Ahmed Zaki Yamani, former Saudi oil minister, dies at age 90

Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s powerful oil minister and architect of the Arab world’s efforts to control its own energy resources in the 1970s and its subsequent ability to influence oil production, fuel prices and international affairs, died in London. He was 90 years old.

His death was announced on Tuesday by Saudi state television.

In an era of turbulent energy policy, Yamani, a trained Harvard lawyer, spoke to Arab oil producers on a world stage as the industry survived the Arab-Israeli wars, a revolution in Iran and growing pains. World demand for oil lifted Saudi Arabian governments and other Persian Gulf states into areas of unimaginable wealth. By crossing Europe, Asia and America to promote Arab oil interests, he met government leaders, went on television and became widely known. In a flowing Arabic cloak or a Savile Row suit that speaks English or French, he straddled cultures, loves European classical music and writes Arabic poetry.

Yamani generally strived for price stability and orderly markets, but he is best known for constructing an oil embargo from 1973 that led to rising global prices, gas shortages and a quest for smaller cars, renewable energy sources and independence from Arab oil.

As the Saudi Minister of Petroleum from 1962 to 1986, Mr. Yamani was the most powerful commoner in a kingdom that had some of the world’s largest oil reserves. For almost 25 years he was also the dominant official of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, whose rising and falling production quotas rippled like tides through worldwide markets.

1972, Mr. Yamani moved to break control of large Yellow Oil reserves from Aramco, the consortium of four US oil companies that had long exploited them. While Arab leaders demanded the nationalization of Aramco – a takeover that may have cost American technical and marketing expertise as well as capital – Mr. Yamani a more moderate strategy.

According to the landmark “participation” agreement negotiated by Mr. Yamani won Saudi Arabia the right to immediately acquire 25 percent of the foreign concessions and to gradually increase its stake to a controlling interest. Aramco, meanwhile, continued to operate its concessions and benefit from the extraction, refining and marketing of the oil, even though it had to pay significantly higher fees to the Saudi government.

The deal kept oil to a dependent industrialized world and gave time for Arab oil producers to develop their own technical and marketing expertise. This development eventually led to enormous prosperity for the Gulf states and a drastic shift of 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 an embargo to pressure the United States and other allies to withdraw support for Israel and Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab countries. The embargo sent shockwaves around the world, causing a rift in the North Atlantic Alliance and leaning Japan and other nations against the Arabs.

But the United States kept the line. President Richard M. Nixon created an energy tsar. Petrol rationing and price controls were introduced. There were long lines and occasional fights at the pump. While inflation persisted for several years, there was a new emphasis on energy exploration and energy saving, including for a time a national speed limit of 550 km per hour on motorways.

A tall man with thoughtful eyes and a Van Dyke goatee, Mr. Yamani beat Westerners as gracious, wise and persistent.

“He speaks softly and never knocks off the table,” a US oil chief told The New York Times. “When the discussions get hot, he becomes more patient. In the end, he gets his way with what seems to be sweet reasonableness, but is a kind of toughness. ”

In 1975, Yamani had two brushes by force. His patron, King Faisal, was assassinated 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 several years after the embargo, Yamani struggled to hold back oil prices, believing that Saudi Arabia’s long-term interest was to extend its global dependence on affordable oil. But the overthrow of the Shah in Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution affected an energy crisis. Iranian production fell, prices rose, panic began, OPEC stocks flooded the market and prices fell again.

1986, after a long-standing sense of world oil and disagreements between Mr. Yamani and the royal family on quotas and prices, King Fahd fired the oil ministerand ended his 24 years as Saudi Arabia’s most famous non-royal.

Ahmed Zaki Yamani was born on June 30, 1930, in Mecca, the holy pilgrimage city of Islam, one of three children of Hassan Yamani, an Islamic judge. The surname originates from Yemen, the land of his ancestors. The boy was religiously devoted and rose early to pray before school. He was sent abroad for higher education and graduated 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 married in 1955 and had three children. His second wife was Tamam al-Anbar; they 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 a year he was prime minister without a portfolio and in 1962 minister of oil. In 1963, Yamani and Aramco jointly founded a Saudi College of Petroleum and Minerals to teach Arab students’ expertise in the oil industry.

After his dismissal as Minister of Petroleum, Mr. Yamani consultant, entrepreneur and investor and settled in Crans-sur-Sierre, Switzerland. In 1982, he joined other financiers in 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 reporting.

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