RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA -- The refrain sounded familiar: "The Japanese market is like a country club. You can't get membership."
But the source wasn't a U.S. official or an American business executive complaining about the difficulty of penetrating Japan's closed markets.
It was an official of the Saudi Arabian Petroleum Ministry, describing the tough negotiations between his country and Japan over Saudi Arabia's desire to break into the oil-refining and gasoline-retailing businesses in Japan.
The negotiations are a critical part of Saudi Arabia's master plan to change its business relationship with the rest of the world.
The Saudis are no longer content to simply supply crude oil to consuming countries. They want to participate in the petroleum chain from beginning to end, from wellhead to retail gasoline pump, capturing their share of the profit at each stage and exerting enough control within consumer markets to ensure long-term outlets for this country's one major natural resource.
"International vertical integration is part of our vision," Petroleum Minister Hisham Nazer said in an interview.
Nazer, who in the four years since he succeeded the flamboyant Ahmed Zaki Yamani as Saudi Arabia's oil boss has restructured the industry to emphasize bottom-line results, delivered his message to oil-consuming countries in a speech in the Netherlands in May: "No producer wants to sell just crude oil. The secret of industrialism lies in value added... . The consumers must respect the development needs of oil producers and allow them to enter the world of value-added industrialization."
The model for Saudi Arabia's new oil strategy is its joint venture with Texaco Inc. in the United States.
Texaco and Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company here, are equal partners in a firm known as Star Enterprise, which refines oil and sells gasoline under the Texaco brand in 26 states.
Saudi Aramco guarantees to supply Star with 600,000 barrels of oil a day. Star guarantees Saudi Arabia a long-term market for at least that much oil. And Saudi Aramco collects half the profits from Star's three refineries.
But the Saudis see fast-developing Asia, not North America or Europe, as the most fertile field for expansion.
"Indonesia by itself has as many people as Eastern Europe," an oil ministry official said.
Japan in turn is seen here as the key to Asian markets.
The Saudis want a partnership in Japan similar to Star, or Japanese investment in a refinery here that would supply the Asian market for gasoline and industrial feedstocks such as propane. The Japanese, according to officials here, are holding out for an equity share of Saudi Arabia's crude oil, a concession Saudi Arabia is determined not to grant.
Similar discussions are underway with South Korea, according to Saudi officials.
Saudi Aramco is also looking at marketing or refining partnerships in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and other Asian countries.
Saudi Arabia is not interested in a presence in other countries just to show the flag, said a Petroleum Ministry economist.
"At the end of the day, the bottom line will have to be black," he said, repeating a line that is recited here like a mantra.
Under the reorganization pushed through by Nazer, Saudi Aramco is responsible for finding and producing crude oil inside Saudi Arabia and for developing international "downstream" arrangements such as the Star partnership.
But it is not the only player in the international arena.
Samarec, the Saudi Arabian Marketing and Refining Co., which is primarily responsible for domestic refining and distribution, has its own international ambitions.
Samarec refineries consume 1.6 million of Saudi Arabia's current daily output of nearly 8 million barrels of oil. Much of its output is headed for overseas markets.
"We control seven refineries," said Samarec chief executive Hussein Linjawi. "I have to decide whether the kingdom makes more money from refining or from selling crude. It all depends on the market."
European refineries, for example, might decide that it is more profitable to import diesel fuel from Saudi Arabia, where taxes, labor and land are cheap, than to make it themselves. In that case, Linjawi said, Saudi Arabia would adjust the crude-product export balance to satisfy its customers.
But Samarec, like Saudi Aramco, wants to participate in foreign markets, Linjawi said, and would consider investing in retail gasoline stations to ensure a market for its products.
That was the strategy followed by Kuwait's national oil company, which sells gasoline in Europe under its Q8 brand.
"By 1995, we will be world's biggest exporter of unleaded gasoline. I'll want a guaranteed market for it," Linjawi said.
Almost all gasoline sold in car-crazy Saudi Arabia is leaded premium, but Linjawi said the country will switch to unleaded by 1995. With his refineries producing more than domestic demand, Linjawi said, he will be looking for more international outlets.
Saudi Arabia's oil reserves are at least double and possibly triple those of any other country.
All that oil gives Saudi Arabia a strong hand in negotiations with an energy-hungry world. But it also drives Saudi Arabia to make sure that there will be a market for it in decades to come.
According to Nazer and other officials, international integration of the market will enhance Saudi Arabia's influence over supply and price, increasing its ability to hold on to its customers and its share of the profits all down the line.