James Akins, 1926–2010

The ambassador who warned of the ’73 oil crisis

As the State Department’s top energy expert, James Akins sent home a warning after attending a 1972 meeting of Arab oil producers. The oil-exporting nations, he said, were aware that they could send the price of petroleum soaring if they refused to sell it to the U.S., realizing that “oil in the ground was as good as oil in the bank.” A year later, with Akins finishing up his first month as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the first Arab oil embargo ushered in rationing and a deep U.S. recession.

Akins had a lifelong fascination with the Arab world, said The New York Times. Born in Akron, he got his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Akron in 1947, after taking two years off to serve in the Navy. He joined the Foreign Service in 1954 and served in Italy, France, and a string of Arab nations, before being appointed to the energy desk at State. He ruffled feathers in Washington with frequent warnings that U.S. support of Israel was alienating the Arab world. But Akins maintained that he was advancing U.S. interests, which weren’t always aligned with Israel’s. And he claimed credit for moving Saudi King Faisal “from eschewing the very idea of a Jewish state to accepting the legitimacy of Israel.”

Akins left government after a clash with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, said ArabNews.com. Press reports indicated that Kissinger was incensed when Akins openly speculated that the U.S. was considering a takeover of Middle East oil fields. He forged a second career as an energy consultant to corporations. He and his wife, Marjorie, donated the collection of Arab artifacts they had amassed to the University of Akron, allowing “students to explore the mysteries of the ancient Near East without leaving the campus.”

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