DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—Ahmed Zaki Yamani, a long-serving oil minister in Saudi Arabia who led the kingdom through the 1973 oil crisis that shattered the West and once found himself held hostage by the assassin Carlos the Jackal, died Tuesday in London. He was 90.
Saudi state television reported his death, without offering a cause. It said he would be buried in the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
Known for his Western-style business suits and soft-spoken, measured tones, Yamani helped Saudi Arabia command a dominating presence in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries from its birth. The kingdom remains a heavyweight in the group even today and its decisions ripple through the oil industry, affecting prices from the barrel down to the gasoline pump.
“To the global oil industry, to politicians and senior civil servants, to journalists and to the world at large, Yamani became the representative, and indeed the symbol, of the new age of oil,” author Daniel Yergin wrote in his seminal book on the oil industry “The Prize.” “His visage, with his large, limpid, seemingly unblinking brown eyes and his clipped, slightly curved Van Dyke beard, became familiar the planet over.”
Yamani became oil minister in 1962 and would lead the ministry until 1986. He served a crucial role in the nascent oil cartel OPEC as producers around the world began to try to dictate prices to the world market previously dominated by the economic policies of Western nations.
OPEC’s current secretary-general, Mohammad Sanusi Barkindo, and the cartel offered their “deepest and heartfelt condolences on the passing of one of the most respected and recognized industry leaders.”
Yamani was the first Saudi representative on OPEC’s board of governors in 1961. From his position, he became known not for the hysterics that accompanied years of turmoil across the wider Middle East, but an ever-calm negotiating style that Saudi ministers after him sought to mimic.
But that style for an oil kingpin known by the honorific “the Sheikh” would be tested by the times, which included upheaval in the global energy market. That was especially true in the 1973 Mideast War, in which Egypt, Syria, and its allies launched a surprise attack on Israel on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.
When the United States under President Richard Nixon moved to support Israel, Arab producers in OPEC agreed to cut their supply by 5 percent a month. When Nixon continued his support, the decision gave birth to what would become known as the “oil weapon”—a total embargo on the United States and other countries.
Prices in the United States would rise by 40 percent, leading to gasoline shortages and long lines at the pump. Oil prices globally would quadruple, leading to the wealth now seen across the Gulf Arab states today as the West’s economy suffered.
Speaking to Danish television at the time, Yamani allowed himself to be blunter than usual.
“I think what we have as an oil weapon is far more greater than what we did. What we did was nothing at all. I think we can cut down production to let us say 20 [percent]. Instead of 25 [percent], it will be 80 [percent]. You think that Europe or Japan or the United States can survive with this?” he asked his interviewer.
Yamani added: “Your whole economy will collapse all of a sudden. If the Americans are thinking of a military action, this is also another possibility, but then—this is a suicide.”
In 1975, Yamani twice found himself a part of major historical events. He stood just outside the room when a nephew of King Faisal assassinated the monarch in March.
In December, Yamani was among those taken hostage at OPEC headquarters in Vienna, an attack that killed three people and saw 11 OPEC ministers and dozens of others seized. The attack ended up with all the pro-Palestinian militants and those held hostage released.
Afterward, Yamani described Carlos, a Venezuelan whose real name is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, as a “ruthless terrorist who operates with cold-blooded, surgical precision.” From that moment on, Yamani traveled with an entourage of bodyguards everywhere he went.
Anis Naccache, a former pro-Palestinian militant who participated in the 1975 OPEC raid, died Monday in Syria at age 69 after battling the coronavirus.
Yamani also oversaw what would become the full nationalization of the Arabian American Oil Co. after the 1973 oil crisis. Today, it’s better known as the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., or Aramco, a major employer for the kingdom and its main source of revenue.
In 1986, Saudi King Fahd dismissed Yamani with a terse statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency. At the time, it was believed that Yamani disagreed with the king in his insistence OPEC work out a permanent system of production quotas and that the kingdom would be given a bigger share of the total. Saudi Arabia ultimately went along with another interim arrangement.
Yamani was born in Mecca in 1930, when camels still roamed the streets of the holy city. His father and grandfather were religious teachers and Islamic lawyers. He ultimately studied at New York University and Harvard. Twice married, he is survived by multiple children and grandchildren.
By Jon Gambrell