Gulf states' spending spree goes on as investors buy stakes in Barclays

Middle East deal adds bank share to portfolio of British household names

The billionaire sheikh who last month bought Manchester City Football Club was among a group of oil-rich investors that yesterday announced a deal to buy almost a third of Barclays Bank.

While the rest of the world hunkers down to take shelter from the financial crisis, the Arab Gulf states, awash with petrodollars as the oil price reached $147 (£91) a barrel over the summer, are still spending freely. Royal families and government-backed funds from the region have been collecting a growing portfolio of assets, including stakes in supermarket chain Sainsbury and the London Stock Exchange, the Chrysler Building in New York and Aston Martin.

Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, has agreed to pump £3.5bn into Barclays for a 16% stake. The Qatar royal family, one of the most prolific investors in the region, is aiming to build up its existing holding in Barclays to more than 15% by injecting another £2.3bn.

The investment was announced as the prime minister, Gordon Brown, was preparing to head to the region for a four-day visit to plead with oil-rich nations to play their part in stabilising the world financial system by abandoning attempts to increase the price of oil by cutting production and by investing their multi-trillion dollar profits in ailing economies.

The price of oil has slumped as the faltering world economy has weakened demand but the high prices of recent years have still left many families and governments in the region enormously wealthy. Mansour's family is estimated to be worth $750bn, fuelling speculation that the billionaire would indulge in a game of fantasy football at Manchester City by using his vast wealth to buy up the world's best players. He is minister of presidential affairs, chairman of the Abu Dhabi state oil firm and is married to the daughter of the ruler of Dubai.

Mansour's part in the Barclays deal was brokered by Amanda Staveley, a senior partner at the private equity firm PCP Gulf Partners. She owned a restaurant near Newmarket racecourse where she built relationships with some of the wealthy horse breeders from the Gulf region. She also helped to agree the deal to buy Manchester City. She described the Barclays investment as "a vote for the UK financial system as a whole".

The Qatar investment was led by Sheikh Hamad Bin Jabr Al-Thani, a member of the royal family and the Qatar prime minister. The Qataris already own 25% of Sainsbury's, 20% of the London Stock Exchange and are leading the £1bn consortium to redevelop London's Chelsea Barracks.

The Barclays deal allows the bank to strengthen its balance sheet without taking taxpayers' money. Mansour is understood to have been looking at Barclays for some time but contacted the bank when it said it would not take part in the government bail-out. Barclays boss John Varley noted that "there has been quite a significant shift in the availability of capital and economic power in the world over the past five years."

Will Hadfield, of the Middle East Economic Digest, said the gulf states have "very detailed plans to remove their dependency on oil stretching out to 20 or 30 years. They are diversifying away and creating industries not reliant on the oil price and part of that is investing overseas. They are looking for flagship assets, companies with powerful brands that will be around for a very long time."

Many of the deals are strategic but others, like Manchester City, are part of an eagerness to put the small gulf states on the map. Abu Dhabi hopes to rebrand itself as a cultural oasis by attracting new Louvre and Guggenheim museums and a branch of the Sorbonne, France's most prestigious university. Until the 1960s, the tiny kingdom's main source of income was camel herding.

Brown will today take a delegation of 27 British business leaders and two of his closest cabinet colleagues, Lord Mandelson and Ed Miliband, on the visit to drum up support for a three-point plan to help with the downturn.

He wants the region's government's to adopt a "transparent" approach to oil. In addition, Brown wants the oil-rich states to invest billions of dollars from their foreign exchange reserves into the International Monetary Fund. Brown believes the IMF's $250bn fund, of which $29bn is being pumped into the Hungarian and Ukrainian economies, needs to be bolstered and that countries with large surpluses, principally oil producing countries in the Gulf and China, should shore up the IMF.

Downing Street denied Brown would take a begging bowl to the Gulf. No 10 said: "He is not going cap in hand. He recognises that it is in everyone's interests that there is stability and growth in global markets and that is equally in the interests of the Gulf region. They have significant wealth and resources that can contribute to refunding stability in the global financial system."


David Teather, Jill Treanor and Nicholas Watt

The GuardianTramp

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