It is premature early to cry or crow about OPEC

By , G. Henry M. Schuler is director of energy programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University.

Although reports about the recent meeting of OPEC in Geneva are still sketchy , it looks as if Saudi Oil Minister Zaki Yamani overplayed his country's hand. This is hardly surprising, for the kingdom's ''hand'' is markedly weaker than many people have thought. While it is true that Saudi Arabia possesses unparalleled economic and oil power within OPEC, it is equally clear that the desert kingdom lacks every other ingredient of power.

With perhaps 50,000 men in its armed forces, Saudi Arabia faces an Iranian military establishment at least five times as large just a few minutes' flying time across the Gulf. The religious roots of the ruling Saudi family's legitimacy are questioned not only by a Shiite minority whose numbers are magnified by their employment in the oil facilities of the Eastern province but also by Sunnis who are disaffected by the venality of certain family members as well as by the loss of Saudi identity in the rush to modernity.

The kingdom's dependence upon imported laborers creates internal security threats from those laborers, increasingly envious of their Saudi counterparts, and from Palestinian white collar workers increasingly radicalized by the failure of the House of Saud and its American friends to assure the safety of their families in the Beirut refugee camps.

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Saudi concerns about the country's declining share of the total OPEC oil market lose credibility and legitimacy with moderate third-world countries, which cannot ignore the fact that the kingdom's 2 percent of total OPEC population has enjoyed as much as 45 percent of total OPEC revenues, and never less than 25 percent during recent years. In fact, it is difficult for the most ardent of Saudi Arabia's friends in the West to sympathize with a country that enjoyed a per capita oil and investment income of about $18,000 in the ''straitened'' circumstances of 1982 while Nigeria struggled along with $200 for each of its hard-pressed citizens.

Clearly, Saudi Arabia would be ill advised to use its oil policy in a way that deepens the hostility of vastly more powerful neighbors, agitates the unhappiness of internal dissidents, alienates its third-world peers, and undermines the sympathy of its Western allies.

But that is precisely what Sheikh Yamani did at Geneva, so we must ask, ''To what end?'' Regrettably, the answer is, ''None,'' for the most difficult issues had already been resolved. Recognizing the weakness of their political and strategic position, the Saudi princes who really set oil policy away from the glare of OPEC hype had authorized a reduction of the Saudi share of total OPEC market from the 40 percent agreed only last March to 25 percent. This was acceptable to Iran and the other producers, because it was equivalent to the market share which Saudi Arabia held in the fall of 1978 when the Shah's troubles began to provide room for Saudi expansion.

Having thus eliminated alleged Saudi ''poaching,'' the other members accepted the official ''marker crude'' price of $34 and quotas which established total OPEC production of 17.5 million barrels per day, a level of supply which most analysts acknowledged would support the official price. Notwithstanding this difficult and critical agreement, Sheikh Yamani suddenly focused on the issue of ''differentials,'' which had always been viewed as relatively trivial or at least technical. But instead of leaving this issue to the technicians, Sheikh Yamani abandoned the more important elements of agreement and welcomed a confrontation and price war that the rulers of Saudi Arabia had long sought to avoid.

Were Saudi Arabia to cut the price of the ''marker crude,'' it would be the first such official pricem cut since OPEC was founded in 1960 precisely to avoid the cuts in posted prices that the companies had imposed in the late 1950s. Such a step would not only alienate most of its 12 co-members but also embark on uncharted ground which could lead to a ratchet-downward or even free-fall of international oil prices. Sheikh Yamani then proceeded to use the most funereal of tones in describing bankruptcies in the United States and the collapse of the international financial system. It was not a performance to inspire confidence.

So what does everyone do now? Discomforted by their unusual high profile and almost total isolation, the rulers of Saudi Arabia must be asking whether they can cut their losses by giving Sheikh Yamani a well-deserved rest after 15 or more years as oil minister. Were he to be replaced quickly enough - perhaps by Saud al-Faisal, one of the younger and more nationalistic princes - it is likely that the other elements of the putative agreement could be put back in place and the differentials left to resolution by OPEC technicians.

Thus, the international oil pricing structure would be rescued from its most dire test, and American consumers put on warning yet again that they cannot sit around awaiting ''the collapse of OPEC.'' Instead it is past time to resume development of US domestic resources, especially the expanded production and utilization of natural gas, the nation's most resource rich, environmentally acceptable, and cost competitive alternative to imported oil.

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