Ex-Saudi minister, face of 1973 oil embargo, dies at 90

Former Saudi Arabian oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani died in London and will be buried in Mecca.
Former Saudi Arabian oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani died in London and will be buried in Mecca.

DUBAI • Saudi Arabia's Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the embodiment of the ascent of Arab petroleum power and the face of the 1973 oil embargo that brought the West to its knees, has died.

Mr Yamani was a witness to the 1975 murder of the Saudi king who had plucked him, a non-royal, from obscurity to be oil minister.

Later in the same year, he was kidnapped at an Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) meeting by Carlos the Jackal, a Venezuelan whose real name is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, once one of the world's most wanted criminals.

Mr Yamani, 90, died in London and will be buried in Mecca, Ekhbariya TV reported yesterday.

He was "the leading light in Opec during his eventful years as oil minister", Opec secretary-general Mohammad Barkindo told Bloomberg. "He was charismatic, with eloquence, yet humble and deeply religious."

Mr Yamani's 24-year tenure running the oil affairs of the world's biggest crude producer made him a global celebrity during the inflationary "oil shocks" of the 1970s.

That ended with his abrupt sacking in 1986 after a costly attempt to prop up crude prices - a failed strategy which has cast a shadow over Saudi oil policy to this day.

In December 1975, Mr Yamani attended an Opec meeting in Vienna, which ended in a hail of bullets fired into the ceiling from Venezuelan assassin Carlos and five cohorts. Three bystanders were killed.

Carlos, promoting the Palestinian cause, targeted Mr Yamani as the most valuable hostage, telling him repeatedly that he had been sentenced to death. Ministers were held for two days in a dynamite-charged room before the captors were granted a plane out of Austria with their hostages. A deal was struck in Algiers and Carlos vanished, escaping arrest until 1994.

Months earlier, Mr Yamani was at the side of Saudi King Faisal in Riyadh, receiving a visiting delegation, when a disaffected Saudi prince pulled out a revolver and shot the king dead.

Mr Yamani's career was remarkable as a commoner in a society dominated by the royal family. After studying law in Cairo, he left for New York University and Harvard University. After returning to Saudi Arabia, he set up a law firm and took on government work, drawing the attention of the future King Faisal. He became oil minister in 1962.

Mr Yamani became a leading figure in the development of Opec, founded in 1960. He extricated the Saudi oil industry from the grip of US companies in a series of steps that produced a deal on national ownership of Saudi Aramco in 1976.

In 1973, the fourth Arab-Israeli conflict prompted Mr Yamani to trigger an oil embargo - a fourfold increase in the price of crude marked the high point of Opec power. It also sent Western economies into recession as inflation soared in what became known as the first oil shock.

When the 1979 Iranian revolution triggered a second oil shock in the West, most in Opec raised oil prices. Riyadh, close now to Washington, issued the "Yamani Edict", holding Saudi prices at official levels to ease the pain for importers.

Mr Yamani's new-found price moderation was to cost him. As an oil glut ballooned, crude prices crashed below US$10 a barrel.

In October 1986, he learnt of his dismissal from a public announcement on Saudi television, apparently designed to embarrass him.

Reuters interviewed him in September 2000 to mark Opec's 40th anniversary. Shale oil was little known at the time and renewables were in their infancy, but Mr Yamani predicted that technology would hurt oil producers. He said: "Technology will reduce consumption and increase production from areas outside Opec.

"The Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2021, with the headline 'Ex-Saudi minister, face of 1973 oil embargo, dies at 90'. Subscribe