Chavez Tells OPEC to Use Politics, Curb `Imperialism'
By Daniel Williams and Maher Chmaytelli
Nov. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez brought his revolutionary zeal to the cartel that controls 40 percent of the world's oil, urging fellow members at a weekend summit to fight against ``imperialism'' and ``exploitation.''
Chavez used the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to advance a struggle for the soul of the cartel. Countering him was the conference host, Saudi King Abdullah, who said the organization's goal was simply to produce prosperity.
Their contrasting visions elbowed aside the usual OPEC talk about production quotas and currency fluctuations. In the short term at least, Abdullah's vision is likely to prevail, said Ihsan Bu-Hulaiga, who runs a private business consulting firm in Riyadh and advises the Saudi government.
``OPEC has to do with oil; it cannot solve the world's problems with a political agenda,'' he said. ``It would be putting its bread and butter at risk.''
Support for Chavez came from President Rafael Vicente Correa of Ecuador and from Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose nation is the target of a U.S.-led campaign of sanctions and pressure over allegations that it is pursuing nuclear weapons and destabilizing the region.
Chavez, 53, and Correa, 44, stopped short of threatening an embargo in case of a U.S. attack on Iran. ``We don't want to speculate,'' Correa said in response to a question about whether a halt in oil sales to the U.S. should be employed in case of war.
Chavez said his call for geopolitical activism takes OPEC back to its anti-colonial roots. He likened OPEC to the Non- Aligned Movement, a group founded in the 1950s to stand outside the Soviet-U.S. rivalry.
Chavez also addressed OPEC's debate over whether to drop the U.S. dollar as its currency for pricing oil. ``The dollar is in a free fall and everyone should be worried about it. The fall of the dollar is not the fall of the dollar. It's the fall of the American empire,'' he told a cluster of reporters outside the OPEC meeting hall yesterday.
King Abdullah brushed off proposals from Chavez and Ahamdinejad to drop the dollar.
To counter Chavez's appeal, Bu-Hulaiga said, OPEC needs the U.S. to help ease tensions with Iran and to resolve the Israel- Palestinian conflict. ``It's not enough to ask Chavez to be quiet,'' he said in an interview. ``We need responsibility everywhere. The United States can help lower the tone.''
OPEC has used oil as a weapon before, when its Arab members stopped sales to countries that supported Israel in the 1973 Middle East war. The actions sent petroleum prices spiraling upward, created long lines at gas stations in the United States and Europe and produced high inflation across the globe.
Correa said a new war in the region could drive prices to $250 a barrel. Chavez, in his speech, predicted a figure of $200 ``if the United States is crazy enough to invade Iran.'' On Nov. 16 in New York, crude oil for December delivery closed at $95.10 a barrel.
Ahmadinejad, 51, played down the possibility of a U.S. attack, saying that President George W. Bush's administration lacks the ``economic, political and military'' means to carry one out. ``No war will break out in the region,'' he predicted during a news conference yesterday.
``Iran and Venezuela, because they have ideological differences with the U.S., are trying to drag the other OPEC members into the conflict, by appealing to solidarity against imperialism and aggression,'' said John Sfakianakis, chief economist at the Saudi British Bank in Riyadh and formerly a research fellow at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
The era of OPEC political activism is over, the cartel's Secretary General Abdalla el-Badri told reporters last week. ``We are not using the oil we sell to the world as a political weapon,'' he said at a Nov. 14 press conference in Riyadh.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said OPEC wouldn't take a stand on a possible U.S. invasion of Iran. ``These are issues that can be raised in other forums, not in OPEC,'' he told a news conference yesterday.
To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Williams in Riyadh at firstname.lastname@example.org; Maher Chmaytelli in Riyadh at email@example.com