Monday, January 18, 2010

Saudi billionaire eyes new links with News Corp.


The Saudi billionaire whose investment firm is one of the biggest stakeholders in Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. said he is looking to expand his alliances with the media giant, in the latest indication that his appetite for growth remains robust even as his company retrenches.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of the Saudi king and who was listed last year by Forbes as the world's 22nd richest person, met with News Corp.'s chief executive Rupert Murdoch on Jan. 14 in a meeting that "touched upon future potential alliances with News Corp.," according to a statement released by his Kingdom Holding Co. late Saturday.

Media reports have indicated that News Corp, parent to Fox News and Dow Jones & Co., among others, may be thinking of buying a stake in Alwaleed's Rotana Media Group, which includes a number of satellite channels that air in the Middle East.

Neither company has commented publicly on the possible deal, but the talks offer an indication yet that such an agreement may yet be in the offing.

Kingdom Holding's statement said Alwaleed is already the second largest stakeholder in News Corp., with 5.7 percent of the shares of the media company. The stake is held through Kingdom Holding, in which Alwaleed holds a 95 percent stake.

The investment company has a diverse portfolio, ranging from hotels to shares in Apple, eBay and Citigroup.

Alwaleed, and the investment firm, were hit hard by the global meltdown.

He has since focused on shoring up borrowing power, in part through a recent decision to transfer 180 million of his shares in Citigroup to Kingdom Holding. In a statement last week, he described the move - valued at about $600 million - as key to facilitating future borrowing and growth.

The Saudi royal also met last week with Citigroup's chief executive Vikram Pandit, according to a statement by Kingdom Holding e-mailed Sunday.

Alwaleed told Pandit that the "honeymoon is now over," a clear indication that one of the banking giant's largest investors wants solid results this year, according to a transcript of an interview that aired Thursday on Fox Business News.

"I told him that clearly the market gave you two years leeway, but I think now it's time to deliver," Alwaleed said. "And 2010 is really for him is year to make it or break it, and he has to deliver. "

Alwaleed raised his stake in Citigroup to 5 percent in late 2008 from less than 4 percent in a move that came as the company was facing a possible collapse. Kingdom Holding says Alwaleed is the single largest shareholder in Citigroup.

Citigroup has repaid the money it borrowed from the U.S. government during the financial crisis, but still faces a new fee to be levied on banks by the Obama administration to recoup $120 billion in taxpayer money used to support faltering companies.

Alwaleed said he was opposed to the move, arguing that "I believe taxing the banks right now is not the right time at all."

"It's like you have a patient just coming out of ICU, intensive care unit, and all of sudden bang him with another tax. I think it's too much, it's too early for that if it's going to have that happen," he said, according to the transcript.

The $120 billion recovery goal is the most that administration officials expect to lose from the government's $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program that bailed out banks, automakers and other financial firms.

Alwaleed's Rotana already has an alliance with News Corp.

In 2008, the two companies teamed up to bring Fox Movies to the Arab world and then last year, Rotana and Fox International Channels signed a multi-year output deal with The Walt Disney Co. to provide a range of programing to viewers in the Middle East, according to the statement by Kingdom Holding.

Alwaleed has also been meeting with officials in Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich emirate that recently bailed out Dubai, its glitzy neighbor awash in debt.

A statement by Kingdom Holding said the Saudi royal met with senior officials in Abu Dhabi, which holds the presidency of the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven semiautonomous city-states.

Abu Dhabi's largest sovereign wealth fund, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, alleges "fraudulent misrepresentations" by Citigroup over the fund's $7.5 billion investment in the banking giant. ADIA has said it is seeking compensation or an exit from the deal.

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