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February 24, 2021

Architect of 1973 Saudi oil embargo Zaki Yamani dies

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February 24, 2021

RIYADH: Former Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, a key player behind the 1973 oil embargo, died Tuesday aged 90 after a long career that laid the foundations of the kingdom’s energy sector.

Yamani, dubbed by local papers as the “godfather of black gold”, died in London, said state-owned El-Ekhbariya television, without giving the cause. It said he will be buried in the holy city of Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia, where he was born.

Yamani, who served as oil minister from 1962 until 1986, was the first Saudi representative in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Known for his elegant manner and trademark goatee beard, 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.

In 1973, he was a key player in OPEC´s decision to raise oil prices in protest at Israel´s occupation of Arab land seized in 1967, sparking a world economic crisis.

In 1973 the fourth Arab-Israeli conflict prompted Yamani to trigger another oil embargo. This time it worked — a fourfold 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. Yamani summed up that moment when oil producers took charge. “The moment has come,” he said. “We are masters of our own commodity.”Yamani was a witness to the 1975 murder of the Saudi king Faisal who had plucked him, a non-royal, from obscurity to be oil minister. 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.

He played a pivotal role in the nationalisation of Saudi Arabia´s oil industry, led today by energy giant Aramco. “He masterminded the negotiations through which Saudi Arabia purchased Aramco from its American owners — a key move which assured no loss in revenue or disruption in the flow of oil,” Ellen R. Wald, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council´s Global Energy Center, tweeted on Tuesday.

In December 1975, Yamani attended the meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) 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 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.

He was dismissed in 1986 for undisclosed reasons, apparently over disagreement with the king at the time on oil output quotas.Yamani retreated to his private life and became the figurehead for a consultancy, the Centre for Global Energy Studies. At its launch in London in 1989, with crude still worth only $20 a barrel, he predicted prices would eventually break $100, as they did eventually in the new millennium.

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.