VIENNA — The flowing desert robes have given way to expensive dark suits, but a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries remains an international bazaar of information, misinformation and disinformation.
In an arena where the participants place a premium on secrecy, it can be difficult to get a message out accurately, as Oil Minister Arturo Hernandez Grisanti of Venezuela discovered last week.
So angry at some unnamed OPEC member that he was shaking, Grisanti told reporters in a hotel lobby that Venezuela wouldn't tolerate threats within OPEC. But in his fractured English and the press stampede that followed, the phrase "within OPEC" was sent out on one news wire as, "We will leave OPEC." Grisanti wasn't that mad, he said later, angrily.
Within two days, Grisanti drew revenge after an ambush by 30 to 40 news-starved reporters in the crowded Hotel Intercontinental lobby. While the press mob crashed into furniture and knocked several poinsettias to the floor, the 59-year-old startled all by sprinting toward daylight to evade them.
Grinning, Grisanti accomplished an end run that got him across the lobby and into an elevator ahead of the pack. The reporters gave him a cheer.
Rilwanu Lukman, the oil minister of Nigeria, gets high marks from his colleagues for the way he has handled the presidency of OPEC. He has by all accounts been an effective mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the numerous other cartel members who can barely stand each other.
But that isn't the only reason he was reelected, OPEC experts say. Until he occupied that position, Nigeria was one of OPEC's worst cheaters, chronically producing more oil than its quota. Now that Lukman must urge member nations to abide by the quota, Nigeria's behavior has been unimpeachable.
By this reasoning, the next president of OPEC would be Mana Saeed Otaiba, oil minister from the United Arab Emirates, which has reportedly been producing twice as much oil as it is supposed to. On the other hand, maybe Otaiba doesn't want the job: Another oil minister says he has been "very conciliatory" on the cheating question.
When $102 billion--OPEC's estimated 1987 oil revenue--is represented in one room, a crowd gathers. Some come to sell, including a New York investment analyst who was aggressively peddling his firm's services to Indonesian Oil Minister Subroto during a cocktail party. The dignified Subroto impatiently waved him away.
Others come to buy--oil, usually--and they get more respect. But just how much oil is sold here isn't clear, despite the small army of oil traders hanging around wearing press badges.
Iran's oil minister, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, noting the uncertainty of oil prices at such times, says: "You'd have to be a fool to sign a contract in the middle of an OPEC meeting."
That was by way of denying a rumor that Iran, chief proponent of higher prices here, had just struck a deal in Vienna to sell 50,000 barrels a day to Coastal Corp. of Houston at $3 to $3.50 below the official OPEC price.
With no business being done, one is left to wonder what all these oilmen are doing here.
Hisham L. Nazer, the gracious but tight-lipped man who replaced Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani last year as oil minister of Saudi Arabia, loosens up when the talk turns to Los Angeles.
A UCLA graduate who maintains a home in that part of town, Nazer recalls: "I used to write letters to the L.A. Times almost every day, whenever you wrote something about Saudi Arabia or the Middle East. Check your files. See how many of them you printed," he says with a laugh. "I like Los Angeles. I know Los Angeles very well."
Nazer is provincial compared to others here. A notable example is a man who explains in a thick German accent that he is here on behalf of the government of Oman, a non-OPEC oil producing nation.
Although he resides in the city of Muscat, Oman, he maintains a "home base" in--where else?--Santa Barbara. He used to live in La Jolla. And in a discussion of the falling dollar, he mentions, "I just bought a cottage in London." It wasn't clear which currency he converted to buy the cottage.
The German from Oman, London and Santa Barbara takes note when the wife of Subroto enters the lobby of the Marriott Hotel here: "The Indonesians brought their wives. That is nice of them."
To a Japanese trader from Mitsubishi Oil Co., the arrival of Mrs. Subroto on the third day of the OPEC meeting was fuel for an endless debate: How long would the meeting last? That would be as good a tea leaf as any, if one knew how to read it.
Her arrival might have suggested that Subroto was settling in for a long stay and wanted the company of his wife. Or, she might have been summoned from the shops of Paris because the meeting was almost over and it was time to return to Jakarta.
"Is this good or bad news?" the Mitsubishi man asks.
The multinational man says: "If she were carrying a Christmas tree, it would be bad news."