Tribute to a moderate Saudi
“The Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and the oil age will not end because we run out of oil”. This is an example of Sheikh Yamani’s clairvoyancy, who died a few days ago and who was the oil minister of Saudi Arabia from 1962 to 1986. Throughout this entire record period during which he loyally served his country, Yamani – one of the world’s most powerful people at the time – proved himself to be rational and moderate at all times, despite his considerable influence at OPEC (Organization of the Petrol Exporting Countries) at the height of its power.
One of his priorities was to continue honouring the pact that had been agreed in 1945 between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, founder of the Saudi dynasty, that guided the Kingdom’s efforts towards becoming the privileged oil supplier of America – at realistic rates – in exchange for their protection. With the goodwill and support of the US, this agreement thus certified Saudi Arabia as the leading global exporter, but also as a strategic “swing producer” par excellence whose mission was to vary its production so that prices never reached levels high enough to cause new wells to be dug anywhere in the world. These responsibilities that Yamani assumed with gusto made him the subject of the ire and enemy number one of the Arabian nationalists and Palestinian organisations that in 1975, and with the help of Carlos the Jackal, kidnapped him at an OPEC meeting in Vienna. He was also the secondary target – but came through unscathed – of the assassination of King Fayçal (also in 1975), when he was right next to him when he was killed by one of his nephews. He was very close to Fayçal, and it was Yamani who suggested to him, upon his accession to the position of minister and close advisor, to abolish slavery in the Kingdom. It’s also his negotiating skills and his innovative spirit that allowed the Kingdom to unilaterally take control of Aramco in 1973, the world’s biggest oil company, before nationalising it completely in 1980.
With King Fahd, Fayçal’s successor, the incompatibilities were difficult to hide until Yamani’s dismissal in 1986. He had created conflict with his king after ignoring repeated instructions to increase oil prices. But there was a more fundamental disagreement. Yamani was ideologically opposed to the oil deals with Boeing 747 that were so desired by Fahd. The sheikh believed that bartering over sums of more than a billion of dollars in that time’s money would weaken the structure of oil prices worldwide since Saudi Arabia would have to significantly increase its production to honour the contract, which would therefore force other producers to do the same. Yamani – a gracious man – then learned of his removal in an ungraceful way, via the news, after a marathon of OPEC negotiations in Vienna that went on for 16 hours.
Intellectual, subtle, charismatic, charming even, I had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions with this accomplished French-speaker in 1975 and again in 1976 when I was living in Saudi Arabia due to the duties of my father who was then the Press Counselor for the French Embassy. He was – and still is – one of the rare Saudis to respect the press, that in return spoke well of him. As an example, the Financial Times correspondent at the time, Richard Johns, refused to begin OPEC press conferences without him, and who said after his dismissal that “OPEC with Yamani had become like Hamlet without the Prince”.