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David Orser's oil job in Libya wasn't easy
Davis Orser, who worked in Libya for 10 years in the oil business, talks about the current state of affairs in the country which is in the grip of civil war.

David Orser met Moammar Gadhafi just once, not long after the Libyan became leader of his oil-rich country.

Orser was one of several Western oil company employees called in for a visit with the then-27-year-old leader in 1970.

Gadhafi, dressed in an army uniform, lectured the oil men that they would have to do as the Libyan government said from now on or he would cut off their oil.

Orser not only listened to Gadhafi's words, he noted that the colonel had marched into the room with an escort armed with a machine gun.

"We did pay attention," Orser said during an interview in his Billings home on Monday.

Now retired, Orser returned to his hometown in 1987 after a long career in the oil business.

Working for a couple of decades in Libya for oil companies, Orser had a front row seat on how the mercurial leader played politics.

Orser grew up in Pryor "a poor ranch kid," graduating from Billings Senior High in 1952. He later would receive a bachelor's degree in commerce from Montana State College, now Montana State University in Bozeman, and a master's degree from the University of Southern California.

Orser began working for the Mobil Oil Co. in Billings until the company closed its Billings office. He went to work for Occidental Oil Co., moving to Tripoli in 1960.

Life for his family in North Africa was idyllic. His children attended a private American school, and the family enjoyed nearby beaches and Roman and Greek ruins.

But working for an American oil company in Libya wasn't easy.

One day in 1969 on his way to work, Orser was stopped by soldiers at a roadblock. When he rolled down his window, a soldier stuck a pistol through the opening at him and said harshly, "Go home!"

That was the first that Orser knew of a military coup d'état that overthrew the Libyan king, leading to Gadhafi's rise to power.

"There wasn't very much democracy under the king, but people soon found out under the colonel (Gadhafi) maybe they had a good deal under the king and didn't know it," Orser said.

Orser would move to London in 1972, but frequently flew back to Libya on business for Occidental. He became president of Occidental International Oil in 1975.

He would go on to work for other American, Japanese, Canadian and South Korean oil companies.

Not long after Gadhafi took power, he cut Occidental's oil production, forcing the company to agree to a price increase that it paid to Libya, the first of many price increases.

In 1973, Libyans demanded — and got — 51 percent ownership of Occidental's operation in the country. In return, the Libyans paid for half of the company's assets, and Occidental received the right to explore on 12 million more acres.

During one dispute over money and production levels, Gadhafi took 1,000 Occidental employees hostage, not allowing them to leave the country.

"He had us by the neck," Orser said.

Orser would make 15 to 20 trips to Libya to negotiate a settlement for their release.

Asked about speculation that Gadhafi is crazy, Orser said that the Libyan always has displayed a cunning, dual personality.

Gadhafi initially did some good things for his people, including building roads, hospitals and schools and educating girls.

But later the Libyan people suffered as Gadhafi brutally repressed opposition inside and outside of the country.

That made the generation of Libyans whom Orser knew docile and unwilling to fight back.

The current uprising is as much of a surprise to Orser as anyone.

"You have got to give those youngsters credit," he said.

Inspired by Egypt, young Libyans have had the courage, determination and instant communication to stand up to Gadhafi.

Orser doesn't know how the civil war now raging in Libya will turn out.

"It's anybody's guess," he said.

The rebels have a chance to drive Gadhafi out, but Gadhafi has more firepower.

How successful Gadhafi is may depend on how able his two ruthless sons turn out to be as leaders.

The Libyans whom Orser has known are decent people who love Americans, he said.

But they've been trapped in a repressive system that has warped their lives.

"Politics poisons everything," Orser said.

 

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