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Saudi Arabia said to plan majority control of London airport in $12 billion deal

After dominating the world of golf and placing itself atop a new Premier League soccer force, Saudi Arabia now looks set to take control of another Western asset: the U.K.’s busiest airport.

The Sunday Times of London reports that the Saudi Investment Fund and private equity group Ardian are in the process of taking majority control of London Heathrow Airport after the pair bought up the shares of infrastructure giant Ferrovial last month in an outsized deal. 

Ferrovial, the former majority owner of Heathrow, announced in November that it had agreed to sell its 25% stake in Heathrow for £2.4 billion ($3 billion), with 15% going to Ardian and 10% going to the Saudi PIF. The deal valued the airport at £9.5 billion ($12 billion). 

It marks a significant upgrade on the last known valuation of the airport, when pension fund USS bought a 9% stake in 2013 that gave Heathrow an implied value of £4.5 billion ($7.3 billion).

Now, the Times reports that the deal for Ferrovial is viewed by remaining shareholders as almost too good to be true, and many appear keen to sell out.

The PIF and Ardian didn’t immediately respond to Fortune’s request for comment.

Under the terms of Heathrow’s shareholder agreement, Ardian and the PIF are obligated to buy the shares of other shareholders at the same valuation as the Ferrovial deal if requested.

“At that price, we’re a seller,” an unnamed source told the Times.

Shareholders in Heathrow include the sovereign wealth funds of China, Qatar, and Singapore, as well as major Australian and Canadian pension funds in addition to USS.

The Times reports that while the sovereign wealth funds may decide to hold onto their stakes, the rest are keen to sell up at the inflated figure. That would give Saudi Arabia and Ardian a 60% stake in the airport.

Saudi influence grows

Reports of Saudi’s $700 billion PIF taking joint control of Heathrow Airport marks the sovereign wealth fund’s latest big-ticket investment in Western assets, as part of Saudi Arabia’s plan to diversify its economy away from its dependence on oil.

The PIF became the owner of Newcastle United in October 2021 in a controversial takeover, and the country plans to host the FIFA World Cup in 2034. The group later created the LIV golf tournament, prising away huge stars in multibillion-dollar deals before merging with the PGA. 

Critics have described these ventures as “sportswashing” projects, accusing Saudi Arabia of using the soft influence of sport to deflect from scrutiny of the country’s record on human rights and the environment.

The country’s influence isn’t just confined to investments in sports projects. The PIF agreed to buy Standard Chartered’s aircraft leasing business for $3.6 billion in August, while in September it became the largest shareholder in Spanish telecom giant Telefonica in a $2.3 billion deal.

The acquisition of Heathrow Airport would raise further questions about Saudi Arabia’s influence over key Western infrastructure. 

However, the Times reported an unnamed source at the PIF-Ardian consortium as saying the pair would operate independently of each other and hold their stakes in the airport separately. The source did, on the other hand, admit that PIF is a limited partner investor in Ardian’s investment funds.

Despite inevitable speculation over the strategic motivations behind owning most of Heathrow Airport, it is seen as an attractive long-term investment prospect for sovereign wealth funds.

The company makes money from landing charges against airlines, set by the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Infrastructure costs are paid through these charges, giving the airport the status of a lucrative passive investment.

Heathrow is attempting to expand with a third runway, though it has been in a lengthy regulatory fight in an attempt to push this through. Traffic at the airport remains below 2019 levels.

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