At 26, Nizar Virani is turning around a once-failing downtown hotel here, bringing it closer and closer to the break-even point and thus keeping jobs for 50 Oklahomans.
It is a promising career beginning for the Tanzanian citizen, who was trained in hotel management in Germany before coming here to manage a Quality Inn owned by a groupd of Canadian corporations controlled by fellow Tanzanian refugees.
But the question here is: Are Virani and the hotel he manages an American immigration and business success story, or are they the visible symbols of increasing foreign economic control of U.S. property?
"These are not multimillionaires," the soft-spoken Virani says of the hotel's owners. "These are just people trying to make a living. The impression is given that we are sharks with billions spilling over."
But the state attorney general - on the cusp of a crackdown on foreigners who buy land in Oklahoma - has a different view. He sees in the Tanzanians' action exactly what the state's 1907 constitution forbids - the owning of land by distant aliens.
"Economic power," Assistant Attorney General John Paul Johnson said of coming legal actions against foreigners, "will be responsible to the state and the people of the state."
In one quick study, Johnson found 44 business ventures - apartments, office buildings, industrial parks - in the Oklahoma City area with "suspect" ownership outside the United States. In the eastern part of the state, he said, a group of Italians owns 3,000 acres of farmland.
"The volume is so mammoth statewide," said Johnson, "it's just impossible to determine the extent of the suspected problem we've got."
Johnson's problems in determining all alien holdings - for example, some were Colorado corporations formed by Canadians - were not unusual, and his findings, though limited, did contribute to the mounting evidence nationwide of the buying of America.
The U.S. Agriculture Department found, for example, that from January 1977 through June 30, 1978, foreigners purchased at least 827,000 acres of U.S. farm and ranch land - 2.25 percent of all farmland sales in that period. It found, however, that foreigners had minuscule holdings, .008 percent of all U.S. farmland, and that it would take almost 20 years to increase that by one percentage point, at current purchase rates.
The department noted, however, that 20 states accounted for 90 percent of the land sales to foreigners, leading the department's top economist, Howard W. Hjort, to conclude: "The possibility of concentration of such purchases in some states and regions (primarily the Sun Belt) may be a matter of some concern."
The department, like Johnson and Oklahoma Attorney General Jan Eric Cartwright, noted the difficulty of tracing foreign ownership ("Some companies exist only in a drawer in the Netherland Antilles," an excellent tax haven, said Johnson). But new legislation now requires that farmland held by and sold to foreigners be disclosed to the federal government.
In banking it is estimated that the assets of foreign-controlled commercial banks in the United States grew five times in the last years, to $60 billion.
Such developments recently led Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and author Marcus G. Raskin to conclude that without a clear policy on foreign acquisitions, "we will see the 'free enterprise' international corporations selling out the industrial and financial base of the United States for shortterm profit."
Concern over foreign ownership of U.S. property is nothing new, as reflected by Oklahoma's 72-year-old constitutional provision that "no alien or person who is not a citizen of the United States shall acquire title to or own land in this state."
State leaders feared then that European barons might acquire vast holdings in Oklahoma, as they had in Texas, and bring a type of serfdom to the new state.
So Oklahoma became one of nine states that generally prohibit or restrict land ownership by nonresident alien investors. (Noncitizens who live in the state can own land.)
It isn't that the state is antibusiness; Oklahoma is, after all, where the Phillips Petroleum Co. pumps oil from directly below the dome of the state capitol. And, officials say, they are not antiforeigner.
The issue, says Johnson, is concern over "elements of large economic power . . .the nonresident alien who chooses to remain in his own country with no burden of (U.S.) citizenship" but controls land here. So Johnson and Cartwright says they intend to give nonresident aliens 30 days to dispose of their holdings or the state will take control.
If Cartwright follows through, it could not only provoke extensive legal battles but also dampen the role that foreign money is playing in the economic development of Oklahoma - money attracted, in part, by an aggressive state-sponsored by advertising drive in Europe. Indeed, a British company has announced plans for a $24 million hotel as part of the redevelopment of this city's promising but still somewhat seedy downtown.
"Anything we have done is within the law - the constitution and the statutes," said John M. Mee, an attorney with McAfee, Taft, Mark, Bond, Rucks & Woodruff, which has represented foreigners in their Oklahoma dealings.
Cartwright's announced plan "has raised a hue and cry among the business community," said Mee. "If the attorney general is correct (in his interpretation), it would really stifle a lot of downtown development."
Mee's firm has formed state corporations for aliens, which, he says makes them, in a legal sense, just as much Sooners as anyone born on the flat, windy plains here. "A corporation," he adds, "has the same rights and privileges as an individual."
And fellow lawyer John E. Sargent, whose name turns up as an officer of many of those corporations, said, "The corporation is a different person from its shareholders."
Both men also cite a 1975 opinion by former attorney general Larry Derryberry that a corporation may own real estate in Oklahoma.
Johnson, the assistant attorney general, says there were oversights in the preparation of that opinion and that it does not address all the issues.
It was, however, an opinion requested by the state's Department of Industrial Development, and armed with it, the department began its overseas advertising campaign to woo foreign money to this Sun Belt state.
Mee and Sargent wonder, too, why the attorney general so far has singled out only 45 relatively small-time ventures, such as HMS Properties, which paid $1.5 million for a failing Holiday Inn and turned it into the Quality Inn that Nizar Virani now manages.
The two lawyers talk darkly of large multinational corporations, namely Shell Oil, which is 69 percent owned by the Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. in the Netherlands.
Shell Oil's land and buildings in Tulsa for its national credit card center are worth more than $5 million, according to the Tulsa County tax assessor's office.
Johnson says the state just hasn't gotten around to such holdings yet. "We frankly envision a continuing investigation," he said. "As the nose of the camel gets inside the tent, increasing portions of the camelhs body are going to get inside the tent."
"It sometimes hurts me," Virani says of the whole thing. "In many countries of the world you have big investments by the Americans, and here we have a small group take over a hotel, trying to grow with Oklahoma.
"We had a rough time in Tanzania," he says of the anti-Asian fervor that swept the east African nation, "and now there's all this harassment." CAPTION: Picture, PROSECUTOR JOHNSON