To cover OPEC: wear shinguards, football helmet

For a moment I thought it was the mass chaos of the Iranian revolution, right here by London's Hyde Park. As the chanting of anti-Ayatollah protestors filled the air, a surging crowd of people came toward me.

A British bobby loudly accused everyone of trespassing. Two television men mounted a rickety set of aluminum steps and were threatened with extinction as the edges of the crowd tore at the thin legs. A television camera marked ''Globo TV network Brazil'' swung above our heads like an unguided missile.

Lost in the melee were the words of a tiny, dark- skinned man in a pinstripe suit who was trying to negotiate the five yards from the hotel to his car.

If the man had been a film star or a politician, the scene could have been written off as just another journalistic football scrum - undignified but nothing serious.

But the man was the oil minister of Indonesia, Mr. Subroto, and he was emerging from a meeting of the 13 ministers of the OPEC oil cartel.

His words might have been interesting, might even have been earth-shattering. I was to discover later that they were neither - and I was to reflect that there just has to be a better way of finding out what is happening to world oil prices than being stepped on and pummeled.

To cover OPEC should require some skill in political economics. Instead, it demands experience as a football player, prize fighter, and knight accustomed to wearing armor and wielding shields, maces and iron balls.

It was a commentary on the times. OPEC as a cohesive body is giving way at the seams. The cartel has lasted longer than many expected but is being riven by strife.

World interest in whether OPEC can, after repeated failures, agree on a new price and new production quotas is intense. Oil prices are dropping. The economic and political prospects for Nigeria, Venezuela, Algeria, Libya, and Iran are at stake. So is the health of the world banking system, which has lent much money to oil producers.

OPEC meetings look so neat and tidy on television and in newspaper columns. But to go to the London hotel where they began an ''unofficial'' meeting of all 13 member countries March 8 was to be rudely awakened.

By coming here OPEC was trying to shift the blame for falling prices to Britain, but it also led to endless backstage maneuvering, in which Iran opposed Saudi Arabia and everyone argued with Nigeria.

The minister of Gabon appeared on the sidewalk. Bedlam broke out. Someone translated his French: ''OPEC must survive. We must not let its leadership fall into the hands of the British'' (an ironic reference to OPEC unhappiness at British refusal to agree not to undercut any new OPEC price).

Japanese journalists were ecstatic: a real quote. Another minister appeared. Police raised their voices. The crowd formed . . . and I fled.

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