Ahmed Zaki Yamani

views updated

Ahmed Zaki Yamani

Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani (born 1930) was a Saudi Arabian lawyer and minister of petroleum and mineral resources from 1962 to 1986. A major architect of the energy policies of his country, he served as an influential spokesman for Saudi Arabia and for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Ahmed Zaki Yamani was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 1930. His father, Hassan Yamani, was a scholar of Islamic law and a qadhi, or religious judge, whose patience, wisdom, and quiet sense of humor inspired his son as he grew up in Islam's holiest city, one of three children.

The young Yamani earned a bachelor's degree in law at Cairo University in 1951 and a master's degree in law at New York University in 1955. He graduated from Harvard law school in 1956. He later was awarded honorary degrees from institutions around the world, including Nihon University in Japan (1969), Osmania University in India (1975), Leobon University in Austria (1979), and the American Graduate School of Business in Arizona (1979).

Yamani's first job was as a legal adviser to the Oil and Tax departments of the Saudi Ministry of Finance from 1956 to 1958. At the same time, he established one of the first private law offices in Jeddah. He maintained his private practice throughout his public career. From 1958 to 1960 he was a legal adviser to the Council of Ministers, becoming a minister of state and member of the Council of Ministers in 1959.

OPEC Spokesman

The Saudi royal family soon recognized Yamani's potential. Yamani was one of the first of the capable, English-speaking, Western-educated young Saudi technocrats equipped to deal effectively with the Americans and Europeans who were eager to secure access to the lucrative and strategically important oil of the Arabian Gulf. While oil revenues were needed for development, Saudi leaders were also concerned about the effects of rapid economic change on the values of a conservative Muslim society. Crown Prince Faisal, who was virtually running the Saudi government administration under his older brother King Saud even before he was crowned king in 1965, was a strong supporter of Yamani. In March 1962 the royal family named Yamani to the key post of minister of petroleum and mineral resources, a position he would hold for 24 years.

Saudi Arabia needed young Saudis with the education and technical expertise to run its own oil industry. Yamani envisioned a local institution that would provide such training for Saudis and for students from other developing nations of the region. He was instrumental in founding the University of Petroleum and Minerals at Dhahran in 1964; it soon became a major science and engineering school.

As minister of petroleum, Yamani took his place as a director of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), originally a consortium of four American oil companies operating in Saudi Arabia under a concession agreement. Beginning in 1963 he also served as chairman of the board of directors of the General Petroleum and Minerals Organization (PETROMIN), the Saudi government agency responsible for management of energy and mineral resources in the kingdom. He became president of the Supreme Consultative Council for Petroleum and Mineral Resources in 1975. His department promoted the development of solar technology and other alternate energy sources. Yamani was made chairman of the board of the Saudi Arabian Fertilizer Company (SAFCO) in 1966. He was also chairman of the Saudi Arabian/Sudanese Joint Commission for Exploitation of Red Sea Resources beginning in 1974.

Within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Yamani worked for price stability, energy conservation, and an orderly international oil market. He was secretary-general of OPEC in 1968-1969. In the 1970s member countries took control of their own natural resources. Saudi Arabia negotiated the nationalization of the assets of foreign companies while retaining their cooperation and expertise. Yamani mediated among the opposing interests of the commercial companies and the oil-producing developing nations. His negotiating style was patient but dogged, punctuated occasionally by outbursts of frustration.

Yamani masterminded the 1973 oil embargo, which sent worldwide oil prices soaring to record levels and caused economic shock waves worldwide. Eloquent and shrewd, he was the primary spokesman of the political objectives of the embargo. The severe product shortages which resulted were intended as a clear demonstration of the strategic importance of Arab resources. With the oil embargo, Yamani had the world's attention, and he held it for the next 13 years as "he came to embody Arab oil power," in the words of John Tagliabue of the New York Times (October 30, 1986). "For more than two decades, Ahmed Zaki Yamani's commands boosted or battered personal pocketbooks and national economies around the world," wrote Pamela Sherrid in U.S News & World Report (February 15, 1988).

Volatile Times

In March 1975 Yamani witnessed the assassination of King Faisal, his mentor and friend, at the hands of the king's nephew. In December 1975 he was taken hostage by pro-Palestinian terrorists, along with several other OPEC ministers, during a conference at OPEC's Vienna headquarters. They were released unharmed after two days aboard an aircraft. Despite these incidents, Yamani remained unaffected by politics. "I'm a very pragmatic man," he said. "I know little about ideologies."

Yamani had eight children and three marriages. He spent his spare time composing poetry in Arabic. He was a devout Muslim. For his OPEC work, Faisal rewarded him with gifts of land, but Yamani insisted he never profited from oil. Yamani owned homes in Switzerland, England, and Saudi Arabia, dressed in expensive Western suits, was driven to meetings in Rolls Royce limousines, and made frequent trips to Europe to shop for jewelry and clothes while negotiating oil contracts. He was a salaried minister and chairman of several Saudi corporations, and his law firm did work for many Saudi government agencies.

After the major oil price adjustments of 1973, which shifted the patterns of worldwide economic development and planning, Yamani chaired OPEC's Long-Term Strategy Committee in its attempts to devise a unified policy to support oil prices and stabilize international markets. This proved to be a difficult task. In the 1980s world demand began to fall and production contracted. The petroleum market remained volatile, subject to the influence of a variety of political and economic factors. Between 1980 and 1984 the Saudi share of oil production among non-Communist nations dropped from 16.5 percent to 7.6 percent, and Yamani was criticized at home for not fighting for unrestrained production before other OPEC countries were able to increase their market share.

In 1985 Saudi oil production plummeted to two million barrels of oil a day, its lowest level in 20 years. Yamani responded with a policy of unrestrained OPEC oil production, which caused a rapid drop in oil prices and a budget crisis at home. On October 29, 1986, the Saudi government suddenly dismissed Yamani from all his positions with no explanation, replacing him with Hisham Nazer. Yamani heard the news on the radio.

Yamani moved his principal residence to the Swiss ski town of Crans-sur-Sierre and in 1988 made an aborted attempt to take over Vacheron Constantin, a prestigious maker of luxury watches. In 1989 he formed the Centre for Global Energy Studies in London, a forum for OPEC oil ministers, oil company leaders, and representatives of governments and consumers. In the 1990s, as director of that think tank, he spent most of his time in London and continued to be a respected commentator and consultant on global oil policies.

Further Reading

Yamani is the author of Islamic Law and Contemporary Issues (1980), published in both English and Arabic. For additional information on Yamani and his public service see Ragaei EI Mallakh, editor, OPEC: Twenty Years and Beyond (1982) and Ragaei and Dorothy H. El Mallakh, editors, Saudi Arabia, Energy, Development Planning, and Industry (1982). □