Mohamed R. Miri puffs slowly on his pipe as he looks out of his eighth-floor office at the transformation of Houston's mushrooming west side. Construction cranes dot the skyline, new glass towers line the nearby freeway, traffic clogs the roads night and day and the Galleria complex of shops, stores and hotels absorbs new wealth like an enormous sponge of consumption.
"I am amazed at how business is booming here," Miri says admiringly. "It reminds me of Jeddah."
He means Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and it is no wonder that Miri, who heads the Saudi consulate in Houston, feels at home here. The interconnections of oil and politics have brought city and country together in a bond that is unique in America. What New York has long been to Israel and Jews, Houston has become to the Saudis.
"Money talks in this town, and it doesn't have any color," said one international banker. "This is the mecca of capitalism."
For nearly 40 years, Texans have been doing business in the Middle East. Today 75 Houston-based companies have operations in Saudi Arabia, and 25 or 30 Saudi companies do business here, most of them buying drill bits and valves and pipe and lubricant and everything else that this huge oil industry bazaar has to offer.
"The affinity is purely commercial," said a Houston-based banker. "It's tools, equipment and servicing. It's gone on ever since Aramco [the Arabian American Oil Co.], and Houston has always been the center."
"A cultural bond between Texans and Saudis, born of economic necessity, has developed over the years. As the joke here goes, Texas and Saudi Arabia share one thing in common: Both would like better relations with the U.S. government.
Saudi Arabia has replaced Japan as Houston's No. 1 trading partner, with approximately $2 billion in goods (much of it imported crude oil) flowing back and forth through the Port of Houston.
Contracts for services add considerably to that figure. Brown & Root Inc., the huge Houston engineering firm, has nearly completed an oil pipeline across Saudi Arabia. M.W. Kellogg and Bechtel, two other large construction firms with offices here, have considerable business in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis are involved in joint ventures with many other Houston-based energy companies.
Architectural design and engineering firms like 3D/International and the CRS Group have earned as much as 25 percent of their revenues in recent years building hotels, airports, universities and shopping centers in Saudi Arabia.
In 1974, Aramco Services Co., the purchasing subsidiary of Aramco, was established in Houston, bringing not only Saudi money but, over time, thousands of Saudis to town.
Four years ago, the Saudi Education Mission, which processes all Saudi students studying in this country, moved here from New York. Shortly after that came the Saudi consulate. A Saudi publishing company has located here, and firms specializing in advertising and translation services for American and Saudi companies doing business with one another have established operations nearby.
Representatives of the state-owned petroleum and minerals company, Petromin, and its subsidiaries maintain offices here, while many other Saudi companies have purchasing or operational offices in Houston.
The Saudis here have clustered around the Galleria in the glass and metal towers that form Houston's second skyline. On Fridays many of them gather at the Education Mission for prayer services, and every day, like other Houstonians, they fight the traffic.
It is perhaps the only thing they do not like about living here. They even rave about the city's hot, muggy climate, although there is one man who likes to go to Seattle to see the rain.
What started as an oil connection has now branched out into everything, from buying real estate to airplanes to, yes, even rugs.
The Texas Medical Center is a major attraction, drawing hundreds of Saudis each year, some for major operations, others to use it as a kind of neighborhood clinic. They fly in on their own planes, stay in their own condos or homes and turn themselves over to internationally famous doctors like Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley.
Saudi visitors mostly stay at the Warwick Hotel, whose European air and tight-lipped staff provide them the service and privacy they demand. They shop at the Galleria, the gaudy American interpretation of the souks back home. And at night, when they play, it is always at a club called elan.
The regulars always arrive late, after midnight, often after 1 a.m. They come in a group of about 20, always together, always in a caravan of expensive cars. They sit in what is called the library, a loft-like space of sofas, soft chairs and bookshelves, from which they look down on the small dance floor and the rectangular bar that is the center of a nightly mating dance. The visiting businessmen come for the evening, sometimes alone, often with American female companions.
They mostly drink Cokes, spend freely but not lavishly, and are never impolite. The waitresses at elan like the Saudis, and one man, before leaving the country, gave one of the waitresses a small going-away present. It was a gold necklace.
Resist stereotypes, said the young woman of Lebanese descent who deals in real estate and knows the Saudis. "Everybody's looking for sensationalism, but it's basically a myth. They're very low-key, very low-profile, very behind-the-scenes."
That is the message all over Houston. The Saudis here are not flashy, not the princely playboys of London. They are businessmen from the eastern province who got rich in the oil business, made their connections through Aramco and see Houston as an extension of home. They may go to Colorado to ski and Las Vegas to gamble, but in Houston they are all business.
"Houston is not a fun town," said one banker. "People come here to work, or maybe relax, but not to play."
The cultural bond between Saudi Arabia and Houston has less to do with the natural attraction of rich Arab sheiks to free-spending Texas oilmen than with conservative values, the traditions of home and family and a society that is male-dominated.
Jack Rains is a full-faced man who is said to typify the new Houston. Born in rural Shelby County, educated at Texas A&M, he is a lawyer and president of 3D/International, the architecture and design firm with close ties to the Saudis. In the late 1960s and early '70s, he spent months roaming through Saudi Arabia knocking on doors, trying to interest the Saudis in his company's services.
Eventually it paid off in fat contracts, and today Rains sits in a modernistic office on the 21st floor of a slick gray tower, his furniture maroon in the tradition of his alma mater, his suit dark and conservative, and his accent the twang of deep East Texas. He complains about the stereo-typing of Saudis and Texans and tells what he sees as the real reasons Saudis feel comfortable doing business in Houston.
"Our revolution and sense of place are stil alive in Texas," he says. "So many of us came off the land, go back to it, are drawn to it. The Saudis' love of the land is not alien to me.
"Second, so much of life in Saudi Arabia is governed by religion, which permeates their society. I'm very comfortable with a lot of their rules. They're the ones I grew up with in a small Texas town with fundamentalist values. It's not alien or foreign to me.
"The last thing is, your word is your bond. So much is based on personal relationships. Just like in Texas."
And the business is man to man. When Rains travels to Saudi Arabia with his wife, she is whisked away by the women there and the couple rarely see one another until evening. In Houston, his wife gathers up the Saudi women for a shopping trip while the men conduct their business. The sex roles are well established in both cultures.
In Houston, Rains and his wife prefer to entertain Saudi visitors in their home -- as they are entertained when they travel to the Middle East -- rather than go out to restaurants. The tradition of hospitality is shared by both cultures, and is one of the things the Saudis say they like best about living in Houston.
"I feel at home here," says Mohammed Miri. "The people are conservative and hospitable. They have cowboys; we like horses. They have ranches and farms; we have the same. We share so many things in common."
But it is politics as much as culture that makes Houston so agreeable to the Saudis. "the political link to Israel is much less strong here than in the North, the West or the South," said one banker with ties to the Middle East and Europe.
Saudis are welcomed openly by Houstonians, who are not only interested in learning more about the country but also say they appreciate what the Saudis have done for the United States. "They are sympathetic to our policies here," says Miri, the Saudi vice counsul.
But it is a sympathy based on what Miri calls a "materialistic interest" in Saudi Arabia that could evaporate with the last drop of oil. Miri understands this and it troubles him. "They understand us only from their own view," he says. "They should support us because our cause is just."
Miri spends part of his time trying to educate Americans about the conflict in the Middle East. "I feel it is our duty as Arabs to reach the masses," he says. "What ended the Vietnam War was the masses."
And he says he believes he has made progress. He describes an American birthday party he attended in Houston. "The family told me, 'Thank God we have Saudi Arabia as a friend.'"
He lives in a $3.5 million stone mansion in River Oaks, Houston's most exclusive neighborhood. An imposing iron fence protects him from outsiders and shelters the sea of pink azealas that covers part of his front yard. Next to the house, a beefy guard sits ready to intercept anyone who passes through the electric gate. Tour buses roll by and the drivers often ask who lives there. The guards are under orders not to tell.
The owner's name is Khaled Bin Mahfouz. He owns Main Bank in Houston, small potatoes as Houston banks go, but nonetheless a bank. It is said that he and his family are on the prowl for more business in Houston, and when a visitor asks for an appointment, the word from inside, relayed through a bodyguard and the guard, is that Bin Mahfouz is in the middle of business and will make contact later. The call never comes.
Many of the neighbors have never seen him and know him only as "the Saudi." From their swimming pools, they watch his helicopter fly over the neighborhood. "Does he really fly it downtown to work and back?" one of his men is asked. The man does not respond directly. "He has helicopters, he has planes," the man says. "He has everything."
"The first thing you have to know," said the banker, "is that Arab money doesn't even come close to European money here, not even close. The European money dwarfs the Arab money. Don't think that Arab money is important here. That's a fallacious argument. And I'm well placed to say that."
Khaled Bin Mahfouz, with his extravagant life style and secretive ways, perpetuates the myth of the Arab sheik buying up America, but in the Saudis' favorite city, where the local government welcomes all money, their impact beyond the oil business is minimal.
Bin Mahfouz is the exception here, along with the few other Saudis whose business dealings have given them notoriety. Ghaith Pharaon is perhaps the foremost in this group. It was Pharaon who with John B. Connally's help, first bought into Main Bank in Houston, who also bought a company in Dallas, who helped out Bert Lance by purchasing a controlling interest in the National Bank of Georgia. Other Saudi businessmen whose names are even remotely known to Americans can be counted on one hand.
That is the paradox of the Saudis in Houston: that they have brought so little money back into the area to stay.
Stories of Saudis moving around town looking for action abound. A few weeks ago, a Saudi businessman walked into the office of a young businessman with crude oil to peddle. He needed a buyer -- no middleman, please, he said: He wanted no artificial price increases or profits.
Saudi government officials come to town looking for deals on the side; conflicts of interest are less observed there than here. Young Saudis are looking for American companies to buy, with the goal of establishing assembly plants in their own country. One group of five or six investors, including serveral princes, has hired a man to look for companies in the area. One man in Houston makes a living selling airplanes to the Saudis. Another specializes in shipping goods back to Saudi Arabia for various clients.
But the effect of all this may be less than meets the eye, and the long-term impact of the Saudis in Houston is difficult to measure. Much of their activity is with a single purpose: to help build Saudi Arabia. Once that monumental job is completed, the commercial links between Houston and the Saudis could begin to decline.
There are no big Saudi-owned office buildings. It was Germans who bought the Pennzoil building, not Saudis. Canadians are developing a huge chunk of real estate on the eastern edge of downtown, not Saudis. Saudis are not buying many of the condos for sale at the Warwick Towers, nextdoor to their favorite hotel; other foreign investors are.
The Saudis are not naturally suited to Houston's go-go business environment. They move slowly, look principally for stability in their investments and don't like to pour huge amounts of money into anything.
"The Saudi objective is to put $5 million or $10 million into a single investment or building," said Michael Casper of Texas Commerce Bank. "They are naturally conservative."
The Saudis are called good businessmen and endless negotiators who nonetheless don't always know the value of a dollar. "They can be freewheeling in what they spend, but miserly in negotiating over an eighth of a point on a loan," said one banker.
And they demand strict secrecy on the part of the Americans with whom they are dealing. Some American businessmen say they are not allowed to talk about costs or details of projects with the Saudis. The Saudis, they say, are sensitive about being portrayed as people who can afford gold faucets for their bathroom sinks.
Jamil Ismail came to Houston last May, his first visit to America. Before coming, he spent hours with American friends back home, going over maps of the city, learning the names of major streets and buildings. He felt at home when he arrived, and though his wife, who does not drive, is sometimes lonely here, he is happy they came. He has been to Disney World in Florida and plans to go again before leaving the United States.
His Saudi friends now want to know everything he can tell them about Houston. "They ask a lot about the cost of Living," he says in the office he shares with the construction firm of Brown & Root.
What does he tell them? "If you compare it with Egypt or some countries in Europe, it's high," he says. "Rent is very high. Food is too. Clothing is not bad; it varies."
"And of course," say Jamil Ismail, the American representative of Petromin, Saudi Arabia's state-owned petroleum and minerals company, without a trace of irony in his voice, "the price of gasoline is very high also."