Pulling Back the Mask of Saudi Oil Power

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(FILES) -- A general view shows 09 March 2004 the Shaybah mega-project, the first, and so far sole, oilfield development in Saudi Arabia's vast al-Rub al-Khali desert, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) southeast of the eastern oil center of Dhahran. World oil prices shot higher 01 June 2004 as fears of disruption to supplies from number one exporter Saudi Arabia intensified after insurgents killed 22 people in the kingdom over the weekend. The Shaybah mega-project, which sits on top of some 15 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, more than a drop in the ocean of Saudi Arabia's estimated total reserves of about 260 billion barrels, has been producing oil to the tune of 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) for less than a dollar a barrel. AFP PHOTO/Bilal QABALAN (Photo credit should read BILAL QABALAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Riyadh has refined its control of oil production over the years. But that doesn’t mean it can embargo the United States again.

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What do Presidents Donald Trump and Jimmy Carter have in common? Both opted to lay into opec, the toothless global energy cartel, rather than blame Saudi Arabia, historically the world’s top oil exporter, for the price of oil. But as opec’s most powerful member, Saudi Arabia usually lies behind any production decisions the group makes.

In the early 1980s, The Atlantic sent the reporter Edward Jay Epstein to opec’s Vienna headquarters. He came back with a scathing story. The scars of the 1970s oil wars were still fresh. In 1973, Saudi Arabia had joined other Arab states in embargoing oil sales to the United States. In 1979, the Iranian revolution disrupted oil production, causing the lines for gas that marked Carter’s presidency. But, Epstein concluded, opec was never the real threat. It wasn’t even a proper cartel, since it lacked the power to restrict oil supplies. Its primary purpose was to distract attention from the decision makers. “Even though Saudi Arabia was the real manager of the world oil supply, statesmen around the world preferred to blame an almost nonexistent organization—opec,” Epstein wrote.

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