What's Tony Hayward Doing in Abu Dhabi?

(The last paragraph has been updated to more accurately reflect the conclusions of the story.)

Tony Hayward played it coy when asked what brought him to the wealthy desert emirate of Abu Dhabi, where the BP (BP) chief executive officer met in early July with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. If he went for the waters, like the nightclub owner played by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, he was misinformed. His unannounced visit stoked speculation that BP is seeking a new set of investors—patient ones—after a roughly 50 percent decline in its stock price caused by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Arab investors are no strangers to BP. After the 1987 stock market crash, the Kuwait Investment Authority acquired a 20 percent stake in BP; it still owned 1.75 percent as of May 1, according to Bloomberg data. Libya, ruled by the volatile Muammar Qaddafi, is a less likely investor in BP, but it's interested, too. Libya National Oil Chairman Shokri Ghanem told Bloomberg Television on July 6 that he's advising the Libyan sovereign wealth fund to take a stake in BP, calling it a "good buy."

If a new set of investors do start to accumulate big stakes in BP, it will put U.S. authorities in a tricky position. BP, having bought both Amoco and Arco, has large operations in the U.S. and is the biggest oil producer in the Gulf of Mexico. Federal officials and members of Congress might not like to see lots of shares in the hands of potentially rival or unfriendly nations. Ultimately, though, it's not America's call—BP is headquartered in London, so it's up to the British government to decide if new share owners present security issues. No such review is under way.

What's more, driving away new investors from BP might not be in America's best interest, since the Administration is counting on BP to generate tens of billions of dollars in cash to clean up the Gulf and settle claims. Doing so will be easier for BP if it recruits investors who are willing to sit tight while the oil giant works through its troubles. On June 16, President Barack Obama said: "BP is a strong and viable company, and it is in all of our interests that it remain so."

By recruiting stable investors who are friendly to management, Hayward can lessen the threat of a hostile takeover offer for the weakened company from the likes of ExxonMobil (XON) or France's Total (TOT). For now at least, raising cash isn't the objective. BP spokeswoman Sheila Williams, while declining to comment on Hayward's sojourn to Abu Dhabi, said on July 6 that the company won't issue stock.

BP can get money other ways. The company has said it intends to raise $10 billion over the next 12 months through asset sales. It's considering selling peripheral oil fields in Colombia, Venezuela, and Vietnam and may also dispose of its 60 percent holding in Pan American Energy, Argentina's second-largest oil producer, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. It has also suspended its dividend.

If sovereign wealth funds do acquire stakes in BP, they are likely to make them small and passive to avoid political conflicts, predicts Kuwait-based oil analyst Kamil al-Harami. That's based on what he calls the Kuwait Investment Office's "bitter experience" after 1987, when British authorities forced it to reduce its stake to below 10 percent so it wouldn't qualify for a board seat.

The question is whether investors' efforts to stay under the radar will work with the U.S. Congress, which is at least as sensitive as the British about foreign investments in its energy sector. In 2005 congressional opposition deep-sixed an attempt by Cnooc (CEO), an oil company controlled by the Chinese government, to buy California-based Unocal for $18.5 billion.

The public's fury over the Gulf spill has probably made Congress even pricklier about foreign energy investments, says Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman who advises companies on how to deal with Congress and federal agencies. Says Weber: "I would be very careful if I were somebody at BP before I got too far down the road on an investment that would attract too much political attention."

Since BP isn't an American company, the makeup of its investors falls outside the jurisdiction of Congress and the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., notes Edwin M. Truman, an expert on sovereign wealth funds at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. But Congress could still make trouble for BP. "If Congress wants to assert authority over something, they will find a way," says Weber, who is managing partner of Clark & Weinstock in Washington. Foreign investors don't like to be hauled before congressional committees, so they tend to back off when they sense opposition developing, says James K. Jackson, a specialist in international trade and finance at the Congressional Research Service.

It's a hypothetical concern for now. If the U.S. gets too picky about BP's shareholder base, though, it could disrupt a company it's counting on to pay claimants ranging from shrimpers to hotel owners.

The bottom line: BP needs patient investors as it copes with the costs of the oil spill. But in lining up new shareholders it has to tread gently on American sensitivities.

With Ayesha Daya, Camilla Hall, Brian Swint, Gonzalo Vina, Juan Pablo Spinetto, and Stanley Reed

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