Obituary: C. M. Dalley

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IN THE 1960s the Iraq Petroleum Company, with its associated companies, controlled some 20 per cent of the world's then-proven oil reserves. As managing director of IPC, C.M. Dalley played a crucial role in running this vital business, and in sensitive political relations in the area, especially when in the late 1960s diplomatic links between the UK and the Iraqi government were severed.

Christopher Mervyn Dalley was educated at Epsom College and at Queens' College, Cambridge. Always known to his family and friends as Mervyn, he was dubbed "Chris" by American colleagues, and these two identities crystallised the separation he characteristically maintained between his private and business lives.

Six years' wartime service in the Royal Navy, as Lt Cdr (E), was spent at sea on board HMS Hawkins, HMS Kelvin and the aircraft carrier HMS Rajah. In 1946 he was recruited into the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later BP), a move which was perhaps not surprising: his father, also Christopher Dalley, had been chief engineer of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in the 1920s.

Dalley's first postings abroad were to Abadan, in Iran, and to the oilfields of Elk City, Oklahoma, which he later described as "100 miles from the nearest tablecloth". This practical experience of both refining and drilling gave him an unusual background among oil executives: many years later, one colleague reported that fellow board members listened especially hard to Dalley "because he had actually seen oil coming out of the ground". These proved to be the first of several desert places to which he transported his other, apparently conflicting, enthusiasms - for poetry (John Donne and the Metaphysicals, Tennyson and T.S. Eliot), the operas of Verdi and the works of P.G. Wodehouse.

He spent much of the 1950s engaged in Middle East oil production, drilling and pipeline operations, blow-outs and fires, as well as the construction of the oil terminal at Kharg Island in the Perian Gulf. When Mossadeq expelled all foreign oil companies from Iran in 1951, Dalley was one of the "66-pounders" - essential personnel who remained behind with that baggage limit in order to effect the handover of production.

After the return of the Iranian Oil Operating Companies in 1954, Dalley wholeheartedly supported the technical training and promotion of Iranian nationals to management positions in the company. In 1958, he moved from the southern oilfield at Masjid-i-Suleiman to become Assistant General Managing Director in Tehran, then a capital city of considerable sophistication, but haunted by the underlying political stresses of the Shah's regime. In 1960 he was awarded the Order of Homayoun for his services to the Iranian oil industry.

Three years later he was "loaned" by BP to Iraq Petroleum, initially as its managing director. The IPC, which included the Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Basrah Petroleum Companies, was a consortium of British, American, French and Dutch interests, and embraced oilfields from Kirkuk in the north of Iraq,through Basra and the Trucial States (now the UAE) to Oman in the south. Considerable political skills were needed not only to manage a multi-cultural team, but also for complex diplomacy within a spectrum of political regimes.

These years saw oil wealth transform the desert sheikhdoms and bring them to the modern age, and fuelled the emerging nationalism in Iraq and Syria. When the wider Middle East situation led to the breakdown of formal diplomatic relations between Iraq and the UK, only delicate negotiations could keep the oil flowing across Syria to the Lebanese coast. The award in 1971 of a CMG, more usually a diplomatic honour, recognised the part Dalley played in those pre-Opec days.

He had many friends as well as colleagues in the countries in which he worked, and later events brought the sadness of seeing many of them fall foul of changing regimes: on one photograph taken at a large dinner he gave in 1964 he later noted: "All liquidated".

Retiring as Chairman of IPC in 1973, he was sought out by the emerging oil industry in the North Sea - a new set of challenges - and became Chairman of Oil Exploration Holding Ltd, which he later merged with the London and Scottish Marine Oil Co (Lasmo). However, the project nearest to the heart of this practical engineer was the design and building of a specialised pipe- laying barge, the Viking Piper.

The various oil industry bodies on which he served included the Council of World Petroleum Congress and the Institute of Petroleum, whose president he became in 1970 (it was a position his father had held in 1941). As well as other charitable work, he sat on the Royal Medical Foundation (Epsom).

Mervyn Dalley was a man of immense charm who inspired affection and admiration in equal measure. As "Chris", his business style was courteous, fair and quiet, his deceptively cool manner veiling a quick and decisive intelligence. Much the same was true of the private man, and the wide scope of his interests endeared him to people of all sorts and all ages. In the last part of his life, removed from the business world and its pressures, he cultivated with the same well-directed energy his other enthusiasms, which ranged from Giovanni Bellini to golf, archaeology and breeding Soay sheep. He was a man of the world who was never tarnished by his contact with it, and who showed in his personal life unfailing care, wisdom and good humour.

Christopher Mervyn Dalley, oil-man: born Cardiff 26 December 1913; managing director, Iraq Petroleum Company 1963-70, chairman 1970-73; CMG 1971; chairman, Oil Exploration Holdings 1973-79; director, London and Scottish Marine Oil Co 1979-84; married 1947 Elizabeth Gammell (one son, three daughters); died Woodham Walter, Essex 28 July 1999.