“Even as a latecomer": Gelsenberg AG, a West German Oil Firm in 1960s Libya

Nicholas Ostrum

My paper explores the West German company Gelsenberg AG and its quest for Libyan oil with a particular focus on the ways in which the firm navigated two major crises in German-Arab relations: the rupture in German-Arab relations that followed the Federal Republic’s opening of diplomatic relations with Israel and the pan-Arab oil embargo that accompanied the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.  By the mid-1960s, West Germany was importing over one-third of its crude from Libya and, in turn, served as Libya’s largest market.  As the only German concern with a profitable holding in the country - albeit in a consortium with Mobil Oil-, Gelsenberg was instrumental in facilitating this turn to Libyan crude.  For the same reason, the company likewise had the most to lose during the geopolitical crises of 1965 and 1967.  As my paper will show, Gelsenberg’s activities in Libya and above all its role in funnelling Libyan oil to its own downstream networks proved a critical vulnerability while, at the same time, affording the company direct access to the Libyan Petroleum Ministry and a degree of negotiating clout that proved pivotal in weathering these potentially volatile situations.

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