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23 Feb 2021

Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani: an OPEC and oil industry pioneer

It is with great sadness that OPEC has learnt of the passing of one of the Organization’s and the petroleum industry’s most respected and legendary leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, at the age of 90. The OPEC Secretariat extends its deepest and heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Sheikh Yamani and to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

His Excellency, Mohammad Sanusi Barkindo, OPEC Secretary General, said: “Ahmed Zaki Yamani was an outstanding icon of the world of oil and the leading light in OPEC during his eventful years as the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I recall vividly and with fondness his patience and graciousness at our meetings. He was an active listener who when he spoke, every one paid attention with what I call pin drop silence. He was charismatic and eloquent, and humble and deeply religious. May his gentle soul rest in Jannat Al-Firdaus.”

Yamani was a true OPEC legend, a man who bestrode the meeting rooms and corridors of OPEC, and the global oil industry, during his almost quarter of a century as minister of oil of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia between 9 March 1962 and 5 October 1986. His tenure represents the longest period of service for an OPEC minister, with Yamani part of many of the pivotal moments that shaped the Organization’s history. “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,” noted Daniel Yergin in his seminal book on the oil industry, The Prize.

Yamani was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 1930. He earned a bachelor's degree in law at Cairo University in 1951, a master's degree in law at New York University in 1955 and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1956. Only six years after graduating from Harvard, he took up the reins of his country’s petroleum ministry.

In April 1962, Yamani flew to OPEC’s new headquarters in Geneva to attend the Fourth Meeting of the OPEC Conference, his first as new minister, and it proved to be an early test of his resilience and foresight. Yamani was elected as President of the Conference for the meeting, the first of seven occasions, with the meeting taking place over two sessions – 5–8 April and 4–8 June – and adopting a series of resolutions that formalized OPEC’s demands to International Oil Companies (IOCs) regarding their sovereign national interests.

In subsequent years, Yamani was directly involved in evolving this process and in a number of landmark OPEC statements and decisions, such as the ‘Declaratory Statement of Petroleum Policy in Member Countries’ in 1968, followed by a number of developments in the early 1970s that culminated in the Geneva I and Geneva II agreements. At the time, Yamani’s said that these developments had been “a fundamental turning point in the international oil industry, bringing OPEC prominently to the fore.”

Barkindo also recalled the role of Yamani in bringing people together. “During the holy months of Ramadan, he routinely hosted informal ministerial consultations in Taif in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to brainstorm current market developments to help build consensus for official OPEC conferences.” This collaboration was also evident when Yamani chaired ministerial and technical committees that shaped the strategic direction of the Organization through the development of a Long Term Strategy.

Yamani’s final OPEC Ministerial Conference as minister was the 78th Meeting that ended up in Geneva in July and August 1986. Just like his first back in 1962, it proved to be an extended one. On this occasion, it lasted 21 days, the longest Ministerial Conference in the history of OPEC. Over the course of 24 years and 75 OPEC Ministerial Conferences, Yamani was a hugely influential figure in OPEC’s history. His strong leadership, dedicated service and broad vision for OPEC has bequeathed a rich legacy for the Organization. The OPEC Secretariat reflects on his contribution to the Organization’s history with great admiration and pride.