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Qatar’s Master Plan

John Defterios (CNN IN KT) / 27 July 2009

There was a monster of a boardroom battle taking place in the heart of Germany’s industrial base in Stuttgart. On one side, there was Wendelin Wiedeking of Porsche and on the other Ferdinand Piech the Chairman of Volkswagen and a member of the one of the founding families of Porsche.

After intense board meetings, Wiedeking was forced out after a failed takeover attempt of its larger rival VW. The story itself is not that unusual with nasty power-plays the norm; what makes it more intriguing is the role of the third party, which happens to be the ruling family of Qatar.

Wiedeking was hoping to get a $10 billion investment from Qatar for an up to 25 per cent stake in Porsche and the option to buy around 20 per cent of VW. Qatar was Wiedeking’s white knight that would help the German sports car maker stay independent.

Just a month ago, German media was reporting a deal was “imminent” and Qatar was poised to add a prestige brand to its portfolio.

The story was not written that way. Instead, Qatari officials led by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir al-Thani did not play their hand too early. As they say here in London, they kept their powder dry, wisely waiting for the German tug-of-war to finish.

This offer to put that much into play by Qatar is interesting on many fronts. It for one would take Qatar into Germany, a new market and the largest one in Europe. We have seen the Qatar Investment Authority take stakes in Barclays Bank and Credit Suisse, plus supermarket chain J. Sainsbury. This deal is in a different league.

The sum would be the largest investment to date by a factor of two and could raise red flags of concern in Germany.  Sovereign wealth fund specialist Sven Behrendt of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut says that Germany recently passed legislation, similar to that in the United States, which calls for a review of any non-European investment. As one of the lead bankers flatly noted to me on background, there is no way the government would want any foreign entity to be the largest shareholder in a German icon, whether it is Porsche or Volkswagen. It gets even more complicated since the State of Lower Saxony is a 20.1 per cent shareholder in VW.

The move by Qatar is also fascinating because it sheds light on the rapid evolution of the State. In an interview here in London, Qatar’s polished Minister for Economy and Finance Yousef Hussain Kamal took me through what were near bankrupt times ten years ago.

That financial crisis led the country to focus internally and invest in the expansion of its oil and more importantly natural gas operations.

Today, Qatar is producing the equivalent of more than three million barrels a day if you combine their gas and oil exports.  They have a surplus base of a half trillion dollars and it is growing rapidly.

Officially, their sovereign fund is “only” $65 billion and expected to hit $100 billion in a few short years.

But even that number is a bit misleading. The Emir of Qatar and his cabinet have wisely spread the wealth into a number of entities, including the Qatar Foundation. A trip to Doha will quickly fill in the blanks if you have not seen what is being developed in hyper-speed.

As Minister Kamal noted, Qatar will use the benefit of being the largest natural gas exporter to build out three lines of additional regional expertise: financial services (especially the insurance market), health care and finally higher education and technical training. 

The goal, the minister confidently states, is to be zero dependent on hydrocarbons by the year 2020, maybe a couple years later as a result of this current global crisis. 

The crisis, by Qatari standards, has required capital injections into their banks and the cleaning up of real estate assets, but real growth this year is expected to be between 7-9 per cent.

That gives some insight of what is happening in Doha, why they have the capital to go abroad in a much more sizable way and how that all fits into Qatar’s Master Plan.

John Defterios presents Marketplace Middle East on CNN

Tune in Timings: Friday  1215 & 2345 hrs, Saturday 0945 hrs and Sunday 1115 hrs (All Times UAE)

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