Qatari investor buys European private banking unit

By ADAM SCHRECK | October 10, 2011 | 7:45 AM EDT

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A buyer from Qatar agreed to buy the private banking division of Belgium's KBC Group for just over euro1 billion Monday, adding to the wealthy Arab nation's growing portfolio of European holdings.

Qatar, an OPEC member and the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, has been increasing its European investments in recent months as policymakers on the continent scramble to contain the debt crisis there.

KBC said it will sell the KBL European Private Bankers subsidiary, known as KBL ebp, to Luxembourg-based Precision Capital, which it described as "a company representing the business interests of a Qatari investor." That language suggests the deal carries the blessing of Qatar's ruling emir, who holds near absolute power in the small Persian Gulf country.

Precision agreed to pay euro1.05 billion ($1.41 billion) for the private banking unit, though euro50 million of the total depends on the bank's performance.

Regulators must still approve the deal, which KBC said it hopes to complete in the first quarter of 2012.

KBC Chief Executive Jan Vanhevel said Precision plans to grow KBL epb and hopes to take advantage of its ties to the Middle East and Asia.

"It is also reassuring to see that a Qatari investor recognizes and values the strengths and potential of a European private banking group," he said in a statement.

Precision could not be reached for comment.

KBL ebp is based in Luxembourg and has operations in eight other European countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

The deal comes amid speculation that Qatari buyers might also be interested in buying the Luxembourg unit of troubled Franco-Belgian bank Dexia.

Belgium agreed to buy the Belgian retail arm of Dexia for euro4 billion on Monday. The governments of Belgium, France and Luxembourg together will provide an additional euro90 billion in funding guarantees for the bank for up to 10 years.

Qatar Holding, the Gulf country's main state investment arm, declined to comment on Dexia's Luxembourg unit Monday.

Qatar has long shown a strong interest in European companies, acquiring stakes in continental icons such as Barclays PLC, Credit Suisse Group, Volkswagen AG, and the London Stock Exchange in recent years.

In late August, Qatari investors agreed to pump 500 million euros into the merger of Greece's second and third largest banks. Earlier this month, Qatar Holding said it would spend $775 million to buy a stake in European Goldfields, which operates a gold mine in Greece.