By Damian Reilly
Abu Dhabi's Aabar already owns a 32% stake in Virgin Galactic; how long before Branson dips a toe in the UAE's telecoms market?
Amazing who you bump into in the Paddock at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Mainly it’s all pop stars and prima donnas having a wonderful time while pretending to hate that everyone is staring at them, and then suddenly you realise the men sitting next to you sipping coffee outside the Mercedes team hospitality chalet are the Chairman and CEO of Aabar, one of the world’s most exciting sovereign wealth funds. Between the two of them, they control $10bn of assets, and by the sounds of it there is plenty more where that came from.
Abu Dhabi, the world now knows, has massive plans, and Khadem Al Qusaibi and Mohamed Al Husseiny are very much at the forefront. In fact, the things they told me on Sunday, quite rationally, look on paper like the wild imaginings of young boys.
It turns out they are on the lookout for someone to build them a space port – the best space port in the world, naturally – in Abu Dhabi. I volunteered myself, but was turned down flat. They want a spaceport so they can start maximising returns on their 32 percent stake in Virgin Galactic, which has been set up with the intention of sending paying customers into space. Once everything is up and running, it is believed people will be able to travel, at a cost of some $200,000, from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles in about three hours.
It is not going to happen next year - the space port has to be built first - but as ridiculous as it sounded over coffee while the lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls tottered past, it is going to happen.
Al Husseiny said: “Technically it is difficult to say when we will be able to launch aircraft, because before you even get there you have to build a space port, which by itself takes years to complete. The first one that has been built for this purpose is in New Mexico, and we are hoping to learn from what New Mexico has done. We actually in the process of recruiting a candidate that will head this process of building a spaceport.”
Seventy percent owned by the International Investment Petroleum Company (IPIC), Aabar started off as small energy company, but in recent years has sold off most of its oil and gas assets and now pursues an altogether more exciting investment strategy – if you like fast cars, at least. Last year it bought a nine percent stake in Daimler for almost $2bn, and then acquired a majority stake in the championship winning Brawn Grand Prix team and changing its name to Mercedes. This year it has been quiet in comparison with last, but by the sounds of it next year will be busier. And that man Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin founder, will continue to figure.
Al Qusaibi said: “We own thirty percent [of Virgin Galactic], and we are happy with the stake. We will not increase it. It is enough for us. But I think this is a good start with Virgin and with Sir Richard Branson and we hope that we will finalise this deal and really make money and try to really add value to Abu Dhabi’s economy…
"We are considering some other projects with Sir Richard Branson. We are reviewing it. We are establishing some committees and reviewing some opportunities and brainstorming.”
Could we see Branson’s Virgin Mobile coming to the UAE in the near future? After all, Vodafone Qatar has been a big success.
“We are thinking about it. We are a partner now. Our philosophy is long term strategic partners and we are happy to develop another partnership with Sir Richard Branson with Virgin. It is a very successful company and I think we can really do a lot of things with this company,” Al Qusaibi said.
Virgin Mobile to enter the UAE market in 2011, that’s my prediction. You read it here first.
Why do I have the uneasy feeling that Mt Reilly is a sort of semi-official Abu Dhabi cheerleader with deep state roots like that Amanda Staveley who bought Man City for the Al Nahyans?