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Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Key To Making Saudi Arabia A World Oil Power, Dies At 90

Feb 23, 2021
Originally published on February 24, 2021 9:00 am

Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia's long-serving oil minister who was instrumental in catapulting the kingdom into the energy powerhouse it is today, has died in London. He was 90 years old.

Yamani held enormous sway on the global stage during his nearly 25 years as oil minister, starting in 1962, and rose to fame for engineering 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 debate and think logically. Yamani earned higher education degrees abroad, at a university in Cairo, New York University and Harvard, before heading back to Saudi Arabia, where he gained a reputation as a brilliant lawyer and newspaper columnist.

That's how he caught the eye of King Faisal, who named 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 an oil market specialist ... he was a lawyer and a very shrewd negotiator," she says. "And in the late '60s and the 1970s, that's 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 a middling producer, not yet discovering it has much larger fuel resources than its neighbors, according to The Wall Street Journal.

As oil minister, Yamani quickly consolidated the country's reputation as head of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. After the 1973 Mideast War, in which Egypt, Syria and their allies launched an attack against Israel, OPEC's Arab member states called for an oil embargo to protest Washington's backing of Israel. Prices for crude oil skyrocketed and there were long lines at gas stations across the United States. And Yamani became the public face of the oil embargo, says Daniel Yergin, author of The New Map, a book about energy and climate change.

"Saudi Arabia after the oil crisis of 1973, became a very rich country, a very important part of the world economy, courted by Western banks and it had the revenues to really start to develop," he say. "And Yamani was really the man at the spigot."

Also during the early 1970s, Yamani began the long process of negotiating for Saudi control of what was then the Arabian American Oil Co., which was controlled by four U.S. companies: Exxon, Chevron, Mobil and Texaco. Yergin says Yamani played his cards very carefully, negotiating a deal that allowed the kingdom to control the company, now known as Saudi Aramco, without any disruption to service.

"Saudi Arabia did not just grab Aramco from the Western companies, it negotiated this participation. So by the 1980s, it had full control, but it also ended up maintaining very good relations with those companies and looked to them for technology and even for personnel," says Yergin.

Today, Aramco is one of the world's most profitable companies.

Among the successes, Yamani also experienced traumatic moments during his time in office. In March 1975, he was present when King Faisal was gunned down by a nephew of the monarch.

Later that year, Yamani's life was in danger again. In December 1975, Venezuelan assassin 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 multiple times by the terrorists," says Wald, who is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center.

Yamani was dismissed in 1986 after falling out with senior members of the Saudi royal family, including King Faud, over oil prices and output.

Although the cause of death was not immediately reported, Yamani was believed to be in failing health in the final years of his life. He will be buried in Mecca.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A legendary figure in the oil world died yesterday. Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani was the Saudi Arabian oil minister who led the 1973 oil embargo. NPR's Jackie Northam reports on how he helped the kingdom become an energy powerhouse.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani was born a commoner, the son of an Islamic judge who taught him to debate and think logically. Yamani studied at New York University and Harvard before heading back to Saudi Arabia, where he gained a reputation as a brilliant lawyer and newspaper columnist. That's how he caught the eye of King Faisal, who named Yamani as oil minister in 1962. Ellen Wald, author of the book "Saudi, Inc.," a history of the kingdom's oil industry, says it was a surprising decision.

ELLEN WALD: Yamani was not an oil market specialist. He was a lawyer, and he was a negotiator above all else. And he was a very shrewd negotiator. That was really where his skill set lay. And in the late '60s and the 1970s, that's what Saudi Arabia needed.

NORTHAM: As oil minister, Yamani quickly consolidated Saudi Arabia's reputation as head of OPEC. After the 1973 war with Israel, Arab states called for an oil embargo to protest Washington's backing of Israel. Prices for crude oil skyrocketed, and there were long queues at gas stations across the U.S. And Yamani became the public face of the oil embargo, says Daniel Yergin, author of "The New Map" about energy and climate change.

DANIEL YERGIN: Saudi Arabia became a very rich country, a very important part of the world economy, courted by Western banks, and it had the revenues to really start to develop. And Yamani was really the man at the spigot.

NORTHAM: Around the same time, Yamani began negotiating for Saudi control of Aramco, the oil company, which at that time was controlled by four U.S. companies. Yergin says Yamani played his cards very carefully, negotiating a deal that allowed the kingdom to control Aramco.

YERGIN: Saudi Arabia did not just grab Aramco from the Western companies. It negotiated this participation so by the early 1980s, it had full control. But it also ended up maintaining very good relations with those companies and looked to them for technology and even for personnel.

NORTHAM: Today, Aramco is one of the world's most profitable companies. But there were traumatic moments during Yamani's career as oil minister. In 1975, he was present when King Faisal was gunned down by a nephew. Ellen Wald says a couple of months later, Yamani's life was in danger again.

WALD: He was actually taken hostage during a later OPEC meeting by a very notorious terrorist who went by the name Carlos the Jackal, and it was a very traumatic experience for him.

NORTHAM: Yamani was dismissed in 1986 after falling out with senior members of the Saudi royal family. He died in London at the age of 90 and will be buried in his birthplace of Mecca. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESMERINE'S "THE SPACE IN BETWEEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.