Yamani, the author of Saudi oil power, dies at 90

Published February 24, 2021
A file photo dated January 4, 1982, shows Zaki Yamani smiling during a news conference in Islamabad.—Reuters
A file photo dated January 4, 1982, shows Zaki Yamani smiling during a news conference in Islamabad.—Reuters

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s Sheikh 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, died in London on Tuesday. He was 90.

Yamani was a witness to the 1975 assassination of King Faisal who had plucked him, a non-royal, from obscurity to be oil minister. Later the same year Yamani was kidnapped at an OPEC meeting by Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez, known as Carlos the Jackal.

Known for his elegant manner and trademark goatee beard, Sheikh 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, Yamani attended the meeting of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in Vienna, which ended in a hail of bullets fired into the ceiling from Venezuelan assassin Carlos and five others. Three bystanders were killed.

Carlos, promoting the Palestinian cause, targeted 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 further 43 harrowing hours on board, flying from Algeria to Libya and back, created an intimacy between captive and hostage taker.

“It was odd, but as we sat together and talked, it was almost as if we had become friends,” Yamani told biographer Jeffrey Robinson. “He was telling me so much, knowing that I would die.”

A deal was struck in Algiers and Carlos vanished, escaping arrest until 1994. Serving a life sentence in a French jail, Carlos outlived Yamani.

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

Commoner among royals

Yamani’s career was remarkable, for the time, as a commoner in a society dominated by the royal family.

Born on June 30, 1930, the son of an Islamic scholar and judge in Makkah, Yamani was expected to follow his father and grandfather into teaching.

After studying law in Cairo he left for New York University and Harvard. 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.

In 1973 the fourth Arab-Israeli conflict prompted Yamani to trigger an oil embargo. A four-fold increase in the price of crude marked the high point of OPEC power and sent western economies into recession as inflation soared in what became known as the first oil shock.

Sheikh Yamani summed up that moment when oil producers took charge. “The moment has come,” he said. “We are masters of our own commodity.”

Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2021

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