Access: Middle East

Bahrain fund open to McLaren stake sale

A McLaren P1
Source: McLaren

The chief executive of Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund, Mumtalakat Holding Company, has confirmed that while there were no talks with Honda about buying its stake in U.K. automaker McLaren, a sale of the luxury sports car group was still an option.

"Our stake in McLaren, you know, we are happy to have it there. If there is a business opportunity for somebody to buy from us we look at it commercially, but there is no talk at the moment directly with them (Honda) no," Mahmood Al Kooheji told CNBC's "Access: Middle East" in an exclusive interview.

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Al Kooheji indicated that although the fund still had strong ties to the U.K. carmaker, in which it first bought a stake in 2007, it was still willing to listen to bids. Bahrain's investment arm owns 42 percent of the McLaren Group, and half of McLaren Automotive. The local Formula 1 track is also part of its motor racing portfolio.

Reports earlier this year suggested Honda was interested in picking up the stake as part of its agreement to supply engines to McLaren's Formula 1 racing team starting in 2015. McLaren has said Honda was not interested in a possible purchase.

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Gulf sovereign wealth funds have been criticized for simply pursuing "trophy" assets with little tangible returns, with carmakers emerging as a popular target in the aftermath of the global financial crisis: Kuwait's investment in Aston Martin and Qatar's stake in Volkswagen are just two examples.

Mumtalakat, as the Bahrain fund is better known, was set up in 2006 to handle the Gulf island's sovereign investments, and currently has $10.6 billion in assets under management. The fund swung to profit for the first time after five years in 2013, following a restructuring of troubled flag carrier Gulf Air. And now Mumtalakat feels the time is right for an ambitious expansion strategy.

"I think the growth that you're looking at as well as the business opportunities will give us an ROI of 15 plus percent. So if I do the math, we expect the fund to grow, to be twice the size in five years," he added.

The fund has earmarked $398 million for new asset purchases in 2014. Al Kooheji, who took over at the helm of Mumtalakat in 2012, described the fund's investment approach investment strategy as "conservative".

"We are looking at a few opportunities in Europe and we're quite bullish. In America we have goal of acquiring investments".

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In April, Mumtalakat signed a memorandum of understanding with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), a $10 billion state-run investment vehicle. As part of the agreement Al Kooheji will join RDIF's international advisory board.

The vast majority of Mumtalakat's investments are in the Kingdom of Bahrain, where political tensions have flared repeatedly since 2011. The fund also has a controlling stake in Aluminium Bahrain (ALBA), one of the world's largest aluminium smelters.

This week on "Access: Middle East": An exclusive interview with Mahmood Al Kooheji, CEO of Mumtalakat Holding Company. Join the show for details on the investment strategy of this sovereign wealth fund, and watch Yousef take the McLaren 12C around Bahrain's Formula 1 track.

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