Qatar: Speak Softly and Corner the Luxury Market

Sheik Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabber Al Thani
Souce: World Economic Forum | Wikipedia
Sheik Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabber Al Thani

Very soon a louche Londoner may leave his flat in the English capital’s new luxury high-rise, motor in his Lamborghini to Tiffany’s to pick up a trinket for his favorite female and perhaps drop by Harrod’s to splurge on a thigh-high number for her by the chic dressmaker Valentino.

Every step of the way, our binging Brit may be bolstering the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar.

Lately the tiny emirate has been asserting itself politically — taking a quiet but leading role in the Syrian crisis, for instance — and financially, using its oil riches to buy up significant stakes in Shell, Barclays bank, and the British mining company Xstrata.

But nowhere is Qatar’s impact felt more strongly of late than in the luxury sector. In April, it was announced that the Qatar Investment Authority, now valued at about $100 billion, had quietly absorbed five percent of Tiffany stock, surprising even executives at the jewelry brand.

Word came this week that the Qataris are in serious talks to buy the fashion house Valentino. Qatar is the majority owner of the Shard, the tallest building in the United Kingdom, whose top floors are devoted to luxury living quarters.

Qatar has been on a shopping spree since 2010, when the QIA snapped up Harrod’s, Britain’s high-end department store. The year before, the fund had added 17 percent of Volkswagen to its holdings, making it a part owner of Porsche, Audi, Bugatti, and Lamborghini. It also owns one percent of LVMH, the French parent of brands like Dom Perignon and Louis Vuitton.

At the time, Qatar’s luxury buys were seen as one more data point in a broader trend of equity funds buying up fashion and retail brands like Jimmy Choo’s (Towerbrook Capital, among other past owners) and Valentino itself (Permira).

But after mostly sailing through the downturn, the luxury market, and investor enthusiasm, has showed signs of slowing down. Not the Qataris.

The country’s faith in luxury may be connected to the posh tastes of Qatar’s well-to-do, particularly its ruling family. The emirate’s prime minister, and chairman of the QIA, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, is said to have paid, on his own account, upwards of $90 million for a Manhattan penthouse. In London, Qatari royals have become known for their fleet of custom supercars, garishly painted turquoise.

Given the emirate’s broader diplomatic and military moves, however, it’s more likely that stocking up on designer labels like Valentino and revered institutions like Tiffany’s is calculated to further raise Qatar’s profile on the world stage.

In the meantime, it doesn't hurt to have the global rich as your customers.