Middle Eastern Oil Threatened By Western Governments And MNE's

For more than forty years now the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has managed to sell for $20 a barrel, oil that costs just $2 to get out of the ground.

By restricting access to its massive reserves of black gold, the group of mostly Middle Eastern states has built whole economies around the export of oil to wealthy markets in the West.

But Opec's price premium is under threat by Western governments and multinational companies seeking to undermine the system of royalties that forms the backbone of Opec government income, according to a new book by the Opec adviser Bernard Mommer.

As Western capital returns to Opec's state run industry, it is bringing with it a new consumer oriented business model, characterised by low royalties and rapid production growth, Mommer says in the book, Global Oil and the Nation State.

The aim of this new model is to bring down the cost of oil by allowing more to be profitably pumped at lower prices, at the expense of hard won gains by Third World exporters, Mommer argues.

The consumer oriented model, which Mommer calls non-proprietorial, has already been successfully implanted in central Asian republics after the fall of Communism in 1989, and is now spreading into Opec, the home to two thirds of global oil reserves, via Venezuela and Algeria, he says.

"Wherever non-proprietorial governance prospers in oil-exporting countries, it is a symptom of decay, of a deepening political and economic crisis," Mommer writes.

"Political, because of the divisive effect of foreign intervention; and economic, because the country is impoverished."

He chronicles how the new model, touted as liberal and market-friendly, is almost always accompanied by investment treaties with the West which he says compromise the sovereign property rights of resource holding countries.Venezuela was a test case for the new system in Opec, as the Latin American state pioneered a trend towards re-opening nationalised reserves to foreign capital in the 1990s.

The consumer-oriented policies have caused a collapse in fiscal revenues over the past five years, and almost forced Venezuela to leave Opec as production levels rose, says Mommer, who is an adviser to Opec Secretary-General Ali Rodriguez.

Mommer, who previously worked with Rodriguez in Venezuela's Energy and Mines Ministry, logs a decline in Venezuelan fiscal revenue from 66 per cent of gross oil income in 1976-1992 to 37 per cent in 1996-2000.

The process was halted by President Hugo Chavez, a left-wing revolutionary, who hiked royalty in a new hydrocarbons law vigorously opposed by foreign investors. But existing contracts with foreign companies have allowed the erosion of fiscal revenue to continue, helping create a yawning fiscal deficit this year despite relatively high oil prices.

A similar process is also taking root in Algeria, where rising output is challenging the north African country's place in the group.

Mommer says the debate between investors and nation states over how to split oil revenues has been forgotten.

The driving force behind the creation of Opec in 1960 - when raising its share of the oil pie was seen as an expression of sovereignty over natural resources - was put to one side when the resurgent Opec governments nationalised their industries in the 1970s.

Since then, the oil price debate has focused on production quotas to set prices.

But as foreign operators return to the group's oilfields, the key to government revenues will increasingly become the price companies pay for access to the oil, which Mommer seeks to defend.

He says Opec, popularly known as a group of oil exporters, is better defined as an association of landlords, extracting rent in return for access to their territory.

"Opec is able to restrict the flow of investment, which determines the long-term level of production," Mommer writes. "The power of Opec is deeply rooted in its 'underground'. Quotas are only a kind of fine-tuning."

By increasing the cost of production through royalties, Mommer believes Opec can set a "fiscal floor" to oil prices worldwide including a good margin for budgetary needs in exporting nations.

While output management has succeeded in raising prices over the past three years, Mommer says maintaining those prices will depend on staunch defence of sovereign property rights in oil exporting countries as foreign capital returns.

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