OPEC – The World’s Oil Cartel

OPEC is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. It was founded in Bagdad in 1960 and has currently 12 members. OPEC’s aim is to regulate the amount of oil that member nations produce and to keep prices at a steady rate. The countries get together twice a year and agree on how much oil each country is allowed to produce. OPEC’s headquarters are in Vienna, the capital of Austria.

Before OPEC was created, there were large oil companies that controlled the world’s oil production. They wanted to sell as much oil as possible and did not let governments influence their decisions. Oil-rich countries, especially in the Middle East, wanted more control over the oil that they produced. As a result, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Venezuela founded OPEC. In the following years several other oil-producing nations , became members.

In the 1960s, OPEC did not have much power. This changed in 1973 when the third Arab-Israeli war started. The United States and a few European countries supported Israel. As a form of punishment, OPEC nations, influenced by the Arab countries, stopped selling oil to the West. Within the next six years oil prices rose to ten times the price of the early 1970s. OPEC countries became rich with so-called petrodollars; the West sank into deep recession because they needed OPEC’s oil.

Gas station in the United States during the 1973 energy crisis – Pumps closed on an interstate highway
Image: National Archives at College Park,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the aftermath of the energy crisis of the 1970s, western countries started looking for alternative forms of energy in order to become more independent from OPEC and the oil-producing nations. In 1986, oil prices dropped to the lowest rate in history. Oil-producing nations lost much of their income. In the 80s and 90s OPEC’s power diminished, often because of conflicts and internal arguments and because member states could not agree on production quotas. Some OPEC countries did not keep agreements and produced more oil, thus lowering prices.

After 2000, oil prices began to rise again and reached an all-time high in 2007. The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 hit world economy hard and oil prices fell once again. Since the Arab Spring of 2011, prices have gone up and down several times.

In 2016, at a time when oil prices were low OPEC+ was created, enlarging the cartel with other oil-producing countries, including Mexico, Brazil and Russia. Together, OPEC+ controls about 90% of the world’s oil reserves. Saudi Arabia is the most powerful member of the group, because it has the largest reserves. Even though there have been quarrels in the cartel in the last 6 decades it remains a powerful organization.

OPEC and OPEC+ members
Image: Caspian Delta, CC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons


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