DUBAI – 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.