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A look at Houston's close ties to Saudi Arabia

HOUSTON – This past Sunday morning, thousands lined up in downtown for the annual Houston Marathon and half-marathon.

"It is the largest single sporting (event) for the city," said Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Chevron is the title sponsor for the big race, but a lesser known company named Aramco sponsors the half-marathon.

What is Aramco?

Nearly every runner Channel 2 spoke with did not have a clue.

"This is our first time. I don't even know what Aramco is," one runner said.

The company has been running and gunning in southeast Texas for years. Aramco is the government-owned oil company of Saudi Arabia. Energy insiders say it's the world's most profitable company. The Saudi government has rich ownership shares in Sabic, Bahri and Aramco, all companies with a presence in Houston.

However, east of Houston, in Port Arthur, is the crown jewel: the Motiva refinery, the largest single crude refinery in North America. It was once a joint venture with Shell and Texaco, but Saudi Aramco took it over in 2017. U.S. congressional research records show that in the first six months of 2018, Motiva accounted for nearly 31 percent of U.S. crude oil imports.

For Mark Jones, faculty director of Rice University's master of global affairs program, Saudi Arabia’s presence in southeast Texas translates to a different kind of energy production.

"This is green energy in terms of dollars," Jones said.

The presence is below the radar for most.

"I think outside of the energy industry, very few people are aware of the presence of the Saudis here," Jones said.

The first thing that comes to Jones' mind when he hears Saudi Arabia? "Investment, investment, investment, so money, money, money."

In November, President Donald Trump highlighted Saudi Arabia's agreement to spend and invest a record $450 billion in the United States. The president's comments came after the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The murder triggered worldwide condemnation of the Saudi government.

Our own U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan resolution blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder and voted to cut off financial aid to the kingdom.

Andrew Maloney is a New York City-based attorney and former federal prosecutor specializing in aviation and terrorism. He describes Saudi Arabia as a “"medieval monarchy” that had a role in one of our nation’s darkest days.

"9/11 doesn't happen without the help of the Saudi Arabian government," he claims.

Maloney and other attorneys are suing the kingdom on behalf of families who lost loved ones on 9/11. In a recent interview with Channel 2 Investigates, Maloney said our relationship with the kingdom runs deep. When asked if there is any city more valuable to Saudi Arabia than Houston in the United States, Maloney quickly stated, “Washington, D.C., and probably Houston are the two most important power centers for the Saudis."

In fact, one of three Saudi consulates in the U.S. is in Houston.

The crown prince himself visited southeast Texas last April.

At the time, Turner told Channel 2 Investigates, "The relationship between Aramco, the kingdom and the city of Houston is very, very positive."

As a result of the mutually beneficial financial relationship, Jones said it is a hard one to quit.

"If Saudi Arabia was a minor player in the Houston economy and didn't have money to fund things like the half-marathon, we probably would be condemning them and doing no business with them," Jones said.

Channel 2 did contact the Saudi consulate on Westheimer Street hoping to speak with a representative. No one returned our call. It’s important to point out this relationship is a two-way street. U.S. energy companies also have very lucrative business interests in Saudi Arabia. Last march, U.S. firms were estimated to have Saudi oil field deals valued at $10 billion.