The Visionary Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian
In 1895 at the time of the first anti-Armenian pogroms, Calouste Gulbenkian left his homeland to seek refuge in Egypt. Luckily for him his wife’s family were able to charter a ship to take the whole extended family into exile. As the son-in-law of the main client he was able to be very helpful to a fellow passenger, Alexandre Mantachoff, one of the most prominent personalities in the Russian oil fields. In Egypt Calouste Gulbenkian met Nubar Pasha, Prime Minister of Egypt and his wife’s cousin. This double association (Mantachoff-Nubar) allowed him access to influential British and Russian businessmen in the oil world. The young Calouste quickly learned the complexities of this circle and showed a prodigious feeling for business and diplomacy.
At this time the strategic and economic significance of the Middle East was completely unknown. However Gulbenkian foresaw the importance of the region’s oil reserves; he had the vision and persuasive skills to influence both international investors and the Ottoman government, arguing for rational organisation to exploit this new resource. In addition, he played a crucial role in the founding of the Royal Dutch Shell Group and was influential in the Russian and North and South American oil industries.
Alongside his pivotal role in shaping the early oil industry, Gulbenkian was a true internationalist and played an important political role, helping the Ottomans, British, Persians, French and Armenians. He started by working on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, when he was appointed the Financial and Economic Advisor to the Ottoman embassies in Paris and London in 1898. In 1902 he acquired British citizenship, which enabled him to bring together the interests of his homeland and his adopted country, leveraging the enormous influence that Britain had in the Ottoman Empire. He was to live 23 years in London and then 20 in France–but continued to return to his office in London using an Armenian passport specially issued to him by the consular office in Paris–before finally spending the last 13 years of his life in Lisbon.
Following World War I, Gulbenkian was appointed as the Persian Trade and Diplomatic Representative in Paris, a post he held for 24 years. France is still indebted to him for his tireless efforts to protect the country’s oil interests. However the biggest beneficiaries of his diplomatic efforts were the Armenians. Almost eliminated by the Young Turks under the cover of the First World War, the Armenians hoped for a protected country of their own but lost out to broader British and French interests. Calouste Gulbenkian played a vital role in the defense of his fellow citizens in the negotiations that ultimately led to the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) and later on to the Treaty of Lausanne (1923).