Two or three years ago, according to super real estate agent Harold Phillips, it was unfashionable to rent one's house at all, especially to Arabs.
"People would say, 'I won't rent my house to an Arab.' They still do say it, but of course it's illegal to specify.
"Why do people rent now to Arabs?" he asks rhetorically. "People frankly need the money. America is a country where people are economically secure. Not here. I rang up a friend the other day, I said, "Do you want a grand a week (a thousand pounds, or $1,000)?" Who can resist that kind of money? And some people really do have to let their houses and flats, they really do need the money, and often those are the ones who are really tatty (swank) too. There is no doubt that the Arabs have made a tremendous difference."
Harold Phillips is a short, pale-faced, dark-haird little man with a grin that turns decidedly neon when he is discussing the Arab influence on the real estate market in London.
His gleaming eyes dart back and forth as he totes up figures in his head, dreaming of quid, free-hold leases and fashionable addresses in Mayfair, from the well-situated walkup office of Phillips, Kay and Lewis on Grosvener Street. "In general," he says, "the business has doubled at least, because of the Arabs."
There are many observers in London who feel that the real estate situation is likely to be the most serious problem in terms of Arab-English relations.
Harold Phillips couldn't agree more.
"I don't think the English realize to what extend the Arab takeover of the real estate market is going on," he says. "In 10 years time who knows what's going to happen here in central London. Even today a three-bedroom flat has got to start at 40,000 pounds ($68,000). That's a lot of money for an Englishman." Which means, in Phillips' view, that most Englishmen would be priced right out of central London.
It was after 1974, he says, that the Arabs began buying real estate in London, mostly in the expensive areas of Mayfair and Belgravia.
"It wasn't until January of this year though," says Phillips, "that the sales market took off like crazy. The Saudis went mad.They bought everything in sight, estates, penthouses . . . King Khaled paid 1.6 million (pounds) for his estate, and a house in Hampstead Heath went for 3 million pounds."
It is a very intricate business, this dealing with the Arabs, says Phillips, and one has to know their ways before getting in too deeply. For instance he says, they almost never do their dealing themselves. They almost always use what they call a "runner" or agent.
"An Arab runner rings you," explains Phillips. "And he describes the kind of flat he wants. Then you find what he is looking for and he goes off and rents it to another Arab for a commission. Say you have a flat and let it to an Arab for 100 pounds a week. He'll let it to another Arab for 200 pounds a week. Now a lot of Arabs have bought flats to rent to Arabs. We had an Egyptian tell us that a Lebanese friend of his 'now rides around in Rolls Royce' from buying and selling houses to Arab princes.
"Most of the people who do that are Lebanese," he says. "You don't get many Saudis doing that."
Phillips claims there is no way to get them to pay what you want without an argument. "After you have agreed to terms," he says, "then they will start the argument. Between agreeing and signing they will always try to negotiate. For instance," he says, "we sold a house for 400,000 pounds, and the owner specified it would be sold with just the carpets and the curtains. The Arabs agreed. They then said they wanted the furniture. The owner said no. Eventually they agreed to take it without the furniture."
It is clear talking to Phillips that he loves every minute of the haggling and bargaining and hassling though he does like to complain that it is "a young man's business."
Phillips says that the "runners" who act as go-betweens disappear after making the deals. "We don't really want to know them anyway," he says. "We try to eliminate the middle man. I have a horror that we'll get caught up like that."
And speaking of horror stories . . . Harold Phillips has a few himself. And he's not the only one. In fact, as he puts it so well, "There's a certain cachet in telling horror stories about the Arabs. It amuses people at dinner parties."
The main problems, says Phillips, are the telephones. "Everyone is terrified they'll ring Jeddah 20 times a day. Some of them do. Run up a terrible bill. We send the bills to them but they don't always get paid. When they don't we have their phone cut off and they'll come screaming in with the phone form. I just tell them to go away."
As an agent, Phillips says, he's found that many Arabs don't like glamorous places. "They want lots of beds and lots of TV sets. That's always a stipulation. The biggest rental price we ever got was for 2,000 pounds a week. That house had a lift, 10 bedrooms and 25 people with bodyguards sleeping on the floor. Once they're in the flat, they're gone. You can't get in. They have their color sets on all day. They have their family, their children, their friends, and their children bring friends. They want to be near the shopping and they want to go to Marks and Spencer where they can get good value."
A lot of their clients, says Phillips, try to stipulate that they will have their own servants clean the houses, but the Arabs invariably say they have their own staffs. "There really is a lot of damage done by the Arabs," he adds, "but one's got to put it in perspective. They do pay huge amounts."
And the reports in all fairness that "one chap who let a house in Mayfair left it in perfect condition and got his deposit back. If the damage is worse than the deposit you just have to whistle."
Harold Phillips averts his eyes for a moment, trying to get up his nerve, then finally blurts it out."To be quite honest," he says, "some of the houses rented by Arabs are not left in as bad condition as they are by some Americans."