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An Afternoon with Sheikh Yamani

March 04, 2021

On February 23, 2021 Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi oil minister for almost 35 years and the mastermind behind Opec which set the stage for the management of worldwide oil prices, died at the age of 90. The Times Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani Obituary is perhaps the most complete summary of this remarkable man's life. On March 25, 1975, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was murdered by his nephew while Yamani, standing next to him, caught him in his arms. Nine months later he looked down the barrel of a gun when he was one of eleven ministers of Opec taken hostage in Vienna by Carlos the Jackal. Carlos the Jackal was the reason I later spent an afternoon with Yamani in his villa in Sardinia surrounded by several former-SAS British bodyguards. Some background is needed to get to that point in time.  
As the leading strategist within Opec, Yamani was considered responsible for engineering a near-quadrupling of international oil prices during the 1973 Arab boycott of oil exports. The objective was to punish those countries favorably disposed to Israel during the Arab-Israeli war. The embargo drove western economies into a recession and thrust Yamani into a pole position of influence in the world economy while putting Saudi Arabia clearly on the map. He is shown below in his traditional Saudi dress though he was quite svelte in his western-cut suits.  
At this juncture, it is time to present Patrick Maugein, the gentleman shown below, who introduced me to Yamani. We listed SOCO on the London Stock Exchange in 1997 following the sale of our Australian-listed entity as we thought our remaining asset portfolio would better fit that equity market. What we did not anticipate was that the bottom would fall out of the oil price market due to Opec over-supply and a weakening Asian economy in 1999. A group of oil traders led by Patrick Maugein approached me through a French SOCO director (known to me in Russia) to purchase an equity stake in SOCO. They correctly believed that the oil market disruption would end in due course and they were not disturbed that we had positions in Russia, Yemen and Tunisia which were a long way from the cowboys of West Texas. Therefore, the timing would represent an excellent opportunity to have a stake in an oil company while we needed additional funding to survive. Therefore, we reached agreement, and Patrick became the SOCO Chairman of the Board and we all embarked on a great adventure.  
Sadly, Patrick has since passed but he became a good friend and was a most interesting and particularly charismatic person. He was a well-established crude trader having been a partner with Mark Rich. He was also an unofficial emissary of French President Jacque Chirac to quietly meet with heads of many controversial countries. Those meetings would have attracted unwanted international attention had they been held by official members of the French government. Patrick was also an amateur bullfighter and made his investment in SOCO through a company he named Toro Energy. On one occasion, my bullfighter friend found himself on the front page of the Herald Tribune. He was alleged to be in a questionable mining title issue litigation. The opposition was someone I also knew as we bought control of our Australian company from him. More importantly, the litigation involved the governments of Peru and France. The second allegation was that his oil trading company was bribing Saddam Hussein to obtain Iraqi crude allotments in the "Oil-for-Food" program. The third allegation referenced an assassin being retained by him to resolve an affair of the heart situation. He called me that morning and we went to the Brown's Hotel in London to smoke a cigar where he provided all the background to debunk the first two allegations but we did not discuss the third one. He offered to resign as our chairman of the board of the directors and I said we would all stand together.  
Sheikh Yamani, second from left, is shown below in an October 1973 OPEC Meeting in Geneva whereby the members made themselves eminently known to the western world. Their control of a significant portion of world-wide oil production enabled them to strongly influence the price of that important commodity allowing crude prices to go up some four-fold. He explained the pricing from the Saudi perspective that they paid double that amount for a barrel of drinking water.  
Certainly, the most vivid and unnerving event in Yamani's life was the invasion of an Opec meeting by a group of terrorists under the leadership of Ramirez Sanchez - better known as Carlos the Jackal. He and the Iranian minister were given thirty minutes to write their wills as they were to be executed. The Government of Austria intervened and allowed the terrorists to leave with their hostages and they flew around the Middle East until Carlos accepted a $20 million ransom in Algeria and Yamani was freed. Nonetheless, Yamani lived in fear for some 45 years that Carlos would ultimately kill him as it was the parting comment to him from Carlos, who is shown below.  
Early one Texas morning, Patrick called me from Monaco to say that we needed to meet in Geneva the next morning and from there proceed in a private plane to Sardinia for lunch with Yamani. My response was I would need to leave almost immediately and that it was a long way to go for lunch. He said it would be worthwhile and interesting so off I went. When we lifted off from Geneva, he told me the story of Yamani and Carlos. Once Yamani told Patrick that Carlos, who had been at large since the Opec kidnapping, was in the Sudan. Shortly thereafter, Carlos was captured by French Legionnaires and sentenced to life in prison in France. Patrick said he had repeatedly told Yamani he had nothing to do with it, but the more he professed that he had no involvement, the more Yamani believed that Patrick had Chirac set it all up. Patrick said he had no idea what Yamani wanted to talk about but not to be surprised if he brought up the Carlos capture.  
We were picked up at the airport by Yamani's former SAS bodyguards and driven to Yamani's private villa which offered a wonderful view of his luxurious yacht off the coast. We set out in a lovely garden with his wife and family and, for most of the afternoon, Yamani blended various health drinks in a blender which seemed to work as he lived to be 90 years of age. Eventually, Yamani related the entire Carlos kidnapping, death threats and the rumor that Carlos was being considered for prison parole. Therefore, the entire purpose of the luncheon was to ensure that Patrick advise President Chirac Yamani was a dead man if Carlos was ever paroled.  
It was a most interesting experience to have that much personal time with the man who transformed the international oil industry. On the return to the airport, one of the bodyguards asked where I lived and, when I said Texas, he indicated they would be there the following week as Yamani was speaking at the Houstonian Conference Center. It might have been a breach of security, but I took the liberty of sending Yamani an extensive fruit basket bouquet and thanked him for a memorable lunch. I received a nice acknowledgement afterwards which was a gracious gesture from a brilliant man. As Yamani was not a member of the Saudi royalty, the title of "Sheikh" was given to him in his honor for his contribution to the kingdom.  
I miss my colorful bullfighter friend who introduced us. Patrick suffered for an extensive time from a debilitating disease with little chance of its reversal. In my last conversation with Patrick, he said he was afraid, and I feebly tried to comfort him. Such a comment from a fearless man who had previously faced death in dodgy circumstances just reinforced my view that when it happens, let it come quickly.

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