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The Land That Oil Forgot: Palestine, 1913–1948

Israeli premier Golda Meir once said, “Moses took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil”. We look at the history of oil exploration in this region.
This article appeared in Vol. 17, No. 1 - 2020

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The Land That Oil Forgot: Palestine, 1913–1948

While the modern state of Israel has some reserves, and looks to the offshore for its gas supplies, it relies on foreign imports to meet its full demand for oil, a task complicated by its geopolitical situation. That might have been made easier if the hunches of the past had proved correct, since, before the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, the territory then known as Palestine seemed full of petroleum promise.

  • The Israeli desert at sunset. © Aliaksandr Mazurkevich/Dreamstime.com

Welcome to Kurnub 

Palestine under the British Mandate, 1922–1948. © Michael Quentin Morten. When my father, Mike Morton, first headed out for the Middle East in November 1945, he embarked from Liverpool on an empty troop ship, bound for Haifa in Palestine. Having gained a degree in geology from Leeds University, Mike was destined to join the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) at the start of a career that would span the next 25 years and take him across the region in search of oil; and it was in Palestine that he first experienced the trials and tribulations of life as a field geologist.

At that time, the territory of Palestine was controlled by the British under a mandate that had been approved by the League of Nations in July 1922. IPC operations were centred on Kurnub, to the south-east of Beersheba. Shortly after arriving, Mike was taken on a tour of the area by IPC chief geologist, Norval Baker, who had been seconded from Standard Oil of New Jersey, and F. E. Wellings, his deputy. Both men were experts in the regional geology and highly respected for their work in the field. 

Having collected Mike from his lodgings, they headed for Kurnub and took in the geology along the way. At one point they stopped for a group picture, which included another geologist, Sami Nasr. The photograph shows Mike wearing a new hat, which he struggled to keep on his head in a stiff breeze. Later, when they stopped for lunch and examined an exposed cliff above a small lake, a gust of wind snatched Mike’s hat away and deposited it with a ‘plonk in the middle of the pond’, where it capsized and sank. With the aid of a shovel, Wellings and Baker retrieved and presented the hat to Mike – a miserable, dripping object returned to a rookie geologist with a sagging sense of self-esteem. 

  • Kurnub camp, December 1945. Left to right: Sami Nasr, F. E. Wellings, Norval Baker and Mike Morton, hanging onto his hat.

Perhaps that was an omen. As they approached the company’s tented camp in the Negev Desert, they might have reflected on the history of the place. For Kurnub, the site of the ancient Nabataean city of Mampsis, holds a singular place in the annals of oil exploration.

Socony Steals a March

Back in 1913 much of the Middle East, including Palestine, was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. As the region’s oil potential began to emerge, it became a theatre for competing petroleum interests. On one side were the Europeans, who had combined as the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC thedf forerunner of IPC. On the other side were the Americans, including the Standard Oil of New York (Socony), a predecessor of Mobil. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company – today’s British Petroleum – had just started pumping oil from its Persian oilfield, while Socony had an extensive distribution network in the Ottoman Empire, but lacked sources of crude oil.

  • A Socony-Vacuum petrol station in Tiberias, 1946. Source: Zoltan Kluger/Israel Government Press Office.

TPC representatives were in Constantinople, locked in negotiations with the Ottoman government for an oil concession for Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). As those talks swayed between hope and despair, Socony was quietly working on the sidelines to obtain its own oil concessions. Having established an office in Constantinople, the company obtained exploration options from a group of Jewish businessmen in Palestine. By November 1913 its geologists and mining engineers had explored part of Anatolia, and were carrying out survey work in Palestine, which was considered the best prospect – from earliest times there had been reports of gas and oil seepages, and lumps of bitumen along the shores of the Dead Sea, known as Lacus Asphaltitis to the Romans.

Spearheading these efforts was William Yale, who was appointed to Socony’s office in Constantinople. He set about drafting a new mining law for the Ottoman territories, which was necessary if his company Arabic speaker, and built a local network of contacts which would later prove useful in his work for the US government.

One day, while exploring the Judean Hills, his attention was drawn to the Kurnub massif some 50 km to the south; through his binoculars, he could see at its base strange, shining pools that looked like oil seepages. His appetite thus whetted, Yale returned to his office and wired Socony executives with the news. They agreed that he should return to Kurnub and take a closer look.

Enter Lawrence of Arabia

In January 1914, while travelling to Kurnub, Yale had a curious encounter in the desert. His small party had pitched its tents on a patch of meagre scrubland between low-lying hills to the east of Beersheba. After a night of storms, Captain Stewart Newcombe of the British Army – nicknamed ‘Skinface’ because of his sun-burnt features – and two civilians rode into their camp on horseback. The youngest of the group was T. E. Lawrence, who would later find fame as Lawrence of Arabia. What followed was a game of bluff, with the Americans pretending to be innocent tourists, the British inquisitive passers-by, and neither admitting their true designs, although Yale later noted that Lawrence’s chatter was ‘sprinkled with a stream of questions [that] pumped us dry’.

  • T. E. Lawrence (middle) walks behind Winston Churchill in a Jerusalem garden, 1921. Source: Matson Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

As it happened, Yale was disappointed by Kurnub: the shiny pools he had seen from a distance turned out to be water with iron deposits glistening in the sun. Nevertheless, he concluded from rock samples and borings that oil might be discovered there, though not in commercial quantities. In the minds of Socony executives, driven by a desire to gain a foothold in the region, that was good enough reason to proceed.

They purchased a 25-year concession and extended their interests in Palestine. The company went on to invest considerable resources in the Kurnub project, spending some $250,000 (about $6 million today) in buying and shipping equipment, building a 30-km road and setting up a camp in the desert as a prelude to drilling for oil. Meanwhile, the British authorities looked on with mounting alarm. Lawrence had confirmed Socony’s interest in Kurnub, causing his superiors to redouble their efforts to block the American effort. When World War I intervened, the Ottoman authorities requisitioned Socony’s shipment of trucks and the British diverted the company’s pipes and drilling equipment to Egypt, where they were promptly impounded.

The chaotic Kurnub project would probably have failed anyway but, in the longer run, Socony could at least claim to have established a presence in the Middle East. On paper, its credentials were compelling – when the war broke out, the company had obtained concessions for seven plots in Palestine and another 60 were in various stages of negotiation. However, by the end of the conflict, the Ottomans had departed, the area was under British military occupation and the company was back to square one.

An Open-and-Shut Case

Great Britain now controlled the most promising petroleum lands and American attempts to access the Middle East soon met the brick wall of imperial officialdom. In August 1918, the British military forced the Socony agent in Jerusalem to show them the company’s maps of their concessions in Palestine. This prompted Socony to make an official complaint to Washington, which in turn triggered a protest to London.

For the Americans, the last straw was the Treaty of San Remo in April 1920. This represented a carve-up of oil interests in the Middle East between the British and French, resulting in the French joining TPC and effectively excluding the Americans from Iraq. At the urging of US Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, seven US oil companies mounted a challenge to the Europeans, and Socony’s earlier strategy now began to bear fruit. In April 1922, the British dropped their objections to a Socony survey in Palestine as a first move towards accepting a wider American participation in the Middle East.

This was the start of the ‘Open Door’ policy that eventually admitted American oil interests to the Middle East. In July 1928, five US oil firms, including Socony, joined TPC, renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company the following year.

The End of an Era

Socony thus dropped its claims in Palestine and threw in its lot with IPC, which went on to obtain exploration licences through its subsidiary, Petroleum Development (Palestine) Ltd. By the time my father arrived at Kurnub, operations had just restarted after the end of World War II. Once geophysical surveys had been carried out, a drilling site was selected at Huleiqat Ridge, in the coastal area 13 km north-east of Gaza. However, amid rising concerns about security, work was abandoned in February 1948 at a depth of about 1,000m without any significant flows of crude oil being found. The company surveyed the Kurnub area and completed preliminary work for spudding a well there; but it was not to be. 

  • The IPC pipeline at Afulah on fire, April 1938. Source: Matson Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

For many years, growing tensions between Arabs and Jews had threatened the company’s activities in Palestine. The oil pipeline running between Kirkuk and Haifa was a frequent target, and the oil tanks at the Haifa terminal were sabotaged. A second pipeline was being built and when it reached the River Jordan the engineers saw British customs officials hurriedly evacuating their post on the opposite bank. That was in the spring of 1948, when the British mandate ended, the state of Israel was declared – and the Arab armies invaded.

As a result, IPC operations were shelved. After the Iraqi government banned the company from pumping oil to Haifa, it abandoned construction of the new pipeline and never resumed pumping oil through the old one. IPC’s presence was at an end, though by then my father had long since moved on from Kurnub and was to be found riding a camel in the Dhofar, a province in the far-off land of Oman, in search of the elusive black gold.

Postscript

Rumours of vast oil reserves beneath the Negev Desert persisted and other oil companies entered the arena. The next well, Mazal-1, which was drilled in the Southern Dead Sea area in 1953, was a dry hole. The following year, oil was discovered at Heletz by deepening the well that IPC had abandoned at Huleiqat Ridge, with a producing zone consisting of sandstones and dolomites within the Cretaceous Kurnub group. 

  • An oil derrick at the southern end of the Dead Sea, 1953. Source: Matson Collection, LOC.

Despite extensive exploration drilling, Israel has remained a modest producer with proved oil reserves (2016) of only 14 MMbo. Nevertheless, the recent discovery of vast gas deposits in the Mediterranean has brought the so-called ‘gas revolution’ and made Israel an exporter of hydrocarbons for the first time in its history.

Quentin Morton’s latest book, Empires and Anarchies: The History of Oil in the Middle East, is available from Reaktion Books (UK), The University of Chicago Press (USA) and all good booksellers.

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