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An oilman not of oil

A new biography of Calouste Gulbenkian portrays him as a formidable behind-the-scenes fixer, rather than a fuel fanatic

Calouste Gulbenkian was the then richest man in the world when he passed away in 1955 at the age of 88. But, while the man long dubbed ‘Mr Five Per Cent’ may have made his fortune in his share in a range of Middle East oil ventures, a new book suggests that the source of his wealth and influence was hardly his passion. 

Oil made Gulbenkian fabulously wealthy and hugely influential. As Jonathan Conlin points out in ‘Mr Five Per Cent: The many lives of Calouste Gulbenkian’*, the Turkish-born British Armenian was a key figure in the creation of international oil companies. 

His 1928 Red Line Agreementsigned by oil firms operating within a red circle on a map, drawn around the former boundaries of the Ottoman empire“saw the companies we know as BP, ExxonMobil, Total and Royal-Dutch Shell join forces in the Middle East”, Conlin writes. “Instead of fighting each other for control of the region’s oil, they would collaborate in a joint venture: Turkish Petroleum Company. TPC was Calouste Gulbenkian’s baby, or rather his ‘house’.” TPC became the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1929. 

Gulbenkian was born into a wealthy and worldly Ottoman Armenian trading family in Istanbul (his life story, the author says, “is many things, but a rags-to-riches story it is not”). In London, in the 1880s, he studied geology and practical physics. While at that time such courses “were more interested in coal and steam than in petroleum and electricity”, they enabled him “to talk intelligently about petroleum”. 

As a young man Gulbenkian used family connections in Istanbul, Cairo and London to build up an impressive network of business, political and diplomatic contacts. He had a hand in the merger in 1907 of the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company and Shell (taking, of course, a 5pc stake for himself). He reckoned that he earned his money. “Gulbenkian,” the author writes, “used his generals, diplomats and other forces to secure control of Mexican, Persian, Romanian, Russian and Mesopotamian oil for Royal-Dutch Shell. Rather than intervening directly, he had these men coach the leaders and diplomats who sat around the negotiating table.” 

Travel averse

In later life, Gulbenkian’s name became a by-word for oil and oil wealth. But he had scant emotional attachment to the black stuff, nor any serious geological or scientific interest in it or the countries where it was produced. He only visited an oil field once in his lifeat Baku, aged 19. According to Conlin, “he never set foot in Iran, Iraq or any other Arab country. Nor did he visit the United States.” 

But the physical and mental energy he conserved by infrequent travel was poured into his zeal for deal-broking and making money. Both became obsessions. 

He was a broker and fixer extraordinaire. But he was also a man who shunned the limelight, preferring to dine alone at hotels and keep his colourful personal life (he was married but had a penchant for encounters with young women) away from the eyes of others. “His dress was formal but modest,” Conlin writes. “In middle age he sometimes evaded paparazzi simply by dint of not looking like a millionaire.” Those millions he accrued allowed him to enjoy a comfortable, if peripatetic, lifestyle. They also enabled him to be a philanthropist and assemble a stunning art collection. 

Gulbenkian’s name became a by-word for oil and oil wealth

Gulbenkian was not poor when he started out in life, but his fabulous wealth in later years did not just fall onto his plate. It was acquired through decades of hard work, told in detail in this dense 300-page account of his life. 

‘Mr Five Per Cent’ is not a light read, but it is a valuable and interesting account of a man who played a major part in creating the structure of the modern energy industryeven though he had no interest himself in rolling up his sleeves and getting involved in the messy side of things. He was happy to be “a back-room fixer, an intermediary between the worlds of business, diplomacy and high finance, a figure very different and more interesting than the Gulbenkian of legend”. 

*Published by Profile Books

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