are being manipulated by the oil companies."
At a gas station in central Paris, chief attendant Patrick Lefebvre grumbled that his suppliers' "storage containers are full to the limit. They don't know where to put it anymore. There's plenty of reserves. It's just the suppliers who are taking millions of dollars of advantage of the market."
In fact, world oil producers have more than made up the 4.3 million barrels a day that were lost when embargoes were placed on Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil, according to studies by the U.S. Energy Department, the International Energy Agency and several private firms.
In a suburb of Johannesburg, sales clerk Scipho Mbiliwi, 26, who was driving an ancient Mazda that he said "may be older than me," fretted that another price increase would force him to go back to riding the bus.
Others, however, take the increased prices in stride, and maybe even see a benefit in them.
Makato Uchiya, 24, cheerfully paid the $45 to fill the tank of his bright red Toyota Bluebird at a station in Tokyo. "Before Kuwait it cost me a little less," he said, "but no big deal."