OPEC: A LONG TUR­BU­LENT JOUR­NEY

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Iwent to my first OPEC meet­ing in 1972, shortly af­ter join­ing the oil min­istry. It was an in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence sit­ting in the back seat, learn­ing from the peo­ple who were cre­at­ing oil poli­cies. Since then I at­tended OPEC con­fer­ences reg­u­larly for 40 years.

The chal­lenge for OPEC then was how to con­front the In­ter­na­tional Oil Com­pa­nies (IOCs) which con­trolled the in­dus­try and ben­e­fited from keep­ing prices low be­cause it owned the con­ces­sions and the re­finer­ies. The main fo­cus was how to cre­ate a lobby to put pres­sure on the IOCs to in­crease prices and how to set up na­tional oil com­pa­nies.

In 1973 an oil shock fol­lowed the em­bargo by OPEC and Arab pro­duc­ers in re­sponse to US sup­port for Is­rael in the Yom Kip­pur war. Prices be­gan ris­ing from two to three dol­lars to over 36 dol­lars in 1981. That was a turn­ing point for pro­duc­ers who started to con­trol their own as­sets and the IOCs started to lose con­trol. By 1975 pro­duc­ers started set­ting up their na­tional oil com­pa­nies, but could not get rid of the IOCs to­tally be­cause they needed their tech­ni­cal help. It was a mar­riage of con­ve­nience.

Pro­duc­ers thought the high oil prices would go on for­ever, so they were shocked when by 1985 the prices started to crash and never ex­ceeded 17 dol­lars a bar­rel un­til 2000.

OPEC started to talk for the first time about cut­ting sup­ply and I found that there was no trust amongst the mem­bers. They would com­mit to cut­ting sup­ply, but some never did. We met many times and meet­ings started get­ting longer, from three days to more than three weeks.

One OPEC con­fer­ence in Geneva lasted one month! We had one meet­ing and the rest was all bi­lat­eral talks on how to con­vince mem­bers to re­spect pro­duc­tion quo­tas and how much to cut from each coun­try. That made the mar­ket ner­vous and prices went down more. We had to break meet­ing for one week over Christ­mas be­cause Swiss se­cu­rity told us they would be too busy to pro­vide us with full se­cu­rity.

In the 1990s, non- OPEC pro­duc­ers were be­gin­ning to have a big­ger mar­ket share, so we started talk­ing to them to per­suade them to co­op­er­ate. I was elected OPEC pres­i­dent sev­eral times, and vis­ited some of those coun­tries. I said, “You have to sup­port OPEC.” But they never did. In fact, when we cut pro­duc­tion to try and con­trol prices, they in­creased pro­duc­tion. OPEC was al­ways open to them, al­ways wanted to work with them.

OPEC – The Day the Jackal Hi­jacked the Peace

I al­most never missed an OPEC meet­ing, ex­cept for one in 1975. Maybe I was lucky. I had just got mar­ried and my wife had a med­i­cal prob­lem so I had to take her to Lon­don.

That year Car­los hi­jacked the meet­ing at OPEC's Vi­enna head­quar­ters and took min­is­ters and del­e­gates hostage. Ini­tially we had no idea who was be­hind it, but then we heard about this man called Car­los the Jackal from Venezuela, who had ties with a rad­i­cal move­ment.

It was sug­gested that the late Libyan leader Muam­mar Gaddafi had hired him. Libya was an OPEC mem­ber, but Gaddafi had an­other agenda. It was sug­gested that the hi­jack­ing was not to ask for a ran­som, but to as­sas­si­nate the min­is­ters of Iran and Saudi Ara­bia. In the end, af­ter three peo­ple were killed, Car­los took a ran­som. OPEC changed in some ways af­ter Car­los. Be­fore, meet­ings did not have much se­cu­rity, min­is­ters came and went with­out se­cu­rity and they would sit in cafes dur­ing breaks. But af­ter 1975, the build­ing be­came like a po­lice head­quar­ters, more se­cu­rity than del­e­gates! Ev­ery­body was con­cerned and wor­ried about an­other at­tack.

Fi­nally, the Saudi Ara­bian Oil Min­is­ter Zaki Ya­mani said he no longer trusted the se­cu­rity at the head­quar­ters in Vi­enna and in­sisted the min­is­ters' meet­ings be moved

Qatar Min­is­ter of En­ergy HE Ab­dal­lah bin Ha­mad Al At­tiyah ar­rives for a meet­ing of the Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Petroleum Ex­port­ing Coun­tries on Oc­to­ber 24, 2008 in Vi­enna.

AFP PHOTO/DI­ETER NAGL

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