Qatar's global spree shows no signs of slowing

The oil-rich emirate has been steadily increasing its stake in British businesses. Richard Northedge reports

The photos showed the Emir of Qatar reviewing the Grenadier Guards at Windsor Castle, but in truth he was in Britain to review his assets. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has a UK portfolio worth many billions.

As his plane flew over London, he probably saw the Canary Wharf office complex in which he has a 24 per cent stake, including the headquarters tower of Barclays, of which he owns 7 per cent. The drive into Downing Street to see the Prime Minister took him past Harrods, bought for £1.5bn, and he may have glanced at the Chelsea Barracks site he wants to develop. The 26 per cent shareholder in Sainsbury's would also have seen his stores.

His route to dinner in the City took him past the London Stock Exchange, where he is a 15 per cent shareholder and gave him a chance to see his latest project, the £500m "Walkie Talkie" development with Land Securities. Towering over even that, however, is the 71-storey Shard, Europe's tallest building, at London Bridge. The 58 year-old emir may not have had time to pop into Christie's but he nonetheless expressed interest in buying the auction house.

Qatar has a simple economic relationship with Britain. We buy its oil and gas; the emirate returns the money to buy assets. Our balance of payments' current account falls but the capital account rises.

Yet pleased as the Government is with that inflow of funds, it would prefer to do real trade with Qatar and sell it goods. That is why, when David Cameron met the emir last week, they signed an agreement to establish a trade and investment forum. At present, the bilateral trade between the countries, at £2.2bn a year, barely equals the sums the sheikh is spending on trophy assets.

And the sheikh wants Western companies to invest in his country too. "Qatar has weathered the storm of the global financial and economic crisis," he says. "This means that we can continue to implement the development strategy we embarked on more than a decade ago. The financial sector in Qatar has witnessed major development in the past few years in the banking and insurance sectors and the stock market."

Qatar was not always wealthy. Oil was discovered there only in the 1940s and gas more recently – and the revenues were squandered until the sheikh overthrew his father in a 1995 coup and rebuilt the economy. Now this peninsula projecting into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia has the highest gross domestic product per head of any country on earth – more than $100,000 per person.

The emirate has the world's third highest reserves of natural gas. Oil and gas account for half of its GDP and most of its exports and finance two-thirds of government spending. There is no income tax, water and electricity are free, inflation is negative, the budget is balanced and growth is forecast to exceed 15 per cent this year.

So Qatar has money to spend at home – it held the last Asian Games, is hosting next year's Asian football cup and is pitching for the 2022 World Cup – but it has money to spend abroad too. Five years ago, the emir established the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). This sovereign wealth fund publishes no accounts but is estimated to be worth well over £50bn. "The government is keen to diversify away from depending on natural resources and has established a number of organisations and bodies to ensure the security of future generations by diversifying income streams as well as to stimulate the private sector," says the authority.

The QIA does not disclose its investment policy, but says: "The criteria are based on the imperative of generating a strong financial return. QIA takes a flexible approach, is a long-term investor, and has a conservative approach on leverage. If a portfolio company has synergies with Qatar it is a positive factor, but QIA should be considered a truly global investor." Qatar's investment in the South Hook liquefied natural gas terminal at Milford Haven provides such a synergy. Last winter, some 11 per cent of Britain's gas came through the Welsh terminal and it has capacity to supply 20 per cent.

The weak pound has made Britain an attractive place for Qatar to re-invest the proceeds of its energy exports, but the UK is by no means its only choice. Qatari Diar, its property wing, has projects in 20 countries besides Britain. Qatar owns the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and last week reopened the Royal Monceau in Paris. It possesses substantial assets in Malaysia and Indonesia. It has a £6bn stake in VW and Porsche ahead of their planned merger, and last week invested £1.7bn for a 5 per cent stake in Santander's Brazilian banking arm.

And if Qatar is looking at opportunities in the rest of the world, the globe is looking at opportunities there. While the sheikh was being courted in Britain, other nations were in the Gulf state seeking business. Qatar's Vice-Prime Minister signed a trade deal last week with the President of Uzbekistan covering IT and telecoms, Qatar Petroleum approved a logistics deal with Shanghai, and a Russian visit resulted in agreement to invest $500m in the Urals. Argentina's tourism minister braved the 35C heat to drum up trade too. Suppliers from 33 countries exhibited at the week's Milipol security expo in Doha, but 45 of them were French, 15 American, 10 German and nine Chinese: it was hard to find a UK-owned firm. And while Made in Dagenham was shown at last week's Doha film festival, Britain was only one of 35 countries represented.

Britain's ambassador to the country, John Hawkins, says: "Qatar has been an important investor in the UK over the past few years, but British companies have also invested quite heavily in Qatar. Shell is a very big investor. So it is a two-way process."

Virgin Mobile and Vodafone already operate there too, but so do foreign companies. Deutsche Bahn is building the first railway network, and while Qatar saved the London Stock Exchange from takeover, it is the rival NYSE/Euronext – owner of the French and New York markets – that took a strategic 20 per cent stake in Doha's exchange. Others have identified the emir's deep pocket as a solution to their problems: the board of German building company Hochtief sent him a begging letter asking him to invest to block the hostile bid from Spain's ACS group.

So UK companies can take nothing for granted. The Lord Mayor of London, Nick Anstee, visited Qatar this year. He is an optimist, saying: "Our bilateral trade has increased by over 160 per cent in the past five years. In the first half of 2010 alone it grew nearly 30 per cent, and our partnership will be strengthened even more by the memorandum of understanding signed by the Government."

There is no shortage of companies keen to do business with Qatar. Present at the Queen's Windsor Castle banquet for the emir were Roger Carr, the chairman of the gas group Centrica, and Ian King, the chief executive of defence supplier BAE Systems. But at dinner the following evening, it was the emir's opportunity to meet the chief executives in whom he has invested: Justin King of Sainsbury, George Iacobescu of Canary Wharf, Francis Salway of Land Securities, Irvine Sellar of the Shard developer, Xavier Rolet of the London Stock Exchange, John Wallace of Qatari Diar, Sir David Wright of Barclays plus Nigel Newton of Bloomsbury, the Harry Potter publisher with which Qatar now has a partnership. For an investor as important as Qatar's sheikh, no one says no.

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