Qatar buys part of British Airways, prompting security concerns

Critics question whether Gulf state, with close links to Hamas, Nusra Front and al-Qaeda, compatible with British values

In this Jan. 15, 2015 file photo, the new Airbus A350 of Qatar Airways coming from Doha, Qatar, approaches the gate at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. (AP/Michael Probst-file)
In this Jan. 15, 2015 file photo, the new Airbus A350 of Qatar Airways coming from Doha, Qatar, approaches the gate at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. (AP/Michael Probst-file)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Qatar Airways said Friday it has bought nearly 10 percent of the parent company of British Airways and Spain’s Iberia, deepening wealthy Qatar’s business ties to Europe and intensifying competition with the airline’s fast-growing Gulf rivals.

The Qatari government-backed airline said the decision to buy 9.99 percent of International Consolidated Airlines Group, also known as IAG, was part of an effort to enhance its operations and strengthen commercial ties with the European company.

Financial terms were not disclosed, but the stake is worth about 1.13 billion pounds ($1.7 billion) given IAG’s market value.

“It makes sense for us to work more closely together in the near term and we look forward to forging a long-term relationship,” Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker said in a statement.

But critics worry about a potential security threat, given Qatar’s close links to terror organizations like Hamas and the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front.

“Companies that accept investment or agree to work with Qatar should consider very carefully its human rights record and whether they are supporting a regime that is incompatible with British values,” Baroness Caroline Cox, a cross-bench member of the British House of Lords and founder of the charity Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, told the Daily Mail.

“Airlines in general and BA in particular are hugely strategic assets and important targets for terrorists. What are we doing selling our national airline to a country that is widely accused of funding terrorism and that clearly does not share either our values or interests?” asked political campaigner Alexander Craig, a former leader of the Christian Peoples Alliance, according to the UK paper.

Qatar Airways said it may consider increasing its stake further down the road.

Qatar Airways joined the OneWorld alliance in 2013, becoming the first of the big Gulf carriers to join an international airline alliance. British Airways was a founding member of the alliance, which also includes Iberia, American Airlines, Qantas, Cathay Pacific and several others.

IAG welcomed the move, noting its existing partnership with the Middle Eastern airline. IAG Chief Executive Willie Walsh said he was delighted to have Qatar Airways as a “long-term supportive shareholder.”

“We will talk to them about what opportunities exist to work more closely together and further IAG’s ambitions as the leading global airline group,” he said.

Qatar Airways has expanded rapidly in recent years as it and its rivals in the nearby United Arab Emirates, Dubai-based Emirates and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, increasingly drive long-haul travelers through their fast-growing Gulf hubs.

Qatar also has extensive investments in Europe, including Harrods department store and other high-end London real estate, the Paris Saint-Germain football club and a stake in British bank Barclays.

Qatar Airways is following in the footsteps of Emirati rival Etihad, which has aggressively bought up stakes in foreign airlines, including Italy’s Alitalia and Germany’s second-biggest airline, Air Berlin.

Qatar’s investment comes just days after Ireland’s national airline, Aer Lingus, said it supports a takeover bid by IAG that values the Irish carrier at 1.36 billion euros ($1.52 billion). That acquisition still must be approved by Aer Lingus’ two biggest shareholders: rival Irish carrier Ryanair and the Irish government.

Etihad also has built a stake in Aer Lingus in recent years and has a code-sharing agreement with the Irish carrier.

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