Friday afternoon. A thousand men kneel in ordered ranks on the carpet in the mosque. In front of them, the imam's sermon in Arabic rises among the blue and gold mosaic tiles of the dome. Behind them, the leathery odor of 2,000 shoes rises in the foyer.
Not far away, a street corner in a rich shopping area swarms with flowing robes and turbans. The newsstands in the nearby residential districts carry Arabic newspapers. On some side streets are "For Sale" signs, and on some walls are graffiti -- in Arabic and English.
Is this Cairo? Riyadh? Bahrain?
No, it's London. the mosque, the largest outside the Islamic world, is in Regent's PArk. the street corner is Oxford Circus. The residential district surrounds kensington High Street -- "Saudi Boulevard," as it is known locally -- where Arab investment in real estate is measured in millions of pounds.
London, once amicably shared by Victorian gentlemen and Cockney cabbies, has become the melting pot in this century for immigrants from the former British Commonwealth. In the past decade, however, a new phenomenon has appeared: the very wealthy immigrant.
Since the 1973-74 oil price rise, money has flowed in from the Middle East. The Arabs, "beneficiaries of a geological fault," as one banker describes them, have taken London by surprise. Conspicuous in dress but retiring by nature, they have intrigued and dismayed Londoners.
"Fifty years ago we were showing them which end of a rifle to fire out of," quips a stock exchange executive. Now, a British editor notes with some amusement, "You can't move for Arabs" inside Marks & Spencer, the famous Jewish-owned department store chain.
Half a dozen years after the Arab influx began, Londoners are still puzzled. who are these people? How vast is their wealth? Are they turning London into a battlefield for terrorism? How much influence do they wield? What about the future?
The size of Britain's Arab community - including expatriates from the 22 nations of the Arab League, but excluding Farsi-speaking Iranians -- is estimated at between 85,000 and 150,000. Another half-million tourists from Arab countries visited Britain in 1979. Omar al- Hassan, the Arab League director in London, puts the average figure in Britain at any time at 250,000.
Their presence is not new. "There have been Arabs coming to London to study for donkey's years," says John Reddaway, director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). But the community itself has preferred to keep a low profile. "Up to a few years ago you hardly knew it was there," says E. F. Given, a former British ambassador to Bahrain, who now heads the Middle East Association, a trade group of 450 companies.
But several events conspired to push Arabs westward. In the wake of the June 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors came a gradual pro-arab shift in news coverage. In 1973 came the quadrupling of oil prices and the glut of petrodollars crying out for investment.
More significantly, perhaps, came the civil war in Lebanon in 1976 and '77 -- depriving Arabs from the Gulf states of the mountains and seacoast to which they had fled during the desiccating summer heat on the Arabian Peninsula.
London beckoned for several reasons:
* Common language. Many Arabs are English-speakers, educated by the British at home and abroad. Knowledge of the language bred a familiarity with the culture. The results, says Christopher Mayhew, one of the founder of the parliamentary Association for Euro-Arab Cooperation, is that "they rather like the British."
* Common meeting ground. With the St. George Hotel in Beirut no longer a rendezvous, hotels such as the Arab- owned Dorchester here have begun to take its place, says Sinclair Road, director of the British-government-sponsored Committee for Middle East Trade (COMET).
As heirs to the majlis system, whereby influential Arabs keep the door open and "people float in" to do business, the Arabs operate what he calls" a very complicated consensus mechanism which is very effective." It depends on "a whole variety of middlemen -- Pakistanis, Indians, Armenians, and others -- who, he says, have sought to negotiate Arab money into British markets. And it depends on personal contact in a capital city.
* Appealing life style. the Arab, says Dr. Zaki Badawi, director of the Islamic Cultural Center and an imam at the mosque in Regents Park, has "tremendous self-assurance" and feels respected by the British. Partly, he is drawn by Western freedom and, partly, he's pushed by what some see as an increasingly narrow Islamic fundamentalism back home.
"The people who come to escape the narrowness," says Charles Eaton of the Islamic Cultural Center, "are the cosmopolitan ones, those who have rather slipped away from Islam." The popular press here relishes accounts of Arabs caught by gambling, drink, and women -- although Mr. road of COMET says, "I suspect it's been grossly overplayed."
* Privacy. London provides a thicket in which Arabs can hide from politicl and religious issues. Those who come, many say, are not deeply concerned with the Arab- Israeli conflict, for example. "For a Jew it's his whole life," says one longtime Arabist. But "if I were an Arab," he adds, "it would be rare if my religion motivated me."
The desire "to get back the Muslim holy places is very extensive," he says, "but it's nothing like so intense" as among the Zionists. One result: The Arab in London is, he says, "terribly relaxed," adding that "he's not a worrier -- he' not committed to the same extent."
o one thing they are committed, however: investment. Although many Arabs here are poor (the North Africans working as waiters, for example), the wealthy are "great lovers of property," a former ambassador says. They went into the market heavily during the property boom of 1975 to 1978.
Along with such splashes as the purchase of the St. Martin's Property company by the Kuwaiti government for $:107 million ($250 million) or the 44 percent stake in the Commercial Union building, bought by Abu Dhabi for $:36 million ($ 85 million), investment in residential property by individuals and governments has been estimated at $:500 million ($1.15 billion) during the three-year boom.
The appeal of residential property, says a Middle East specialist with a leading merchant bank here, is fourfold: They understand it, they feel and see it, they can use it during the summer months and for occasional trips, and "they can show it off to their friends."
The public grumbles about rocketing house prices -- and complains about once-busy homes in richmond or Hampstead standing empty for all but a few weeks each summer. But as Lucien Dahdah, former foreign minister of Lebanon and director of the respected Middle East Economic Digest, explains, "They have helped real estate in the United Kingdom, which was really depleting by 1974."
Nobody knows the full extent of Arab investments here. Dr. Dahdah, from his private researches, estimates that the United States places 55 percent of Arab government investment, with London placing 20 percent and the rest of the world placing the balance. Seven years ago, he says, public investment by Arab governments represented 85 percent of the total.
Now, he feels, private investment is more important. "I figure that today the private sector -- the top 2,000 private investors coming from the Arab world -- represent something like $300 billion," he says.
A stock exchange executive here notes that "the general feeling is that most [Arab money] has come as short- term investment and gilt-edge stock." Hardly any of it has gone into British industry. "Their money is like hot air," an editor of an English-language newspaper for Arabs says, adding, "They are mostly quick-money people."
AS Arab money flows in, so does another worrisome feature: terrorism. Since 1977, former premiers of North Yemen and Iraq have been killed here; so has the London representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization. This spring saw the takeover of the Iranian Embassy, the killing of two Libyan exiles, and several bombings of Arab targets. Iraqi intelligence and Libyan hit-squads are said to be particularly active here, and one longtime observer speaks of "bitter factions" among the "underground organizations" in the Arab community.
Mr. Given, however, feels that the assassinations are imported and are "not connected with the Arab community here." And one British champion of ARab minority causes even suggests that "today's terrorists are tomorrow's statesmen." So far, the feuding has appeared to be inter-Arab, drawing few targets from Europeans or from Britain's 380,000-strong Jewish community.
For the Jews, however, there is an even more pressing question: Will Arab money be followed by Arab political and financial influence? Most analysts dismiss the possibility of a large-scale Arab takeover of financial institutions. Given the size of the London markets, they note that Arab wealth, while appearing suddenly, accounts for far less than 1 percent of the total capacity.
The funds flow westward, as one Arab investor said, not "to connive to control or dominate" but simply to make a fair return on investment -- which is harder to do back home, where Islamic law severely restricts interest rates and investment confidence is lacking.
Even faced with little surprises -- such as the discovery that the Kuwaiti investment office owns 6.6 percent of the Bank of Scotland -- the financial community here echoes Dr. Dahdah's assessment that "there will be really no political influence in Arab investments anywhere." As one editor said, "They're not actors, they're reactors."
Yet the impact of the Arab community has grown steadily. Groups like the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding and the various parliamentary friendship organizations, and such respected newspapers as the Guardian and the Financiall Times, have taken up Arab issues -- to the growing discomfiture of the Jewish community here, which simply cannot compete. with the increasingly effective and expensive public relations campaigns.
Nevertheless, most observers agree that the Arabs, split into 22 countries often at odds with one another, remain unable to organize themselves into a political lobby. "They are more vociferous than effective," complains a highly placed Egyptians here.
"I am trying to get them together," he adds, but "it's in their temperament to be individualistic in their outlook -- and touchy."
Observers note a history of appointing relatives, rather than qualified executives, to important posts. One ARab supporter frankly confessed that until recently the embassies were "not much good." But things are changing: Now, he says enthusiastically, "They tend to answer letters and ring back."
Where will it lead? In investments, observers agree that the acceleration will decline, although totals will continue to increase. There is already evidence of a shift away from London and toward the United States, France, Spain , and Brazil.
Some of the shift is attributed to Arab annoyance: Many, harking back to Saudi King Khalid's medical bills, feel they too have been "ripped off" in London. There is also some hard feeling over the recent British-made television documentary "Death of a Princess," which cast the Saudi royal family in a bad light.
The housing markets is also leveling off. Two years ago, says Robert Crockett f Cluttons, a leading real estate firm, every hotel in London was crowded with Arab merchants and their families seeking residential properties. Whereas he used to see Arabs every week, "I don't think I've seen one this year, " he said June. Tourism figures for 1979 show an increase over 1978, but Mr. Hassan of the Arab League expects the trend to reverse itself this year.
Meanwhile, London will continue to be a focal point -- " a straddler of the money markets," as one banker put it. It is also in a time zone close enough to the Middle East to be reached by telephone during the business day -- which is "frightfully important," he adds. Two other factors will continue to draw investments, he feels: a strong currency and a strong government.
"The present Arab attitude is one of expectation," says Mr. Reddaway of CAABU. "They feel that the present government is more sympathetic," he adds, "and they are waiting for some results from that."
Yet there is also, according to the merchant banker quoated above, a growing Arab realization of "their vulnerability, the ephemerality of their wealth." As they have become aware of American diplomatic "impotence" and its confusion over the Middle East, "the forces of reason have given way to tendencies of panic," he says.
Where that leads, no one is saying. But a boldface box on the front page of a recent issue of the London-based newspaper Voice of the Arab World puts it succinctly.
"Remember," it counseled its Arab readerships, "there are just 351 months of oil left."