Nov 1, 2008

World - Oil sheikhs eye 'global player' role

Christian Fraser
BBC News, Abu Dhabi

Al-Wahda is one of the most popular football clubs in the United Arab Emirates, yet in their modern 12,000-seat stadium the recent cup competition attracted barely 1,000 supporters.

Home games are always attended by a well-marshalled band of drummers, but the crowd is hardly partisan.

Saturdays at al-Wahda are about as far removed from the English Premiership as it is possible to get.

But in football - as in business - the Emiratis are hugely ambitious. Their eyes always fixed on the global stage.

So when the ruling sheikhs decided to spend £200m ($320m) on a football club - it was Manchester City not al-Wahda that became the target.
September's deal to buy Man City was the latest in a string of deals struck by the fabulously wealthy sovereign wealth funds.

They have been pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into western companies, banks and trophy assets to help diversify their oil-dependent economies.

The International Monetary Funds estimates the assets managed by these wealth funds at between $2-3 trillion. By 2013, that figure is expected to have soared to between $7 trillion and $11 trillion.

Gone 'shopping'

Abu Dhabi has a number of sovereign wealth funds. The biggest, created in the early 1970s, is worth twice as much as any other country's - an estimated $875bn and rising - and it enjoys flexing financial muscle.

It has benefited from record oil prices even as world economies reel from the dual effects of the credit crunch and recession.

Before buying into English football, Abu Dhabi funds had taken large stakes in Citigroup, General Electric and even the Chrysler Building in New York.
Anil Bhoyrul, the Dubai-based editorial director of the magazine Arabian Business, says the men from the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment - purchasers of Manchester City - proved tough negotiators.

"They want to see something exciting, something that's glamorous, but they negotiate very hard," he says.

"It was a three-week negotiation for the Man City deal. Arguing about the price of a £200m deal when you have 40 billion shows you're taking it very seriously."

Peter Barker-Homek is the chief executive of TAQA, one of Abu Dhabi's smaller sovereign wealth funds with "just" $23bn in assets and $5bn in cash waiting to be spent.

He has completed seven transactions in 14 months, including the acquisition of BP Netherlands.

"We've been shopping,'" he acknowledges with a laugh. "My staff often say they don't like letting me out to go shopping."

Abu Dhabi's sheikhs, he says, are looking beyond the simple financial return: they want to become true global players.

"A lot of the sovereign wealth has been reinvested in Europe, the United States and Canada but they've been passive investments.

"Your typical employee doesn't know they're actually helping support the economy, helping it grow.

"Part of our role is really to close the divide between east and west. The end state will be a company that we hope will be one of the top 50 global employers."

Culture of respect

Some 75% of TAQA's investments belong to the government of Abu Dhabi, which perhaps explains why some politicians in the west are looking on nervously as their assets are "cherry-picked".

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, recently suggested that European leaders should set up their own wealth funds to head off the foreign raiders.
His remarks echoed concerns expressed in the US Congress in 2006 when a proposed buyout of six American ports by a Dubai fund sparked a national security debate.

Critics described the deal as "outrageous, reckless and irresponsible" and the buyout - which had been backed by President Bush - was blocked.

Anil Bhoyrul believes that the Americans made a "fundamental mistake", pointing out that with the economy faltering, external investment would now be very welcome.

"The Americans have lost out," he says. "The culture here is very much one of respect. Snubbing a big deal, and making grand statements in Congress, doesn't show respect and there's no second chance. That money will have gone somewhere else."

Emiratis make no apologies for offending the sentiments of the west.

Their aggressive spending is all part of a five-year plan to buy up strategic assets to help their people and country diversify away from oil.

'Intelligent' investment

In a recent newspaper interview, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi and head of state of the UAE, explained their philosophy.

"In many cases, we depend on long-term investments because we believe that our investments are part of our commitment to future generations, which may not have the same resources available now," he said.
"That is especially true if one takes into consideration that oil resources are depleting and global demand on energy is on the rise."

While the sheikhs know that in the hard years of recession their enormous funds will buy influence with the world's biggest companies, their ambitions are not confined overseas.

Just 20km from downtown Abu Dhabi, a vision of the future is rising from the barren desert.

No longer willing to rely on the oil beneath their feet, the Emiratis are looking to the sun for power as they build Masdar - the world's first carbon-free city.

The rows upon rows of solar panels, installed bang in the middle of the oil-rich Middle East, are a visible sign of what is to come.

There are plans to harness wind and geothermal energy, too. By 2011, Masdar is intended to become a testing ground for the world's leading energy scientists; a city that will outlive the oil wells.

Khalid Awad, the director of property at Masdar, is witnessing first-hand the benefits of the money returning to the Emirates.

"The wealth is being invested now in a very intelligent manner," he says. "It's getting the oil to build knowledge. This is the legacy - energy transformed into a research and development hub that will provide better times for the future."

No comments: