Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the former Saudi oil minister who became a global celebrity after he orchestrated the 1973 oil embargo that shifted energy market power decisively in favour of the Middle East, died in London this week, aged 90.
His name is forever linked to the Arab use of oil as a weapon against the US and other western supporters of Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. This action quadrupled crude prices and pitched many economies into recession.
Yet throughout his long tenure as Saudi Arabia’s oil minister from 1962 to 1986, Yamani was far from radical. As linchpin of the Opec cartel at the height of its ability to manipulate oil prices and output, he pursued a policy of firm moderation. Part of his goal was to ensure that a low-cost producer such as Saudi Arabia did not push prices up so far that they opened doors to higher-cost competitors.
In this way he was honouring a compact with the US dating to the historic 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, founder of the modern Saudi kingdom. This exchanged an American guarantee of Saudi security for supplies of reasonably priced oil from what would become the world’s largest crude exporter and so-called swing producer.
In fulfilling this role, the man credited with humbling the west in 1973 became a target for Arab nationalist and Palestinian radical ire. Yamani was kidnapped in 1975. A pro-Palestinian gang led by Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan arch-terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, assaulted an Opec meeting in Vienna.
During the two-day plane odyssey that followed, from Austria to Algeria to Libya and then back to Algiers, Carlos told Yamani he was to be executed. It is widely thought his life was eventually secured for a ransom — but not before he started writing his will.
Earlier that year, Yamani was standing alongside King Faisal, his patron, when a disgruntled nephew shot the king dead. Some accounts of this regicide say it was the assassin’s intention to kill Yamani too.
Yamani was born in 1930 in Mecca. Descended from a line of Islamic scholars and judges, he was sent at 17 to study law in Cairo, where he was a contemporary of Yassir Arafat, the future Palestinian leader, and then on to New York University and Harvard Law School.
His legal skill caught the eye of King Faisal, who brought him into government. One of his first jobs was to draft the law that abolished slavery in Saudi Arabia in 1962.
Yamani was a commoner in a regime run by and for the House of Saud. However, he was quickly promoted to oil minister, acquiring the honorific of Sheikh through which he became known to the wider world.
An elegant man of charm, charisma and subtle intellect, he was eloquent in English and French as well as Arabic. He was rare among Saudis in grasping the importance of the international press.
Yamani was best known for leading Opec to erode the position of Big Oil — the Anglo-American dominated Seven Sisters petroleum corporations. Yet arguably more enduring was his strategic and incremental takeover of Aramco in the 1970s.
With steely focus and legal bravura, Yamani gradually bought out the US owners of what became Saudi Aramco, creating a first-rate national oil company with foreign co-operation. His credibility as a negotiator was high because, as a private lawyer, he had previously disentangled Aramco from a sharia court lawsuit that threatened its concession rights.
By the time of the oil glut and price collapse of 1986, his ability to balance oil prices and output eluded him. King Fahd sacked him for ignoring instructions to push Opec for a higher price. But he was already in the king’s sights for having opposed oil for aircraft barter deals in 1984 and 1985.
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Yamani learnt of his dismissal from a TV news bulletin as he emerged from a 16-day Opec marathon meeting. The late Richard Johns, a former Middle East editor at the Financial Times without whose presence Yamani once refused to start a press conference, remarked that “with his departure, Opec became like Hamlet without the prince”.
In an interview with Reuters in 2000 that marked the 40th anniversary of Opec and took place long before the disruptions of shale oil and renewable energy, he forecast that technology would eventually undermine oil producers. “The stone age did not end because the world ran out of stone,” Yamani said, “and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.”