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Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries
Headquarters Vienna, Austria
Official language English
Type Cartel[1]
 •  Secretary General Abdallah Salem el-Badri
Establishment Baghdad, Iraq
 •  Statute 10–14 September 1960 
 •  In effect January 1961 
 •  Total 13,759,546 km2
5,312,590 sq mi
 •  2015 estimate 705,674,747
 •  Density 51.3/km2
132.9/sq mi
Currency Indexed as USD-per-barrel (US$ /bbl)

Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC, /ˈpɛk/ OH-pek) is an intergovernmental organization headquartered in Vienna, Austria. OPEC was founded by five petroleum-exporting nations at a conference held 10–14 September 1960 in Baghdad, Iraq. The formation of OPEC represented a collective act of sovereignty, and marked a turning point toward state control over natural resources, at a time when the international oil market was largely dominated by a group of multinational companies known as the "Seven Sisters". In the 1960s, OPEC ensured that oil companies could not unilaterally cut prices. In the 1970s, supply restrictions led to a dramatic rise in oil prices and OPEC revenue and wealth, with lasting and far-reaching effects for the global economy.[2]:503 ff

OPEC's mission is "to coordinate and unify the petroleum policies of its member countries and ensure the stabilization of oil markets, in order to secure an efficient, economic and regular supply of petroleum to consumers, a steady income to producers, and a fair return on capital for those investing in the petroleum industry."[3] As of January 2016, OPEC has 13 members: Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia (the de facto leader), United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. Their oil ministers normally meet twice per year. As of 2014, approximately three-quarters of the world's "proven" oil reserves were in OPEC member countries, and two-thirds of OPEC's reserves were in its six Middle Eastern countries that border the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

According to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), OPEC crude oil production is an important factor affecting global oil prices. The effect can be particularly strong when wars or insurrections lead to extended interruptions in supply. After major disruptions in the 1970s, OPEC started setting production targets for its member nations; and generally when OPEC production targets are reduced, oil prices increase.[4] Within their sovereign territories, the national governments of OPEC members are able to impose production limits on both government-owned and private oil companies. In December 2014, "OPEC and the oil men" ranked as number 3 on Lloyd's list of "the top 100 most-influential people in the shipping industry"[5] – although their dominance is periodically challenged by the expansion of non-OPEC energy sources, and by the recurring temptation for individual OPEC members to exceed their production ceilings.


Member countries in 2016

As of January 2016, OPEC has 13 member countries: six in the Middle East (Western Asia), one in Southeast Asia, four in Africa, two in South America. Their combined rate of oil production represents approximately 40% of the world's total:

Country Region Membership Years[6] Population
(2015 est.)[7]
Oil Production
(bbl/day, 2014)[upper-alpha 1][9]
Proven Reserves
(bbl, 2014)[upper-alpha 1][10]
 Algeria Africa 1969– 39,542,166 2,381,740 1,721,000 12,200,000,000
 Angola Africa 2007– 19,625,353 1,246,700 1,756,000 9,060,000,000
 Ecuador South America 1973–1992, 2007– 15,868,396 283,560 556,000 8,240,000,000
 Indonesia Southeast Asia 1962–2008, 2016– 255,993,674 1,904,569 917,000 3,740,000,000
 Iran Middle East 1960[upper-alpha 2] 81,824,270 1,648,000 3,377,000 157,300,000,000
 Iraq Middle East 1960[upper-alpha 2] 37,056,169 437,072 3,364,000 140,300,000,000
 Kuwait Middle East 1960[upper-alpha 2] 2,788,534 17,820 2,767,000 104,000,000,000
 Libya Africa 1962– 6,411,776 1,759,540 516,000 48,470,000,000
 Nigeria Africa 1971– 181,562,056 923,768 2,428,000 37,140,000,000
 Qatar Middle East 1961– 2,194,817 11,437 2,055,000 25,240,000,000
 Saudi Arabia Middle East 1960[upper-alpha 2] 27,752,316 2,149,690 11,624,000 268,350,000,000
 United Arab Emirates Middle East 1967– 5,779,760 83,600 3,474,000 97,800,000,000
 Venezuela South America 1960[upper-alpha 2] 29,275,460 912,050 2,685,000 297,740,000,000
OPEC Total 705,674,747 13,759,546 37,240,000 1,209,580,000,000
World Total 7,256,490,011 510,072,000 92,362,000 1,655,560,000,000
OPEC Percent 10% 3% 40% 73%
  1. 1.0 1.1 One petroleum barrel (bbl) is approximately 42 U.S. gallons, or 159 liters, or 0.159 m3, varying slightly with temperature.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 One of the five founding members that attended the first OPEC conference, in September 1960.

In October 2015, Sudan formally submitted an application to join OPEC.[11] Approval of a new member country requires agreement by three-fourths of the existing members, including all five of the founders.[12]

Former members

Country Region Membership Years[6] Population
(2015 est.)[7]
Oil Production
(bbl/day, 2014)[9]
Proven Reserves
(bbl, 2014)[10]
 Gabon Africa 1975–1994 1,705,336 267,667 240,000 2,000,000,000

Some commentators consider that the United States was a de facto member during its formal occupation of Iraq due to its leadership of the Coalition Provisional Authority.[13][14] But this is not borne out by the minutes of OPEC meetings, as no US representative attended in an official capacity.[15][16]

Leadership and decision-making

refer to caption
OPEC Conference delegates at Swissotel, Quito, Ecuador, December 2010

The OPEC Conference is the supreme authority of the Organization, and consists of delegations normally headed by the oil ministers of member countries. The chief executive of the Organization is the OPEC Secretary General. The Conference usually meets at the Vienna headquarters, at least twice a year and in additional extraordinary sessions whenever required. It generally operates on the principles of unanimity and "one member, one vote", with each country paying an equal membership fee into the annual budget.[12] However, since Saudi Arabia is by far the largest and most-profitable oil exporter in the world, with enough capacity to function as the swing producer to balance the global market, it serves as "OPEC’s de facto leader".[17]

Publications and research

In April 2001, OPEC collaborated with five other international organizations (APEC, Eurostat, IEA, OLADE, UNSD) to improve the availability and reliability of oil data. They launched the Joint Oil Data Exercise, which in 2005 was joined by IEF and renamed the Joint Organisations Data Initiative (JODI), covering more than 90% of the global oil market. GECF joined as an eighth partner in 2014, enabling JODI also to cover nearly 90% of the global market for natural gas.[18]

Since 2007, OPEC has published the World Oil Outlook (WOO) annually, in which it presents a comprehensive analysis of the global oil industry including medium- and long-term projections for supply and demand.[19] OPEC also produces an Annual Statistical Bulletin (ASB),[20] and publishes more-frequent updates in its Monthly Oil Market Report (MOMR)[21] and the OPEC Bulletin.[22]

Crude oil benchmarks

refer to caption
Sulfur content and API gravity of different types of crude oil

A "crude oil benchmark" is a standardized petroleum product that serves as a convenient reference price for buyers and sellers of crude oil. Benchmarks are used because oil prices differ based on variety, grade, delivery date and location, and other legal requirements.

The OPEC Reference Basket of Crudes has been an important benchmark for crude oil prices since 2000. It is calculated as a weighted average of prices for petroleum blends from the OPEC member countries: Saharan Blend (Algeria), Girassol (Angola), Oriente (Ecuador), Minas (Indonesia), Iran Heavy (Islamic Republic of Iran), Basra Light (Iraq), Kuwait Export (Kuwait), Es Sider (Libya), Bonny Light (Nigeria), Qatar Marine (Qatar), Arab Light (Saudi Arabia), Murban (UAE), and Merey (Venezuela).[23]

North Sea Brent Crude Oil is the leading benchmark for Atlantic basin crude oils, and is used to price approximately two-thirds of the world's traded crude oil.[24] Other well-known benchmarks are West Texas Intermediate (WTI), Dubai Crude, Oman Crude, and Urals oil.

Spare capacity

The U.S. Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, defines spare capacity for crude oil market management, "as the volume of production that can be brought on within 30 days and sustained for at least 90 days... OPEC spare capacity provides an indicator of the world oil market's ability to respond to potential crises that reduce oil supplies."[4]

In November 2014, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that OPEC's effective spare capacity was 3.5 million barrels per day (560,000 m3/d) and that this number would increase to a peak in 2017 of 4.6 million barrels per day (730,000 m3/d).[25] By November 2015, the IEA changed its assessment "with OPEC's spare production buffer stretched thin, as Saudi Arabia – which holds the lion's share of excess capacity – and its Gulf neighbours pump at near-record rates."[26]


In 1949, Venezuela and Iran were the first countries to move toward the establishment of OPEC, by inviting Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to exchange views and explore avenues for regular and closer communication among petroleum-exporting nations, as the world recovered from World War II.[27]

1959–1960 anger from exporting countries

In February 1959, the multinational oil companies (MOCs) unilaterally reduced their posted prices for Venezuelan and Middle Eastern crude oil by 10 percent. Weeks later, the first Arab Petroleum Congress convened in Cairo, Egypt, where the influential journalist Wanda Jablonski introduced Saudi Arabia's Abdullah Tariki to Venezuela's Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo. Both oil ministers were angered by the price cuts, and the two led their fellow delegates to establish the Maadi Pact or Gentlemen's Agreement, calling for an "Oil Consultation Commission" of exporting countries, to which MOCs should present price-change plans. Jablonski reported a marked hostility toward the West and a growing outcry against "absentee landlordism" of the MOCs, which at the time controlled all oil operations within the exporting countries and wielded enormous political influence. In August 1960, ignoring the warnings, the MOCs again unilaterally announced significant cuts in their posted prices for crude oil.[2]:499–503[27][28]

1960 founding and expansion

refer to caption
OPEC headquarters building in Vienna

The following month, during 10–14 September 1960, the Baghdad Conference was held at the initiative of Tariki and Pérez Alfonzo. The governments of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela met in Baghdad to discuss ways to increase the price of crude oil produced by their countries, and ways to respond to unilateral actions by the MOCs. "Together with Arab and non-Arab producers, Saudi Arabia formed the Organization of Petroleum Export Countries (OPEC) to secure the best price available from the major oil corporations."[29] The Middle Eastern members originally called for OPEC headquarters to be in Baghdad or Beirut, but Venezuela argued for a neutral location, and so Geneva, Switzerland was chosen. On 1 September 1965, OPEC moved to Vienna, Austria, after Switzerland declined to extend diplomatic privileges.[30]

During 1961–1975, the five founding nations were joined by Qatar (1961), Indonesia (1962–2008, rejoined 2016), Libya (1962), United Arab Emirates (1967), Algeria (1969), Nigeria (1971), Ecuador (1973–1992, rejoined 2007), and Gabon (1975–1994).[6] Indicating that OPEC is not averse to further expansion, Mohammed Barkindo, OPEC's Secretary General in 2006, urged Angola and Sudan to join,[31] and Angola did in 2007. Representatives from Egypt, Mexico, Norway, Oman, Russia, and other oil-exporting nations have attended OPEC meetings as observers.[32]

A key U.S. District Court decision held that OPEC consultations are protected as "governmental" acts of state by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and are therefore beyond the legal reach of U.S. competition law governing "commercial" acts.[33][34] Legislative proposals to limit sovereign immunity, such as the NOPEC Act, have so far been unsuccessful.

1973–1974 oil embargo

refer to caption
An undersupplied U.S. gasoline station, closed during oil embargo in 1973

In October 1973, the Arab majority of OPEC declared an oil embargo against the United States and other industrialized nations that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The result was a sharp rise in oil prices and OPEC revenues, from US$3/bbl to US$12/bbl, and an emergency period of energy rationing, intensified by panic reactions, a declining trend in U.S. oil production, currency devaluations,[35] and a lengthy U.K. coal-miners dispute. For a time, the U.K. imposed an emergency three-day workweek.[36] Seven European nations banned non-essential Sunday driving.[37] U.S. gas stations limited the amount of gasoline that could be dispensed, closed on Sundays, and restricted the days gasoline could be purchased based on license plate numbers.[38][39] Even after the embargo ended in March 1974 following intense diplomatic activity, prices continued to rise. The world experienced a global economic recession, with unemployment and inflation surging simultaneously, steep declines in stock and bond prices, major shifts in trade balances and petrodollar recycling, and a dramatic end to the post-WWII economic boom.[40][41]

The 1973–1974 oil embargo had lasting effects on the United States and other industrialized nations, which established the International Energy Agency in response. Oil conservation efforts included slower speed limits on highways, smaller and more energy-efficient cars and appliances, year-round daylight saving time, reduced usage of heating and air-conditioning, increased support of mass transit, national emergency stockpiles, and greater emphasis on coal, natural gas, ethanol, nuclear and other alternative energy sources. Meanwhile, OPEC nations demonstrated that their oil could be used as both a political and economic weapon against other nations, at least in the short term.[35][42][43][44]

1975 Special Fund

OPEC's international aid activities date from well before the 1973–1974 oil price explosion. For example, the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development has operated since 1961.[45]

OPEC added to its goals the selling of oil for the socio-economic growth of poorer nations. The OPEC Special Fund was conceived in Algiers, Algeria, in March 1975, and was formally established the following January. "A Solemn Declaration 'reaffirmed the natural solidarity which unites OPEC countries with other developing countries in their struggle to overcome underdevelopment,' and called for measures to strengthen cooperation between these countries... [The Fund's] resources are additional to those already made available by OPEC states through a number of bilateral and multilateral channels."[46] The Fund became an official international development agency in May 1980 and was renamed the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID).[47]

1975 hostage siege

On 21 December 1975, Saudi Arabia's Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Iran's Jamshid Amuzegar, and the other OPEC oil ministers were taken hostage at their semi-annual conference in Vienna, Austria. The attack, which killed three, was orchestrated by a six-person team led by Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and which included Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann and Hans-Joachim Klein. The self-named "Arm of the Arab Revolution" group called for the liberation of Palestine. Carlos planned to take over the conference by force and hold for ransom all eleven attending oil ministers, except for Yamani and Amuzegar who were to be executed.[48]

Carlos arranged bus and plane travel for his team and 42 hostages, with stops in Algiers and Tripoli, planning to fly eventually to Baghdad, where Yamani and Amuzegar were to be killed. All 30 non-Arab hostages were released in Algiers, excluding Amuzegar. Additional hostages were released at another stop in Tripoli before returning to Algiers. With only 10 hostages remaining, Carlos held a phone conversation with Algerian President Houari Boumédienne, who informed Carlos that the oil ministers' deaths would result in an attack on the plane. Boumédienne must also have offered Carlos asylum at this time and possibly financial compensation for failing to complete his assignment. Carlos expressed his regret at not being able to murder Yamani and Amuzegar, then he and his comrades left the plane. All the hostages and terrorists walked away from the situation.[48]

Some time after the attack, Carlos's accomplices revealed that the operation was commanded by Wadie Haddad, a founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They also claimed that the idea and funding came from an Arab president, widely thought to be Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi. Fellow militants Bassam Abu Sharif and Klein claimed that Carlos received and kept a ransom between US$20 million and US$50 million from "an Arab president". Carlos claimed that Saudi Arabia paid ransom on behalf of Iran, but that the money was "diverted en route and lost by the Revolution".[48][49]

1979 oil crisis and 1980s oil glut

Fluctuations of OPEC net oil export revenues (1972–2005 data, 2006–2007 projected)[50]

In response to the high oil prices of the 1970s, industrial nations took steps to reduce their dependence on OPEC oil, especially after prices reached new peaks approaching US$40/bbl in 1979–1980[51] when the Iranian Revolution and Iran–Iraq War disrupted regional stability and oil supplies. (In the Middle East, of course, religion-linked conflicts are recurring features of the geopolitical landscape.) Electric utilities worldwide switched from oil to coal, natural gas, or nuclear power;[52] national governments initiated multibillion-dollar research programs to develop alternatives to oil;[53][54] and commercial exploration developed major non-OPEC oilfields in Siberia, Alaska, North Sea, and Gulf of Mexico.[55] By 1986, daily worldwide demand for oil dropped by 5 million barrels, non-OPEC production rose by an even-larger amount,[56] and OPEC's market share sank from 50% in 1979 to just 29% in 1985.[57] The result was a six-year decline in the price of oil, which culminated by plunging more than half in 1986 alone.[58]

To combat falling revenue from oil sales, in 1982 Saudi Arabia pushed for audited national production quotas in an attempt to limit output and boost prices. When other OPEC nations failed to comply, Saudi Arabia first slashed its own production from 10 million barrels daily in 1979–1981 to just one-third of that level in 1985. When this proved ineffective, Saudi Arabia reversed course and flooded the market with cheap oil, causing prices to fall below US$10/bbl and higher-cost producers to become unprofitable. Faced with increasing economic hardship (which ultimately collapsed the Soviet bloc in 1989),[59][60] OPEC members that had previously failed to comply with quotas finally began to limit production to shore up prices, based on national quotas that sought to balance oil-related and economic criteria since 1986.[56][61] (Within their sovereign territories, the national governments of OPEC members are able to impose production limits on both government-owned and private oil companies.)[62]

1990–2008 responses to wars and unstable prices

refer to caption
One of the hundreds of Kuwaiti oil fires set by retreating Iraqi forces in 1991
refer to caption
Fluctuations of Brent crude oil price, 1988–2015[63]

Leading up to his 1990 Invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was pressuring OPEC to end overproduction and to push oil prices higher, in order to help OPEC members financially and to accelerate rebuilding from the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq War.[64] But these two Iraqi wars against fellow OPEC members marked a low point in the cohesion of the organization, and oil prices subsided quickly after the short-term supply disruptions. (The 2001 September 11 attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq had even milder short-term impacts on oil prices, as Saudi Arabia and the rest of OPEC cooperated to keep the world adequately supplied.)[63]

Ecuador withdrew from OPEC in December 1992,[65] because it was unwilling or unable to pay the annual US$2 million membership fee and felt that it needed to produce more oil than it was allowed under the OPEC quota,[66] although it rejoined in October 2007. Similar concerns prompted Gabon to suspend membership in January 1995.[67] Iraq has remained a member of OPEC since the organization's founding, but Iraqi production has not been a part of any OPEC quota agreements since March 1998, due to the country's daunting political difficulties.[20]

Lower demand triggered by the 1997–1998 Asian financial crisis saw the price of oil fall back to 1986 levels. After oil slumped to around US$10/bbl, joint diplomacy achieved a slowing of oil production.[68] (Although many believe that OPEC acts as a cartel when it sets production quotas to maintain price,[69] others point out that widespread cheating largely neutralizes OPEC's collective ability to influence prices.[70] OPEC has not been involved in any disputes related to the rules of the World Trade Organization, even though the objectives, actions, and principles of the two organizations diverge considerably.)[71]

In 2003, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and OPEC held their first joint workshop on energy issues, and they have continued to meet regularly since then to "better understand trends, analysis and viewpoints and advance market transparency and predictability."[72]

Widespread insurgency and sabotage during the 2003–2008 height of the American occupation of Iraq, combined with rapidly increasing oil demand from China and investors, and dwindling spare capacity as a cushion against global supply disruptions, prompted a sharp rise in oil prices to levels far higher than those previously targeted by OPEC.[73][74][75] Price volatility reached an extreme in 2008, as WTI crude oil surged to a record US$147/bbl in July and then plunged to just US$32/bbl in December, during the worst global recession since World War II.[76] OPEC's annual oil export revenue also set a new record in 2008, estimated around US$800 billion, and would go on to approximate US$1 trillion in 2011–2013 before plunging again.[77] (By the time of the Libyan Civil War in 2011, OPEC was calling for more efforts by governments and regulatory bodies to curb "excessive speculation" in oil futures markets, blaming financial speculators for increasing volatility in prices, disconnected from market fundamentals.)[78]

In May 2008, Indonesia announced that it would leave OPEC when its membership expired at the end of that year, having become a net importer of oil and being unable to meet its production quota.[79] A statement released by OPEC on 10 September 2008 confirmed Indonesia's withdrawal, noting that OPEC "regretfully accepted the wish of Indonesia to suspend its full membership in the organization and recorded its hope that the country would be in a position to rejoin the organization in the not-too-distant future."[80]

2008 production dispute

refer to caption
Countries by net oil exports (2008)

The differing economic needs of OPEC member states often affect the internal politics behind OPEC production quotas. Poorer members have pushed for reductions in OPEC production, to increase the price of oil and thus their own revenues.[81] These proposals conflict with Saudi Arabia's stated long-term strategy of being a partner with the world's economic powers to ensure a steady flow of oil that would support economic expansion.[82] Part of the basis for this policy is the Saudi concern that overly expensive oil or unreliable supply will drive industrial nations to conserve and develop alternative fuels, curtailing the worldwide demand for oil.[83] To this point, Saudi Oil Minister Yamani famously said in 1973: "The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones."[84]

On 10 September 2008, a production dispute occurred when the Saudis reportedly walked out of a negotiating session where rival members voted to reduce OPEC output. Although Saudi delegates officially endorsed the new quotas, they stated anonymously that they would not observe them. The New York Times quoted one such delegate as saying: "Saudi Arabia will meet the market’s demand. We will see what the market requires and we will not leave a customer without oil. The policy has not changed."[85]

2014–2015 price collapse

refer to caption
Countries by oil production (2013)
refer to caption
Dramatically striking oil in Saudi Arabia (1938)
refer to caption
Painstakingly "fracking" the Bakken Shale in North Dakota (2011)

During 2014–2015, OPEC members consistently exceeded their production ceiling, and China experienced a marked slowdown in economic growth. At the same time, U.S. oil production nearly doubled from 2008 levels, due to substantial improvements in shale "fracking" technology in response to record oil prices. These developments in turn led to a plunge in U.S. oil import requirements, a record volume of worldwide oil inventories, and a collapse in oil prices.[86][87]

In spite of global oversupply, on 27 November 2014 in Vienna, Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi blocked appeals from poorer OPEC members for production cuts to support prices. Naimi argued that the oil market should be left to rebalance itself at lower price levels, strategically rebuilding OPEC's long-term market share by ending the profitability of high-cost U.S. shale oil production.[88] As he explained in an interview:[89]

Is it reasonable for a highly efficient producer to reduce output, while the producer of poor efficiency continues to produce? That is crooked logic. If I reduce, what happens to my market share? The price will go up and the Russians, the Brazilians, U.S. shale oil producers will take my share... We want to tell the world that high-efficiency producing countries are the ones that deserve market share. That is the operative principle in all capitalist countries... One thing is for sure: Current prices do not support all producers.

A year later, when OPEC met in Vienna on 4 December 2015, the organization had exceeded its production ceiling for 18 consecutive months, U.S. oil production had declined only slightly from its peak, hundreds of world leaders were committing to limit carbon emissions, oil producers were slashing expenses, Indonesia was rejoining the export organization, and Iranian output was poised to surge with the lifting of international sanctions. In light of these pressures, OPEC decided to set aside its ineffective production ceiling until the next ministerial conference in June 2016.[17][87][90][91] On 12 January 2016, the OPEC Reference Basket was down to US$25.76/bbl – less than one-fourth of its US$110.48 high from June 2014, less than one-fifth of its US$140.73 record from July 2008, and the lowest since September 2003.[92]

History shows that large-scale adjustment in the global oil market typically takes years to unfold. So, as one analyst summed up OPEC's battle against shale oil: "Time will tell who will be left standing."[88]

See also


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