H-Diplo Article Review 1010 on Conlin. “An Oily Entente: France, Britain, and the Mosul Question, 1916-1925.”

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H-Diplo Article Review 1010

16 December 2020

Jonathan Conlin.  “An Oily Entente: France, Britain, and the Mosul Question, 1916-1925.”  Diplomacy & Statecraft 31:2 (June 2020): 231-256.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/09592296.2020.1760033.


Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Andrew Patrick, Tennessee State University

When ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was nominated as Secretary of State for the Trump Administration in 2016, a number of journalists pointed out that he had already performed dazzling feats of diplomacy for a mammoth multinational corporation. Others saw his background as a cause for concern because Tillerson’s ExxonMobil operated with little regard for American interests.[1]  In 2011, for example, Tillerson circumvented both the U.S. and Iraqi governments to cut a secretive oil deal with the northern Iraqi Kurds.[2]  Almost a century earlier, the relationship between international oil companies and their countries of origin, as well as these same Mesopotamian oil deposits, were at the heart of a formative moment in the global oil industry, and this moment is the subject of Jonathan Conlin’s article, “An Oily Entente: France, Britain, and the Mosul Question, 1916-1925.”

Scholarship on the birth of the international oil industry is generally excellent, though not extensive.  Recent work by historians like Anand Toprani has built on the solid foundations laid by Fiona Venn and a host of earlier scholars to paint an empirically sound, albeit somewhat insular, portrait of the global oil industry’s early days.[3]  Into this field steps Jonathan Conlin, a scholar who turned his talents to oil after focusing primarily (and prolifically) on British cultural history.  His portal into oil scholarship was Calouste Gulbenkian, a British-Armenian businessman who helped to structure the international oil industry, making a massive fortune along the way.  Conlin gained access to Gulbenkian’s personal archives and has written a scholarly and highly readable book about him entitled Mr Five Per Cent.[4]  Based on this book and “Oily Entente,” Conlin has clearly mastered the literature on the early history of the international oil industry and is adding a new voice to the topic.

In this article, Conlin investigates the contest for the oil resources of the Ottoman lands after the First World War.  As a point of departure, he uses an odd historical about-face: In late 1918, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau verbally ceded rights to the Ottoman Vilayet of Mosul to Britain, just two years after France had gained these rights in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.  The British, who had conquered the region, then decided against giving France a 25% stake in Mosul’s potential oil resources, which British Prime Minister David Lloyd George may or may not have privately promised Clemenceau (Conlin thinks he did not).[5]  The French had little leverage to fight for a reversal of the British position, yet in 1924 France had regained this 25% share.  This raises several questions for Conlin: Why did Britain cede this lucrative stake to France when it did not have to?  Why did it eventually let American oil interests in as well?  And how did these countries come together in an entente, particularly when they were often in rancorous disagreement over many things in the post-war period?  Conlin argues that this shift has been inadequately addressed in the past, with scholars previously focusing on a “state-centred discourse of national energy security” where figures such as Winston Churchill, who orchestrated the British government’s partial purchase of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1914, and French politician Henri Bérenger are anointed as the visionaries of state oil policy and the modern oil order.  Historians, he argues, “cleave to a historiographical model whereby governments determine oil policy” (233).

For Conlin, this is only part of the story.  Drawing on the work of Gregory Nowell, he weaves a different narrative, one where the emerging oil giants were at least as influential as governments in forming the global oil order.[6]  Conlin borrows Nowell’s contention that these oil companies cared little about the concerns of the states in which they were ostensibly based and more about using whatever tools were available to maximize their profits.  He then applies these observations to the debates surrounding Mosul.  The British, for their part, had conquered Mosul, were set to assume its mandate, and considered keeping its oil for themselves.  To accomplish this, they began pushing the other powers to respect their never-ratified pre-war concession for the region which was controlled by a venture called the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC).  The French sought a share of Mosul oil, though there was no French oil company to conduct any of the exploration or drilling.  To complicate matters further, the resurgent Turks started pushing for the inclusion of Mosul in their new country, and a group of American oil companies, fronted by Standard Oil (ExxonMobil’s predecessor) and backed by the U.S. government, wanted an ‘open door’ for oil exploration throughout the Ottoman lands.  The stage was set for acrimony, yet acrimony was not necessarily the defining feature of the years that Conlin charts.

What follows is a complex story filled with colorful personalities, lengthy lobbying, occasional double-crossing, and several harebrained schemes.  Throughout the article, Conlin argues against the idea that governments teamed up with oil companies to maximize their respective country’s ‘energy security’ in this era.  “Co-ordinated oil policy was impossible” between governments and oil companies, Conlin contends, because of “mutual suspicions and recriminations” between them (244).  Instead, he argues, it was mainly “private interests, in the shape of banking as well as oil groups” that were able to “pull the strings on both sides of the Channel” (241).  Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) was the most adept at this game in Conlin’s telling, successfully nudging both the British and French governments in their preferred direction in most cases.  In doing this, they matched Standard Oil’s ability to exert government influence and extended their dominance over their chief rival, the APOC.  Yet despite the San Remo Agreement of 1920, which brought French interests into the TPC but kept Standard Oil out, no deal had been finalized by 1922 and an impasse remained.  The oil companies were clearer on what was going to happen at this point: In order to avoid costly competitive battles, the American companies led by Standard Oil needed to be allowed into the TPC and the potentially disruptive arguments between these governments needed to stop.

Into the fray stepped influential British Foreign Office hand William Tyrrell, who believed that Britain needed to urgently shore up its relationship with France and the United States in the wake of the alarming German-Russian Treaty of Rapallo in 1922.  Tyrrell, along with Gulbenkian, French diplomat Philippe Berthelot, other RDS executives (many of whom were former government officials), and certain members of the press, deftly pushed Britain closer to France.  This included finalizing the TPC oil deal with a French syndicate and bringing in the Standard Oil group shortly thereafter.  The eventual Red Line Agreement of 1928, which expanded the cooperation of these companies to almost the entirety of the Ottoman lands, gave these governments their desired path to increased energy security.  Just as importantly for Conlin, it created an international oil cartel and had the effect of “neutralising the potential of the region’s oil to unsettle this cartel’s dominance,” hence ensuring cooperative profits rather than a damaging contest to dominate the resources of the region (249).  Conlin argues that the diplomats involved were “midwives of an emerging world oil cartel as much as architects of an oil diplomacy built on national energy security,” yet the oilmen (mainly from RDS) could similarly be seen as ‘midwives’ of the post-war entente, hence making it “oily” (249).  These oil executives were “happy to maintain a low profile” in the negotiations and gave diplomats and politicians credit for these accomplishments, perhaps duping many self-aggrandizing politicians of the era and future historians alike (249).

Conlin’s argument is concerned mostly with the interplay between British and French oilmen and diplomats.  It is also convincing and well-sourced for the questions he asks, drawing extensively on corporate and government archives in Britain, France, and the United States.  The narrowness of the argument is perhaps where it can be critiqued.  There may be a missed opportunity to engage with more literature about the relationship between states and multinational corporations, and the article does not contend with the implications of such diplomacy on the people of the region.  Having to split the oil of Iraq between so many interests, the British then refused the new government of Iraq’s seemingly modest demand to receive a 20% share of its own oil, settling on a lower figure.  Emir Faisal’s government, which had been nearly bankrupt in 1924, remained unstable, underfunded, and subservient to corporate and state powers beyond its borders.  This, in turn, led Iraq to stumble into its decidedly violent and illiberal future.[7]  Turkey has also been disadvantaged by the lack of oil and gas within its borders, and this was the direct result of its failure to retain Mosul or a stake in its oil.  One other minor issue to note is that Calouste Gulbenkian, who is central to this story, probably deserved a sentence or two of introduction to the readers of a generalist journal like Diplomacy & Statecraft.

These critiques do not detract from the many important contributions of this article to oil scholarship.  Conlin argues persuasively and methodically, and his prose is livelier than that in many diplomatic history journals.  He rightly contends that diplomatic historians who are concerned with oil must broaden their analysis to allow multinational corporations and corporate archives a more prominent place in their research, arguing that “traditional diplomatic study can only afford a partial explanation of oil diplomacy” (249).  Oil scholarship needs more work that is devoted to this period, and less to other topics and eras which have been well explored, with the seemingly endless parade of books about Saudi Arabia and its oil being one example of this.  Hopefully, Conlin’s work will help to reinvigorate scholarship on this era.

When discussing Rex Tillerson’s nomination, a New York Times reporter stated that, “he has arguably left an American footprint on more countries than any nominee before him,” but a claim like this ignores the fact that ExxonMobil ceased to be an American company in any meaningful sense a long time ago.[8]  What Conlin sees in these early maneuverings, and what Tillerson represented as CEO of ExxonMobil nearly a century later, is that multinational corporations often claim to be ‘of’ a country when it serves their interests but jettison that identity when it interferes with potential profits. These same companies might pursue ‘open door’ policies in states, which Standard Oil did in the case of Iraq in the 1920s, then abandon that principle once they are allowed in on the deal (which Standard Oil also did).  These companies employed “both regulation and deregulation in pursuing market share” and had no preference for state control or laissez faire as long as they received a significant part of the spoils and could minimize disruptive competition (233). In the 1920s, Conlin shows us that oil executives who had been fierce competitors became pragmatic oligopolists who supported and sculpted government goals when the situation called for it.  Tillerson chose to disregard the aims of the American and Iraqi governments in 2011 and suffered no serious consequences for it.  On second thought, perhaps his short tenure as Secretary of State was punishment enough.


Andrew Patrick is an Associate Professor of History at Tennessee State University, a proud HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee.  His research focuses on American involvement in the Middle East, particularly during the World War I era.  Patrick’s publications include America’s Forgotten Middle East Initiative: The King-Crane Commission of 1919 (London: IB Tauris, 2015) and “Woodrow Wilson, the Ottomans, and World War I,” Diplomatic History (v. 42 no. 5, 2018).  His articles have also appeared in Middle Eastern Studies, First World War Studies, and the Jerusalem Quarterly.  Patrick’s current research involves the 19th and early 20th century entry of American oil companies into the region, as well as the American role in the post-war negotiations at Lausanne.  He received his Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Manchester in 2011.


[1] See, for example, Adam Taylor, “If ExxonMobil were a country, its economy would be bigger than Ireland’s,” The Washington Post, 13 December 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/12/12/if-exxonmobil-were-a-country-it-would-be-the-worlds-41st-largest-economy/; Greg Myre, “How Will Rex Tillerson Explain Exxon Mobil's 'Foreign Policy'?”, National Public Radio, 15 December 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/12/15/505571306/how-will-rex-tillerson-explain-exxon-mobils-foreign-policy; Ben Hubbard, Dionne Searcey, and Nicholas Casey, “Under Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobil Forged Its Own Path Abroad,” 13 December 2016, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/world/americas/tillersons-company-exxon-mobil-follows-its-own-foreign-policy.html.

[2] Missy Ryan and Steve Mufson, “How Exxon, under Rex Tillerson, won Iraqi oil fields and nearly lost Iraq,” 9 January 2017, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/how-exxon-under-rex-tillerson-won-iraqi-oil-fields-and-nearly-lost-iraq/2017/01/09/5f6efa28-d40c-11e6-9cb0-54ab630851e8_story.html.

[3] Anand Toprani, Oil and the Great Powers Britain and Germany, 1914 to 1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Fiona Venn, Oil Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1986).

[4] Jonathan Conlin, Mr Five Per Cent: The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the World’s Richest Man (London: Profile Books, 2019).

[5] See 231, n. 4, which is largely based on Edward Peter Fitzgerald, “France’s Middle Eastern Ambitions, the Sykes-Picot Negotiations, and the Oil Fields of Mosul, 1915-1918,” The Journal of Modern History 66:4 (December 1994):697-725.  For an opposing view, see Paul C. Helmreich, From Paris to Sevres: The Partition of the Ottoman Empire at the Peace Conference of 1919–1920 (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 1974), 205-207.

[6] Gregory P. Nowell, Mercantile States and the World Oil Cartel, 1900-1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).

[7] Ali A. Allawi, Faisal I of Iraq (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 454-456; Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 57-59.

[8] Hubbard, Searcey, and Casey, “Under Rex Tillerson.”