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Will Qatar cough up for IAG?

IAG, parent of British Airways and Iberia, lost almost €1bn ($1.3bn) last year, but that hasn’t deterred Middle Eastern interest in the group, if recent media speculation is to be believed.

According to the Financial Times, Qatar is sounding out the possibility of acquiring Spanish bank Bankia’s 12 per cent stake in IAG, worth about $1bn.

Such a deal could easily come to nothing: neither Bankia nor IAG have commented on any Qatari approach; while the CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, has said that his airline isn’t pursuing an IAG stake, and that he would be in the loop if another Qatari entity was doing so.

Yet there are plenty of reasons to believe the story. A month ago IAG CEO Willie Walsh criticised EU foreign ownership rules – whereby non-EU companies cannot own more than 49 per cent of a European airline – and indicated his support for the lightning-fast expansion of Gulf carriers such as Qatar Airways.

There is also a willing seller: Bankia was recently nationalised after sinking under bad loans and is now seeking to dispose of non-core assets, of which IAG is one.

Qatar has form in European investment. In the last few years its flag carrier has bought and sold a big stake in Cargolux and the country’s sovereign wealth fund committed to buy 20 per cent of Heathrow Airport Holdings. Securing a share of the airport’s main tenant – British Airways – would seem a logical next step.

It would also make sense from IAG’s perspective. BA, Iberia and Qatar Airways are already Oneworld alliance partners and Doha’s sparkling new airport could prove a vital springboard to capturing more Europe-Asia-Europe traffic. Qantas reported an immediate spike in sales after its partnering agreement with Dubai-based Emirates.

If Qatar did buy into IAG it would certainly unsettle the other big European carriers, notably Air France-KLM, whose boss, Jean-Cyril Spinetta, implied only last month that Gulf airlines were not competing on a level playing field.

IAG boss Walsh, in contrast, has been at pains to refute such suggestions. "I'm not one of the airline CEOs that is critical of the Gulf carriers - quite the opposite. I don't believe they get cheap fuel, I don't believe they get financial assistance. I believe they have rational, commercial business models,” he told Arabian Business in April

Alex Derber
[email protected]

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