BP’s Hayward flies to Mideast to meet ‘partners’

Published 9:27 pm Wednesday, July 7, 2010

BP’s embattled CEO flew to Abu Dhabi and met with the wealthy emirate’s influential crown prince amid speculation the oil giant is looking to raise cash as costs mount to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster.

Chief Executive Tony Hayward met with crown prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan during his overnight stay in the Emirati capital, BP spokesman Andrew Gowers said Wednesday.

Gowers wouldn’t say whether BP met directly with the sheikdom’s powerful investment funds, which have provided needed cash to Western multinationals in past times of crisis. But Sheik Mohammed either leads or is closely related to the heads of a number of them.

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“He’s visiting partners as he does from time to time. He’s conducting normal business,” Gowers said of Hayward’s visit. The BP chief arrived Tuesday.

Hayward has been criticized for his handling of the oil spill in the U.S., and in recent days traveled to other countries where BP operates to reassure the company’s partners of its commitments.

In another twist, Saudi daily al-Eqtisadiah reported Wednesday that a delegation of Saudi investors was headed to London to discuss an acquisition of up to 15 percent of BP. The report didn’t say where it got the information, and could not be independently confirmed.

BP has a long-standing partnership with the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., which is responsible for crude oil production in the Arab emirate.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the seven-state UAE federation and holds the bulk of the OPEC member’s oil wealth. Power rests with the family of the emirate’s hereditary ruler, who is also the UAE’s president.

Hayward’s visit comes as speculation swirls that BP might be looking for investment partners from the Middle East. Its costs to clean up the spill have shot past the $3 billion mark, not counting a $20 billion fund for damages the company created last month.

BP’s shares rose earlier in the week amid reports it was reaching out to Gulf funds about investment opportunities in an attempt to raise cash to cover the cleanup and fend off possible takeover bids.

Abu Dhabi is home to several of the Arab Gulf’s most influential sovereign wealth funds.

A spokesman for the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, believed to be the world’s biggest sovereign fund, declined to comment on whether Hayward paid a visit during his trip. Representatives for other big funds in the emirate either did not respond or could not be reached for comment.

BP said this week it would welcome new investors but had no plans to issue new shares to help pay for the oil spill. Analysts say BP could also sell off stakes in a number of oil and gas projects around the world to raise cash.

BP shares have lost about half their value since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, causing the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Saud Masud, head of Middle East research at Swiss bank UBS, said a deal between BP and Mideast government funds, which tend to be passive, long-term investors, would make sense for both sides.

“Any time you have a 50 percent drop in a stock price, people will take notice of it,” he said. “There are several Middle East investors who could be interested.”

Mideast funds have helped out a handful of struggling Western companies in recent years.

Abu Dhabi’s ADIA agreed to invest $7.5 billion into Citigroup in late 2007 to help it offset big losses from mortgages and other investments. A year later, state-backed investors from Abu Dhabi and the nearby gas-rich nation of Qatar injected billions of pounds into British bank Barclays.

There is precedent for Gulf investment in BP. Kuwait’s sovereign wealth fund, the Kuwait Investment Authority, already ranks among the company’s biggest shareholders. Funds in Norway, Singapore and China also hold large stakes in the company.

Hayward arrived in Abu Dhabi from the capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan, where he tried to calm fears BP might sell assets there to help pay for the spill clean up. While in Baku, Hayward met with Azerbaijan President Ilkham Aliyev.

The BP CEO also met with Russian officials in Moscow last week. Following those meetings, an official at the company’s Russian joint venture TNK-BP said that firm would consider buying some of BP’s assets if they were put up for sale.