He was born in Istanbul and educated at King's College, London, where he studied engineering. Immediately on leaving, he went into the oil business, and was one of the first to open up the Middle East to the trade. He was involved in founding the Shell Group, and his habit of retaining five per cent of the shares of the oil companies he developed earned him the nickname, "Mr. Five Per Cent".
Gulbenkian amassed a huge fortune and an art collection which he kept in a private museum at his Paris home. Following his death in Portugal, a museum and charitable foundation were established on the site of his former home in Lisbon. The Foundation is chiefly associated with educational and artistic projects.