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Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s longtime oil minister, who was instrumental in catapulting the kingdom to the energy power plant it is today, died in London. He was 90 years old.
Yamani made huge strides on the global stage during his nearly 25 years as Minister of Petroleum, starting in 1962 and rose to fame for constructing the 1973 oil embargo.
A devout Muslim, Yamani, was born in the holy city of Mecca, the son of an Islamic judge who taught him to discuss and think logically. Yamani received a higher education abroad at a university in Cairo, New York University and Harvard before returning to Saudi Arabia, where he gained a reputation as a brilliant lawyer and newspaper columnist.
That’s how he caught sight of King Faisal, who appointed Yamani oil minister, according to Ellen Wald, author of the book. Saudi, Inc., a history of the kingdom’s oil industry. She says it was a surprising decision.
“Yamani was not a specialist in the oil market … he was a lawyer and a very clever dealer,” she says. “And in the late ’60s and’ 70s, that was what Saudi Arabia needed.”
At the time he took over the job, the United States dominated the world’s oil trade, and Saudi Arabia was an intermediary producer who had not yet discovered that it had much greater fuel resources than its neighbors, according to Wall Street Journal.
As oil minister, Yamani quickly consolidated the country’s reputation as head of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Following the Middle East War of 1973, in which Egypt, Syria and their allies launched an attack on Israel, OPEC’s Arab members called for an oil embargo to protest Washington’s support for Israel. Crude oil prices rose sharply, and there were long queues at gas stations throughout the United States. And Yamani became the public face for the oil embargo, says Daniel Yergin, author of The new card, a book on energy and climate change.
“After the oil crisis in 1973, Saudi Arabia became a very rich country, a very important part of the world economy, which was harvested by Western banks, and it had the revenue to really start developing,” he says. “And Yamani was really the man at the tap.”
Also in the early 1970s, Yamani began the long process of negotiating Saudi control of the then Arabian American Oil Co., which was controlled by four American companies: Exxon, Chevron, Mobil and Texaco. Yergin says Yamani played his cards very carefully and negotiated a deal that allowed the kingdom to control the company, now known as Saudi Aramco, without any disruption to the service.
“Saudi Arabia not only seized Aramco from the Western companies, it negotiated this participation. So in the 1980s it had full control, but it also ended up maintaining very good relations with these companies and looked at them for technology and even for staff, “says Yergin.
Today, Aramco is one of the most profitable companies in the world.
Among the successes, Yamani also experienced traumatic moments during his tenure. In March 1975, he was present when King Faisal was shot down by a nephew of the monarch.
Later that year, Yamani’s life was again in danger. In December 1975, Venezuelan killer Carlos the Jackal and five others stormed an OPEC meeting in Vienna, killing three people and taking Yamani and dozens of others hostage.
“It was a very traumatic experience for him because he … was threatened several times by the terrorists,” said Wald, a non-resident senior colleague at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.
Yamani was fired in 1986 after being out with senior members of the Saudi royal family, including King Faud, over oil prices and production.
Although the cause of death was not immediately reported, Yamani was believed to be in failing health for the last years of his life. He is buried in Mecca.