Historian Jonathan Conlin has unfortunately written a very dull biography, at least to this reader, of Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955) who was perhaps the founding father of the Middle Eastern oil industry. Coming from an upper-middle class Armenian trading family in the Ottoman Empire and operating out London and Paris, Gulbenkian became one of the major conductors of the global oil industry orchestra.
His friendship with Henri Deterding of Royal Dutch enabled him to meet all of the major players in the industry and helped bring about the merger with Shell. He became known as an “honest broker” and with his knowledge of the region he created what was initially known as the Turkish Petroleum Company which later became Iraq Petroleum. Now get this his partners were Standard Oil of New Jersey/Socony Mobil(now Exxon), Anglo-Iranian Oil (now BP), Compagnie Francaise des Petroles (successor to Deutsche Bank after WWI and now Total) and Royal Dutch/Shell. The four corporate partners each owned 23.75% of Iraq Petroleum and Gulbenkian owned the remaining 5%.
Gulbenkian then authored the famous “Red Line Agreement” which along with its “self-denial clause” meant that all the parties to agreement would have to conduct their business through Iraq Petroleum. Inside the Red Line were the yet to be discovered oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Thus with the exception of Kuwait, which was outside of the Red Line, Gulbenkian had a claim on 5% of all of the oil discovered in the Middle East. It made him one of the richest people in the world.
Gulbenkian was also involved in oil deals in Venezuela, Mexico, Indonesia and Russia. It is a great story, but somehow it doesn’t leap off the pages.
Conlin discusses Gulbenkian’s giant art collection came into being, some of which was directly obtained from Joseph Stalin. His family was highly dysfunctional to say the least and the 1915 Turkish massacre of Armenians did not seem to affect him. He lived in London and Paris where he had large estates, but he slept in luxury hotels. Along the way he held multiple passports which kept him safe for a while in WWII Paris, before moving on to Lisbon.
As I said from the outset, there is a great story here, but the writing is too dry for my taste.
- Hardcover: 416 pages
- Publisher: Profile Trade; Main edition (4 February 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1788160428
- ISBN-13: 978-1788160421
- Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 3.9 x 24 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 798 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 24,582 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)