Lower-key QIA back with a bang in China

Qatar Investment Authority’s $10 billion joint-venture fund deal with Citic Group reflects both its new, more strategic approach and its old fondness for making a splash.
Lower-key QIA back with a bang in China

It was a big – some might say typical – statement of intent.

The chief executive of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund announced yesterday a $10 billion investment joint venture with China’s Citic Group. Ahmad Bin Mohamed Al-Sayed also said the institution was expanding its Beijing and New Delhi offices and opening a branch in New York.

Qatar Investment Authority is no stranger to bold moves in China. It raised eyebrows in late 2012 by applying for an unprecedented $5 billion in QFII quota, and was duly granted the largest such award at the time of $1 billion in December of that year, as reported.

This was in keeping with the state investor’s role of projecting – many feel arrogantly – Qatar’s image abroad, noted Victoria Barbary, director at the Sovereign Wealth Center, a research house in London.

But when the Emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, handed power to his son, there was a major government reshuffle. Al-Sayed – previously head of QIA’s foreign investment arm, Qatar Holding – was named CEO, replacing Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani. The latter had led Qatar’s government since 2007 as both premier and foreign minister.

Subsequenty, whereas QIA used to be a very top-down-driven fund that did big, eye-catching deals, it has been more low-key since the change of management, said Barbary.

The SWF now seems to take a more strategic, less opportunistic approach, having built up its in-house resources – it has a new strategy unit, for instance – she noted. “They’re still doing pretty big deals, but there’s now more to it than that. They’re taking a more holistic view, thinking about where the long-term returns are.”

Hence a greater focus on China and its long-term potential might seem appropriate.

And the Citic deal is very much in the mould of what big sovereign wealth funds are doing these days: finding partners to help them source deals, with a lot more mutual collabaration than in the past. “In this case, QIA has the money, and Citic knows the market very well,” said Barbary.

Al-Sayed has indicated its openness to new partnership opportunities, as it looks to invest $15 billion to $20 billion in the next five years. He pointed to investments the fund has made in Chinese and Hong Kong companies, such as Lifestyle International (Sogo), Citic Group and Alibaba.

QIA certainly has money to spend, if the Institute of International Finance is to be believed – it puts the SWF’s assets under management at $303 billion.

Barbary suggested this number is probably closer to reality than the International Monetary Fund’s estimate of $170 billion. “That always seemd quite low to me – because until recently QIA has been getting a really large chunk of Qatar’s oil and gas revenues.”

She did add the caveat: “Noone really knows how much they have; it’s such an illiquid portfolio, making it hard to value."

QIA remains unpredictable in other ways: despite a lower-profile approach, it can still capture the headlines, as the Sovereign Wealth Center pointed out in its half-yearly report this week.

Qatar Holding in March this year led a consortium – comprising US private equity firm Certares, funds managed by BlackRock and Australia’s Macquarie Capital – to buy a 50% stake in American Express’s global business travel division.

Then in May the SWF defied US and EU sanctions imposed on Russia after the invasion of Crimea when it committed $2 billion to a joint vehicle with the Russia Direct Investment Fund, the federation’s state-owned PE firm.

Don’t bet against more surprises from this mercurial institution.

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