As Saudi Arabia’s powerful oil minister, he was architect of the Arab world’s drive to control its own energy resources in the 1970s.
As the Saudi oil minister from 1962 to 1986, Ahmed Zaki Yamani was the most powerful commoner in a kingdom that possessed the world’s largest oil reserves.Credit…Roger Jackson/Central Press, via Getty Images
- Feb. 23, 2021Updated 12:39 p.m. ET
Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s powerful oil minister and architect of the Arab world’s drive to control its own energy resources in the 1970s and its subsequent ability to affect oil production, fuel prices and international affairs, has died died on Monday at a hospital in London. He was 90.
The cause was heart failure, said his daughter Mai Yamani.
In an era of turbulent energy politics, Mr. Yamani, a Harvard-trained lawyer, spoke for Arab oil producers on a world stage as the industry weathered Arab-Israeli wars, a revolution in Iran and growing pains. The world’s demand for oil lifted the governments of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states into realms of unimaginable wealth. Crossing Europe, Asia and America to promote Arab oil interests, he met government leaders, went on television and became widely known. In a flowing Arabian robe or a Savile Row suit, speaking English or French, he straddled cultures, loving European classical music and writing Arabic poetry.
Mr. Yamani generally strived for price stability and orderly markets, but he is best known for engineering a 1973 oil embargo that led to soaring global prices, gasoline shortages and a quest for smaller cars, renewable energy sources and independence from Arab oil.
As the Saudi oil minister from 1962 to 1986, Mr. Yamani was the most powerful commoner in a kingdom that possessed some of the world’s largest oil reserves. For nearly 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.
Image Mr. Yamani in London in 2000.Credit…David Levenson/Getty Images
In 1972, Mr. Yamani moved to wrest control over vast Gulf oil reserves from Aramco, the consortium of four American oil companies that had long exploited them. While Arab leaders demanded nationalization of Aramco — a takeover that might have cost American technical and marketing expertise, as well as capital — Mr. Yamani adopted a more moderate strategy.
Under the landmark “participation” agreement negotiated by Mr. Yamani, Saudi Arabia won the rights to acquire 25 percent of the foreign concessions immediately and to gradually raise their stakes to a controlling interest. Aramco, meanwhile, continued operating its concessions, profiting from extracting, refining and marketing the oil, although it had to pay sharply higher fees to the Saudi government.
The deal kept oil flowing to a dependent industrialized world and provided time for Arab oil producers to develop their own technical and marketing expertise. These developments eventually brought enormous prosperity to 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 engineered an embargo to pressure the United States and other allies to withdraw support for Israel, and for Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab lands. The embargo sent shock waves around the world, caused a rift in the North Atlantic alliance and tilted Japan and other nations toward the Arabs.
But the United States held the line. President Richard M. Nixon created an energy czar. Gasoline rationing and price controls were imposed. There were long lines and occasional fights at the pump. While inflation persisted for years, there was a new emphasis on energy exploration and conservation, including, for a time, a national 55-mile-an-hour speed limit on highways.
A tall man with thoughtful eyes and a Van Dyke goatee, Mr. Yamani struck Westerners as gracious, shrewd and tenacious.
“He speaks softly and never pounds the table,” one American oil executive told The New York Times. “When discussions get hot, he gets more patient. In the end, he gets his way with what seems to be sweet reasonableness, but is a kind of toughness.”
In 1975, Mr. Yamani had two brushes with violence. 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 years after the embargo, Mr. Yamani struggled to restrain oil prices, believing the long-term Saudi interest was to prolong global dependence on affordable oil. But the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in the 1979 Islamic Revolution touched off an energy crisis. Iranian production plummeted, prices surged, panic buying set in, increased OPEC stocks flooded the market and prices fell again.
In 1986, after a prolonged world oil glut and disagreements between Mr. Yamani and the royal family over quotas and prices, King Fahd dismissed the oil minister, ending his 24 years as Saudi Arabia’s most famous nonroyal.
Ahmed Zaki Yamani was born on June 30, 1930, in Mecca, Islam’s holy city of the pilgrimage, the youngest of three children of Fatima Suruji, homemaker and a poet, and Hassan Yamani, the chief judge of Mecca. The surname originated in Yemen, the land of his forebears. The boy was devoutly religious, rising early to pray before school. Sent abroad for higher education, he earned degrees from King Fuad I University in Cairo in 1951, New York University in 1955 and Harvard Law School in 1956.
He and his first wife, Laila Sulaiman Faidhi, were married in 1955 and had two daughters, Mai and Maha, and a son, Hani. His second wife was Tamam al-Anbar; they were married in 1975 and had two daughters, Sarah and Arwa, and three sons, Faisal, Sharaf and Ahmed. Mr. Yamani is survived by his second wife, all his children, 24 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
In 1958, the royal family enlisted him to advise Crown Prince Faisal, and his rise was rapid. In a year, he was a minister of state without portfolio, and by 1962 oil minister. In 1963, Mr. Yamani and Aramco jointly founded a Saudi College of Petroleum and Minerals, to teach oil industry expertise to Arab students.
After his dismissal as oil minister, Mr. Yamani became a 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 London market analysis group. A biography, “Yamani: The Inside Story,” by Jeffrey Robinson, was published in 1989.
Ben Hubbard and Alex Traub contributed reporting.contributed reporting.