14 C
New York

Saudi Arabia Takes Partial Control of UK’s Heathrow Airport


London’s Heathrow Airport is one of the world’s busiest hubs, a gateway bridging Britain and the globe. But Heathrow just gained surprising new owners – the Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund is taking a $1 billion stake.

This reflects a broader trend of Gulf nations amplifying investments across the West, especially in the UK.

From infrastructure to sports teams, companies and real estate, money from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and beyond increasingly flows into major Western assets. It represents a new era where ties between the democratic world and absolute monarchies of the Middle East grow more intertwined.

As iconic brands and vital services land in oil-rich hands, deeper ties emerge between Western democracies and Gulf monarchies. These regions have differing political systems and values. 

As economic ties between the West and the Gulf expand, can their distinct systems and values adapt to support mutual understanding and cooperation?

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund or the PIF, is making major moves to expand the kingdom’s economic influence globally. This includes a £1 billion stake in London’s Heathrow Airport, marking a new chapter for one of the world’s busiest travel hubs.

Heathrow Airport Holdings has been owned in part by Spanish infrastructure company Ferrovial since 2006, when Ferrovial launched a successful hostile takeover of BAA, operator of Heathrow and other UK airports. But after 17 years, Ferrovial is now divesting its 25% stake in Heathrow, selling 10% to the PIF and 15% to French private equity firm Ardian for a total of £2.4 billion.

The PIF will pay £1 billion for its share of Heathrow Airport Holdings. This gives Saudi Arabia a substantial foothold in running a critical European travel gateway. It also provides insight into airport operations that could benefit Saudi airports in the future, as they aim to handle more global air traffic.

According to Luke Bugeja, CEO of Ferrovial Airports, “We have overseen an investment of £12 billion, expanding capacity with the construction of Terminal 2 and improving operational performance.” But Ferrovial had also grown frustrated with UK regulators capping Heathrow’s landing charges, which has kept the airport unprofitable despite rising interest rates.

The PIF, with over $700 billion in assets from Saudi oil revenue, has been aggressively investing worldwide in recent years. 

This diversification beyond oil and gas represents a broader economic vision pushed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who controls the PIF. The young prince aims to modernize Saudi Arabia and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. But his methods have provoked condemnation abroad.

Critics point to human rights abuses, including the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. While Prince Mohammed claims no foreknowledge of the killing, US intelligence concluded he likely approved it. Despite this, President Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia this year seeking oil production increases.

So while some view Saudi Arabia’s global investments suspiciously, many nations court the oil-rich kingdom.

The Heathrow purchase follows other PIF investments in English sports and infrastructure. Two years ago it took majority ownership of Newcastle United Football Club, and also purchased a stake in McLaren Racing before selling it to Bahrain later on. 

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia is investing in building up tourism and entertainment domestically, loosening some cultural restrictions to draw more foreigners. These efforts appear designed to diversify the economy and transform global perceptions of the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has even expressed interest in hosting the World Cup soccer tournament in 2034, part of its push towards sports, entertainment and tourism. Leveraging newfound wealth, Saudi leaders want their nation viewed as modern and moderate, a partner attractive for business despite its troublesome human rights record.

From Heathrow Airport’s perspective, the PIF investment provides a cash infusion and new owners without Ferrovial’s baggage. 

As Saudi Arabia expands its economic clout internationally, other sovereign wealth funds are doing the same.

Saudi Arabia’s purchase of a stake in Heathrow Airport highlights the intricate web of ownership surrounding this critical travel hub. The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund will not be the first state actor holding shares in Heathrow.

Qatar Investment Authority already owns 20% of Heathrow Airport Holdings, making it the single largest shareholder even before the Saudi purchase. Meanwhile, China Investment Corporation owns another 10% chunk. So once the deal concludes, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and China will control 40% of Heathrow Airport.

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia aim to leverage money, investment and tourism to elevate their international status and reshape global perceptions. With its immense oil wealth and bold crown prince, Saudi Arabia boasts natural advantages in this rivalry with its smaller neighbor Qatar.

From hotels and airports to sports and technology, Saudi money flows abroad chasing clout and profits despite some public relations backlash. For recipient multinationals and cash-strapped governments, Saudi investment provides capital for deals, projects or deficits.

What are Saudi Arabia’s motivations for acquiring a stake in Heathrow Airport? On the surface, it appears to support their goals of becoming a global transportation hub. However, their intentions may go beyond just commercial benefits. Does this represent a longer-term strategy by Saudi Arabia to gain influence over a critical UK travel gateway? Could there be political motivations as well?

Could this deal grant Saudi Arabia access to sensitive passenger or flight data? Heathrow has huge amounts of data on travelers and aircraft activity. This data could potentially be misused by Saudi Arabia to increase surveillance and monitoring of political opponents or dissidents passing through the airport. There are legitimate concerns over human rights in Saudi Arabia, so the UK government needs to rigorously evaluate and restrict any data access.

Saudi Arabia could gain valuable insights from Heathrow to boost their domestic airports and global aviation infrastructure ambitions. By learning from Heathrow’s operations and partnering with a marquee global brand, Saudi airports gain capacity to compete for more international traffic and events.

This exchange works both ways, as Heathrow now benefits from Saudi capital and connections to rising Gulf region travel flows. But it also ties the UK’s main airport to a foreign power accused of multiple rights violations.

So what risks does Saudi ownership introduce for Heathrow security itself? By having part ownership, Saudi Arabia may try to obtain operational influence over certain aspects of Heathrow security protocols.

In summary, the UK government faces a complex balancing act if approving this deal. There are clear economic benefits, but also non-trivial risks. Guarantees must be put in place to prevent data misuse or security overreach by Saudi co-owners. If satisfactory protections seem unlikely, then denying the investment may become necessary on ethical and security grounds. A prudent, cautious approach is essential to evaluate all dimensions here.

Whether Saudi Arabia gains any operational influence at Heathrow Airport through its ownership stake remains unclear. On one hand, the investment could be structured as a relatively passive financial stake without direct managerial involvement. But on the other, Saudi Arabia may leverage its part ownership to shape certain policies and procedures at Heathrow.

But overall, risks exist of Saudi Arabia utilizing its ownership for undue operational interference at Heathrow.

The acquisition of a stake in Heathrow Airport by Saudi Arabia comes just a few days after the UAE’s bid to purchase the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. While separate deals, both reflect growing appetite by Gulf states to invest in prime British assets.

A few days ago, an investment group backed by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi bid to take over the Telegraph Media Group. This sparked concerns over a foreign ruler influencing a major British media outlet. But the Telegraph deal stalled amid backlash.

The Heathrow purchase by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund may elicit similar worries – that a strategic travel hub was falling under foreign control. Yet the UK government has not intervened like it may with the Telegraph.

These deals exemplify Gulf nations leveraging wealth to expand political and economic influence in Britain. From media to infrastructure, lucrative sectors draw investment from oil-rich regional powers.

But risks exist around ceding control of national assets to state actors with questionable rights records. Fears emerge that business priorities may mix with political agendas. Democratic values like press freedom and traveler privacy require protection.

Ultimately, the UK walks a tightrope – welcoming Gulf capital accompanied with ties they may not be prepared for.

The influx of Arab investment into iconic Western assets reflects the shifting global dynamics of money and power. As oil-rich Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE flex their financial muscle, they gain footholds in prized brands and infrastructure. With more Arab petrodollars flowing into global markets, the future likely holds both profitable opportunities and possible political clashes as Western and Gulf interests intertwine.

Related articles

Recent articles