Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s powerful oil minister and architect of the Arab world’s aspiration to control its own energy resources in the 1970s and later influence oil production, fuel prices and international affairs, died in London. He was 90 years old.
His death was announced on Tuesday on Saudi state television.
In a time of turbulent energy policy Mr. Yamani, a Harvard trained attorney, spoke on a world stage for Arab oil producers as the industry weathered Arab-Israeli wars, a revolution in Iran, and mounting pain. The global demand for oil brought the governments of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states into areas of unimaginable wealth. He crossed Europe, Asia, and America to advance Arab oil interests, met government leaders, went on television, and became widely known. In a flowing Arabic robe or a Savile Row suit speaking English or French, he spread cultures, loved European classical music, and wrote Arabic poetry.
Mr. Yamani sought price stability and orderly markets in general, but is best known for imposing a 1973 oil embargo that led to rising world market prices, gasoline shortages and the search for smaller cars, renewable energy sources and independence from Arab oil.
As Saudi oil minister from 1962 to 1986 Mr. Yamani was the most powerful citizen in a kingdom that owned some of the largest oil reserves in the world. For almost 25 years he was also the dominant official of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, whose rising and falling production quotas flew like tides through world markets.
In 1972 Mr. Yamani took control of the vast oil reserves in the Gulf of Aramco, the consortium of four American oil companies that had long exploited them. While Arab leaders called for the nationalization of Aramco – a takeover that might have cost US technical and marketing expertise and capital – Mr Yamani adopted a more moderate strategy.
As part of the landmark shareholding agreement negotiated by Mr. Yamani, Saudi Arabia received the right to acquire 25 percent of the foreign concessions immediately and to gradually increase its stake to a majority stake. Aramco continued its concessions and benefited from the extraction, refining and marketing of the oil, despite paying significantly higher fees to the Saudi government.
The deal kept the flow of oil in a dependent industrialized world and gave Arab oil producers time to develop their own technical and marketing expertise. These developments ultimately brought enormous prosperity to the Gulf States and a drastic shift in economic and political power in the region.
In 1973, after Israel defeated Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War and Arab leaders demanded the use of oil as a political weapon, Mr Yamani embargoed to pressure the United States and other allies to support Israel and withdraw for Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab countries. The embargo sent shock waves around the world, ripping the North Atlantic alliance, and leaning Japan and other nations toward the Arabs.
But the United States held the line. President Richard M. Nixon created an energy tsar. Gasoline rationing and price controls were introduced. There were long lines and the occasional pump fight. While inflation persisted for years, there was a new focus on energy exploration and conservation, including a temporary national speed limit of 55 mph on highways.
Mr. Yamani, a tall man with thoughtful eyes and a Van Dyke goatee, found Westerners amiable, cunning, and tenacious.
“He speaks softly and never hits the table,” an American oil manager told the New York Times. “When the discussions get hot, he becomes more patient. In the end, he asserts himself with a seemingly sweet sensibility, but which is a kind of tenacity. “
In 1975, Mr. Yamani had two brushes by force. His patron, King Faisal, was murdered by a royal nephew in Riyadh. Nine months later, he and other OPEC ministers were taken hostage by terrorists led by Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, also known as Carlos the Jackal.
For years after the embargo, Mr Yamani struggled to curb oil prices, believing the long-term Saudi interest was to extend global dependence on affordable oil. However, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 sparked an energy crisis. Iranian production collapsed, prices rose, panic buying set in, increased OPEC shares flooded the market and prices fell again.
In 1986, after a persistent global oil glut and disagreement between Mr. Yamani and the royal family over quotas and prices, King Fahd dismissed the oil minister and ended his 24 years as Saudi Arabia’s most famous nonroyal.
Ahmed Zaki Yamani was born on June 30, 1930 in Mecca, the holy pilgrimage city of Islam, as one of three children of the Islamic judge Hassan Yamani. The family name comes from Yemen, the land of his ancestors. The boy was pious and got up early to pray in front of school. He was sent abroad for higher education, graduating from King Fuad I University in Cairo in 1951, New York University in 1955 and Harvard Law School in 1956.
He and Laila Sulleiman Faidhi was married in 1955 and had three children. His second wife was Tamam al-Anbar; They were married in 1975 and had five children.
In 1958, the royal family hired him to advise Crown Prince Faisal, and his rise was rapid. In one year he was Minister of State without portfolio and until 1962 Minister of Oil. In 1963, Yamani and Aramco jointly founded a Saudi petroleum and minerals college to teach Arab students about the oil industry.
After his discharge as Minister of Oil, Mr. Yamani became a consultant, entrepreneur and investor and settled in Crans-sur-Sierre, Switzerland. In 1982 he moved to other financiers at Investcorp, a Bahrain-based private equity firm. In 1990 he founded the Center for Global Energy Research, a market analysis group in London. A biography, “Yamani: The Inside Story” by Jeffrey Robinson, was published in 1989.
Ben Hubbard contributed to the coverage.