In a gentle but insistent Southern way, an Atlanta newsman was reminding Bert Lance of a 1975 pledge to keep the National Bank of Georgia in Georgian hands. Lance's expressive eyes narrowed to guarded slits as he glanced sideways at the Saudi Arabian who had just rescued him from financial disaster by offering to buy control of the bank.
"We want to make a Georgian out of him, Lance drawled, his gaze still fixed on the portly Saudi financier Ghaith R. Pharaon. Besides, he added when pressed on that non-answer, "Those things change. You can't apply what the circumstances were in 1975 to what they are today."
Since Pharaon agreed to buy 60 per cent of Lance's bank stock at a premium price, questions about the deal have swirled not only through the news conference the two men held here on Tuesday but also along Wall Street and into other financial centers. Inadvertently, Lance captured the flavor of much of this questioning by promising to make Pharaon "a Georgian."
Lance, of course, was one of the "Georgian" Jimmy Carter took with him to the White House. Even though he resigned as director of the Office of Management and the Budget in September under intense criticism. Lance still has instant access to the White House.
"You have to ask yourself why a Saudi millionaire with lots of options in today's market settles on a bank that stopped paying dividends last year and is under such strong federal scrutiny," a Wall Street banking executive who deals almost exclusively with the Middle East said. "I have asked a dozen colleagues who follow the area as closely as I do, and the answer keeps coming back to the Georgia factor."
The questioning has been heightened by the fact that Pharaon's bid comes against a background of small but high-intensity efforts by Saudi moneymen to reach out for a "presence" in the United States. As described by the banker and other knowledgeable sources, the presence would be intended to influence American attitudes toward the individual businessmen, their frims and ultimately Saudi Arabia.
In Arab cultural terms, such a presence or proximity to power is not seen as a crude matter of influence-buying or even of public relations. The concept is that of the "wasta," the Arabic equivalent of the go-between, the person with connections who can vouch for both sides and broker a business deal, marriage or political union. In the Middle East, it is both a subtle and all-pervasive sub-culture.
Perhaps the clearest recent example of the growing export of the practice came in 1973 from Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi, who had earlier purchased two banks in California, befriended associates of Richard M. Nixon and put money into Nixon's campaign.
Khashoggi, then floating in and out of favor with Saudi Arabia's King Faisal, told the king at the height of the Arab-Israeli 1973 war that he could get a personal message to Nixon, while arranging a meeting with Nixon to convey an important message from the King.
Nothing much seems to have resulted from the message. But at least for a while, Khashoggi's standing among the influential Americans and Saudis who knew of the mission was bolstered.
More recently, Khashoggi has set up a foundation in the United States and is donating money and books to a few selected American colleges that show interest in Middle East studies program.
Other Saudis have reportedly discussed raising a multimillion-dollar fund that would be channeled through Georgians close to the President to aid colleges in his native state. The idea evidently has not gone beyond the discussion stage.
In contrast to the probing of his readyness to sell to a non-Georgian, none of Lance's press conference questioners needed to ask why he was selling about 120,000 shares of the bank's stock at $20 a share, $3 more than he paid in 1975 and double the trading value of a month ago.
With debt servicing bills totaling $600,000 coming due by the end of January, Lance appeared to need a major and immediate infusion of fresh cash of any national origin.
But the purchase will help keep the spotlight on Lance, whose primary business role could easily become that of an American "wasta," a man with good connections in Washington and with the American moneymen he got to know as budget director and as Carter's unofficial envoy to the business community.
Pharaon reportedly, is discussing a salary level of $300,000 or more a year for Lance as director of an Arab-owned investment company.
Pharaon denied that he was buying Lance's bank stock and discussing other unspecified business arrangements with the Georgian in order to get close to President Carter by getting close to one of his best friends.
"I would not be where I am today if I had to do things like that," Pharaon said, seeking to portray the National Bank of Georgia as an outstanding investment prospect that others had not been sufficiently intelligent to see.
In fact, his answers glossed over his recent sale of stock he had acquired in a Detroit bank in 1975 - against the advice of some of his financial advisors who foresaw correctly that the Detroit bank would be a money loser for Pharaon.
Pharaon, whose father was one of King Faisal's closest friends has made most of his millions through his construction firm. The company employs about 17,000 people and has laid sewage systems for most of Saudi Arabia's cities.The system done for Mecca recently had to be torn up and re-installed when engineering errors were discovered.
The Saudi financier also argued that the growing power of Saudi Arabia's rulers gave them direct access to American policymakers.
"Why should I buy influence?" He demanded, echoing the puzzlement of Middle East banking and political analysts, who agree that the kind of intermediary role Khashoggi played in 1973 would appear to be overtaken by today's very close official Saudi-U.S. relations.
But the type of cultural factors that gave rise to "wasta" in the first place appear to continue to be strong in the Arabian peninsula. While not applying it to the Pharaon-Lance arrangement, an American analyst with long experience watching the Saudi royal court gave this description of the complex system.
"Each actor wants his own channel, and he does not want any one else on it. If the prime minister sends an official message to Carter, then the Saudi foreign minister, the American ambassador in Jeddah, the State Department and the Saudi ambassador in Washington all get in on the act.
"This reduces absolute control. So he would prefer to find one unofficial American or Saudi with a line into the official American he is aiming at. Everybody feels this way, so there is a proliferation of channels, of the wasta. Anyone who deals a lot with the Saudis as American officials have to do more and more, is going to have to get used to this Arabian tradition."