'Enough Money to Buy Google': Arab States on a Buying Spree

Dubai deal for NASDAQ is just the latest big deal from the oil-rich Gulf States


Sept. 21, 2007 — -- With oil in the mid-$80 a barrel range, there is a river of cash flowing into the Middle East.

And now the sultans, princes and emirs of the super-rich Gulf states are diverting that flow of cash into high-profile businesses and companies around the globe, hoping to leverage the high prices into power that extends beyond the petroleum economy that has made them rich.

"The oil producers are drowning in dollars," said Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute. "So it's natural that they would want to invest them."

Just today, the American-based stock exchange NASDAQ announced a deal in which it will sell 20 percent of its shares to Borse Dubai, a one-month-old stock exchange that is owned by the government.

It's just the latest deal in a high-profile buying spree that has put the Gulf states at the forefront of global dealmakers. And with more than a $1 billion a day in oil revenues flowing into their coffers, they have plenty of money to spread around.

"Many countries that are not democratic are suddenly popping up with huge amounts of money, and they're beginning to invest it and you can imagine, for example, that there are some countries that have enough money to buy Google," said Prestowitz. "You might not be too concerned if the Brits bought Google, but the Brits aren't going to buy Google. But I could imagine other countries that you might be more concerned about owning Google."

While a deal for Google isn't in the works, the Gulf states have been gobbling up big-name companies all over the globe.

Qatar started a process for buying J. Sainsbury, a major British supermarket chain, this week. They've purchased a 20 percent stake in the London Stock Exchange, too.

The government of Dubai has entered into a bidding war for American luxury retailer Barneys, purchased a stake in the MGM Mirage and has become one of the biggest owners of container ports through major acquisitions.

Their neighbors in Abu Dhabi just snatched up a huge stake in the American private equity firm Carlyle Group, which owns, in part, Dunkin' Donuts, Hertz Rent-a-Car and AMC Theaters.

The deal flow is, by any measure, massive. According to figures from Bloomberg, the Gulf states have put more than $68 billion in to foreign acquisitions so far this year, more than twice what they spent in all of 2006.

"The apostles of globalization never thought this kind of thing was going to happen," said Prestowitz. "And it has implications that are very significant both economically and politically, and I think we ought to think about it."

Critics of the buying spree are concerned that having nondemocratic, Middle Eastern governments in ownership positions of American firms could put the country at risk. These concerns have pushed some in Congress to publicly oppose almost any big-dollar deal from the Gulf states.

Just last year, the Dubai Ports World purchase of several major U.S. shipping facilities was scuttled when Congress raised concerns.

It's not clear where congressional scrutiny of the NASDAQ deal will lead, but President Bush commented on the tie-up, saying the administration would "take a good look at it, as to whether or not it has any national security implications."

Bush said he is "concerned about protectionism. I'm concerned about it because if the United States loses its confidence when it comes to trading, it'll make it less likely our economy will grow."

Supporters of the deals point out that this is all part of the larger trend of globalization. These countries, they say, are providing what the market wants, and should be able to use the proceeds any way they want, even if it's buying up American firms.

"We want them to come back in to the U.S. economy," said Sarah Emerson, an analyst at Energy Security Analysis. "We don't want them to go elsewhere. We need the investment here in our own assets and our own securities."

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