Sale talks have been ongoing for six months, nothing likely to materialise soon
Talks to sell a stake in Britain's state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland are being held at the level of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, sources told Reuters on Tuesday.
A source familiar with the matter said Amanda Staveley, a businesswoman notable for her Middle Eastern connections, was advising the emirate's rulers.
"The talks have been going on for six months, and nothing is likely to materialise for the next few months," the source said, adding that Abu Dhabi could end up with a stake of more than a third, though it has not decided which of its entities would hold the stake.
Staveley played a prominent role in Abu Dhabi royal Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahayan's 2008 investment in another British bank, Barclays.
A senior banker told Reuters that the oil-rich emirate's sovereign wealth funds were not involved in talks at this stage.
"It's happening higher up," the banker said, adding that a deal could fall apart on price grounds. Two other banking sources also said that a deal, if it happened, would be struck at a government-to-government level.
"Abu Dhabi is always talking to parties to invest, including RBS. Whether it will materialise or not is too early to say," a source close to the royal family said on condition of anonymity.
A stake buy by Abu Dhabi would be the first move on a large financial asset by Gulf investors since the 2008 financial crisis, when regional royals and sovereign funds bought into Citigroup, Credit Suisse and Barclays.
An Abu Dhabi government official declined to comment.
Shares in RBS, in which the British government took an 83 percent stake in 2008, were up 4.3 percent by 1057 GMT at 28.9 pence, making them the top gainers on the bluechip FTSE benchmark, which was up 0.1 percent.
The senior banker said he did not expect a stake to be sold at a price higher than the market level.
A deal at that price would leave British taxpayers nursing billions of pounds of losses, given the average price of 49.9 pence the government paid for its stake.
"During the whole euro crisis, it's been interesting to see how the Gulf sovereign wealth funds have generally stayed away from making a move. Maybe now that things have settled down a little, there could be a shift in that thinking," said David Butter, an independent Middle East analyst.
Gulf investors have historically had a penchant for British assets, piling into London real estate and buying up trophy assets such as the Harrods department store.
"There's a long-standing strategic relationship between Britain and Abu Dhabi, and they come to Abu Dhabi because of that," said Mohammed Ali Yasin, an Abu Dhabi-based market analyst. "If this deal does go through, it would be more about Abu Dhabi helping the UK rather than a plan to invest in the banks in Europe or Britain."
Some of these investments have paid off handsomely. Abu Dhabi made about GBP£3bn after investing in Barclays during the financial crisis, in a complex deal that helped the bank avoid a state bailout.
"If they can turn their investment in RBS into anything like the returns they had on their Barclays shareholding, they will do very well out of it, which in turn should be to the benefit of the wider British economy," said Simon Denham, CEO of spread-betters Capital Spreads.
RBS CEO Stephen Hester is three years into a five-year turnaround plan that he has dubbed the biggest-ever bank restructuring.
RBS lost GBP£2bn last year, its fourth straight annual loss, pushing back the time it is expected to deliver returns for investors.
That renewed calls for Britain to consider kick-starting the sale of the stake at a loss to cut growing political interference - mostly on lending and pay - and boost the appeal of the bank for private investors.
"We will start returning the stake to the private sector when it offers value for money to the taxpayer," a British Treasury official told the Financial Times on Monday. "The share price is not near that now."
Britain also holds a 41-percent stake in Lloyds Banking Group. It is sitting on a
GBP£10bn loss on that GBP£20bn rescue.