OPEC about to meet again and the forecast is for calm

By , Business editor of The Christian Science Monitor

When the OPEC oil ministers get together in Helsinki Monday and Tuesday, the news will be bland: no oil price increase, no oil price decrease, no major squabbles.

And that, according to Dr. Rajai M. Abu-Khadra, the top economic adviser to the Kuwaiti Oil Ministry, is dandy.

''I don't think there will be anything spectacular,'' he said in an interview here.

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That's a major difference from the last go-around of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries oil ministers, in London in March, when there was a crisis atmosphere. Oil prices were declining. The ministers were fighting over quotas for exports of their ''black gold,'' and they had to settle on price ''differentials'' - the differences between varying crudes from various nations intended to make competition equal among the OPEC suppliers - as well as a new base price.

But after much hassle, those issues were all settled, with the ''marker'' price set at $29 a barrel.

Since then price pressures have eased for OPEC producers. Britain has squared the price of its North Sea oil with the OPEC pricing structure, helping Nigeria especially. ''Cheating'' by OPEC members on their quotas or prices has been reduced.

Most important, Dr. Abu-Khadra notes, the demand for OPEC oil has stepped up and shows promise of increasing further over the next year or so. At the moment, he says, the OPEC members are producing some 16 to 17 million barrels a day. But the oil companies, instead of trimming inventories of crude, are starting to build up stocks again. This could raise demand some 2 million barrels a day.

Further, the economic recovery has definitely started in the United States and to some lesser degree elsewhere in the world. This could build up over the next year or so to another 2 to 3 million barrels in daily demand for crude, Dr. Abu-Khadra reckons.

The Kuwaiti economic adviser, a Palestinian, is not firm about these numbers. He does not claim to have a precise idea as to how much additional fuel conservation will take place within the industrial or developing nations. Nor does he know whether Americans will switch back to their old habit of driving larger cars that consume more gasoline.

Nonetheless, it will make the OPEC nations ''more comfortable,'' Dr. Abu-Khadra says. ''It would minimize the forces of dissension in OPEC, and the squabbling.'' He regards 23 million barrels of exports per day for OPEC as ''the point of comfort.''

As the demand increases, the OPEC nations will have to decide which members will ''get the benefits.'' The distribution of price-maintaining quotas has always been a problem for cartels, and OPEC became a genuine cartel only relatively recently, when it started to control member production and not just set prices.

The London quota agreement, Dr. Abu-Khadra argues, proves once again that OPEC will not disintegrate over such disputes as production allocations. Since the price of oil is so vital to the OPEC nations, it ''concentrates the minds'' of the ministers, he says. ''This has been proved time and time again, that they will stick together . . . despite all the big political problems.'' That includes the war between Iran and Iraq, two OPEC members.

Abu-Khadra expects Saudi Arabia to seek a larger quota, holding that its current sacrifice in low production justifies it. ''Maybe they can get away with around 5 to 6 million barrels per day,'' he says, up from around 4 million nowadays. The United Arab Emirates will also want some portion of the increased demand, since two of its members, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have been quarreling over how to distribute the London quota of 1.1 million barrels a day. Populous nations, such as Nigeria, Indonesia, and Venezuela, will also push for higher quotas to meet their development needs and pay off debts.

He says Kuwait has no major production problem. Its quota of 1.1 million barrels a day is not much below its self-mandated production ceiling of 1.25 million. Moreover, Kuwait has a $10 billion ''fund for future generations'' invested abroad, which provides substantial revenues for its small population of some 650,000 or so Kuwaitis and, to some degree, 850,000 foreigners living in the city-state at the north end of the Persian Gulf.

Discussions over quota increases are expected to become more crucial by autumn as crude oil demand picks up.

If Iran and Iraq were to reach a peace agreement, it would mean OPEC would have to accommodate their extra production as they sought to rehabilitate their economies with oil revenues. ''But this would be less of a problem than the political one we are facing now,'' Dr. Abu-Khadra said, referring to the tension in the Gulf states.

After the oil price increases of 1973-74 and 1979-80, the OPEC nations as a group had massive balance-of-payments surpluses. By contrast, this year the OPEC members will have a deficit of about $14 billion, the Kuwaiti adviser calculates.

As a result, some of the more populous members will have to cover their deficits with overseas borrowing and reduced imports. Venezuela and Indonesia devalued their currencies to discourage imports. Others, such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Kuwait, have had either adequate oil revenues or can use reserves and investment income.

For some less populated nations, the decline in oil revenues may well be healthy, says Dr. Abu-Khadra. It will mean a ''more measured pace of development.''

The only fireworks Dr. Abu-Khadra sees possible at the Helsinki OPEC meeting is the choice of a general secretary. According to the usual practice, each member nation takes a turn, based on alphabetical listing, for naming a secretary-general for a three-year term. It would be Iran's turn this year, but there is a chance the Iranian candidate will be challenged by another nominee.

There could also be a less controversial discussion - at this stage - of a long-term pricing strategy. In 1980 the OPEC members agreed in theory to boost oil prices 6 percent a year above the US dollar inflation rate. That was a time when oil was regarded as physically in short supply. Oil was being used up at a rate of 20 billion barrels a year in the 1970s, only 10 billion discovered per year. The higher prices were aimed at encouraging conservation as well as increasing revenues.

Now, says Dr. Abu-Khadra, the situation is quite different, and OPEC will have to come up with a new pricing strategy; he hopes it will be within a year. ''We have to start figuring a more flexible policy. We have to have some dialogue with consumers.''

Where US gets its imported oil

(first quarter, 1983)

Thousands Percentage of Country of barrels' total imports Mexico 777 19.9% Canada 538 13.8% Venezuela 373 9.6% United Kingdom 249 6.4% Virgin Islands 218 6.0% Indonesia 203 5.2% Saudi Arabia 200 5.1% Netherlands Antillles 195 5.0% Nigeria 133 3.4% Algeria 124 3.2% Others 22.4% '42 US gallons per barrel Source: estimates in US government reports

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