A petrodollar is a dollar earned by selling petroleum. Petrodollars flow into members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) at a steady rate, and flow out at an almost equally steady rate as these countries invest petrodollars overseas. In fact, often money makes a round trip, flowing from a country like the United States to an OPEC member which in turn reinvests the funds in the United States.
Prices for oil sales are generally given in United States Dollars (USD). In 1973, economist Ibrahim Oweiss wanted to come up with a term to describe the large volumes of currency changing hands as a result of oil sales. He coined the portmanteau “petrodollar,” referring to “petroleum” and the United States Dollar. People also use the term “oil money” or “petrocurrency” to describe petrodollars, although “petrocurrency” is also sometimes confusingly used to refer to the currency used by an oil producing country.
At various points in history, OPEC members have literally made more petrodollars than they knew what to do with. Rising oil prices resulted in such a flood of currency that these countries were unable to invest it on internal development projects. As a result, many nations started engaging in a practice known as petrodollar recycling, in which they promptly reinvest the currency in banks in regions like Europe and North America.
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Changes in oil prices can lead to ebbs and flows in the movement of the petrodollar and in the investment funds available to OPEC members. Some of these nations rely heavily on income from oil sales and are placed at a disadvantage when prices are depressed. In regions such as Dubai, the profound impact of petroleum sales on regional economies can be seen firsthand in the form of extravagant and rapid development reflecting the increasing wealth of some members of the population.
While the bulk of oil sales are conducted in USD and prices are quoted in USD, some countries have opted to sell in other currencies. The dominance of the USD in global commerce is credited in part to the petrodollar, and some theorists have suggested that changing economic trends may result in petrodollar warfare, in which there will be a push to denominate oil sales in other currencies. If, for example, the world switched to the petroeuro, based on the currency of the European Union, the United States Dollar might weaken as a result.