In the decades leading up to the 1973 oil crisis, the major international oil companies known as the Seven Sisters had to be more and more creative in order to maintain their control over the business while accommodating the increasingly powerful nationalist tendencies in the Middle East. No company faced a more difficult task than the smallest sister, British Petroleum (BP). BP was by far the most dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and it was the most identified with the colonial past, being majority-owned by the government of the country that had been the greatest power in the region during the first half of the twentieth century.
The story of how BP coped is told in rich detail by Bramberg in the third volume of BP's corporate history. BP provided him with remarkable access to its archives, from which he has gleaned interesting anecdotes and revealing detailed accounts of the key events. Much of the volume is devoted to such non-Middle East issues as BP's diversification into petrochemicals and its marketing program. But more than a 150 pages of text, supported by dozens of pages of footnotes, is about such issues as the Suez crisis, the Seven Sisters' early dealings with OPEC (founded in 1960), the avalanche of escalating demands on the oil companies in the early 1970s, and then the 1973 oil crisis. While the earlier second volume in the series2 dealt with events in Iran during the 1951-53 nationalization of that country's oil industry by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, Bramberg here explains how BP adjusted to the loss of Iranian oil during the crisis and then made the switch from an Iranian-oriented firm to a more truly international one.
Rather than tooting BP's horn, Bramberg if anything understates its remarkable achievement: it lost the asset which had meant all to the firm (the exclusive Iranian concession), but it went on to prosper. A telling example of why: in 1963-70, BP found more oil reserves than the two industry giants Exxon and Shell combined even though BP spent less than one-fourth as much as they did on exploration. BP was similarly adept at the politics of the new environment it faced: Bramberg's account shows that the company was not infrequently much more nimble and had a more sober analysis of its circumstances than did its major shareholder, the British government.