Qatar agrees to invest in Greek businesses as PM talks up opportunities in Doha

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Tuesday obtained a commitment from his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, to invest in a fund to support small and medium-sized businesses in Greece.

Samaras led a Greek delegation of politicians and businessmen on a two-day trip to Doha in the hope of rekindling relations with the Qataris, who have shown interest in Greece as an investment opportunity in the past, and as part of a drive to show that the country has put the worst of the crisis behind it.

Sheikh Hamad said that Qatar would invest 1 billion euros into a joint fund for Greek SMEs as long as Greece did the same. Qatar reached a similar agreement with Italy in November.

Samaras said that Greece could become a significant bridge between the Middle East and Europe in areas such as banking and construction. He also stressed that fears about Greece leaving the eurozone had subsided.

“Our country offers important investment opportunities,” said Samaras. “We experienced a dramatic crisis but it has made us wiser, more decisive and stronger.”

The Qatari prime minister outlined the reasons why the Gulf state has been reluctant to express an interest in the assets the Greek government intends to privatize via tender processes.

“We prefer direct government-to-government relations. We think it’s quicker and more practical,” said Sheikh Hamad. “A serious investor is hard to find today. We are a serious investor and friend to Greece. The most effective way is to make a fair, direct deal.”

Samaras said that the two sides were in discussions about direct investments from Qatar, some of which would be on the level of specific companies, rather than the state.

The state-owned Qatar Investment Authority has been active in Greece since 2008, when it bought a 4 percent stake in Alpha Bank for about 300 million euros. However, after that potential Qatari backing for projects to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Astakos, to cooperate in a gold mining project in Halkidiki and to build on the site of the old airport in Elliniko have all fallen through.

Government sources said Samaras’s trip to Qatar would be followed up by other efforts to convince the world that Greece is overcoming its problems and is capable of becoming a turnaround story. Athens will also have its eye on a decision due in Brussels on February 8, which will determine what amount of EU structural funds Greece will qualify for in the new support framework. Samaras’s government is hoping that Greece will get as much as 14 billion euros.

Earlier, Samaras held a 45-minute meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was also in Doha for talks with Qatari officials. The two men agreed that Samaras would visit Ankara on March 4-5 and that his visit would be accompanied by a meeting of a top-level cooperation council involving ministers from both countries. The council last met in May 2010.

Religion was one of the main topics during the meeting, with Erdogan reiterating Turkey’s opposition to an amendment passed earlier this month by the Greek government, which gives the Greek state the right to appoint imams to state schools and mosques in Thrace. Samaras insisted that there was no intention to curb religious freedom and pointed out that making Muslim religious teachers civil servants offered them greater protection.

A report by Anadolu news agency suggested that Erdogan raised the issue of the construction of a mosque in Athens. “I told him that Turkey could cover the costs of a mosque in Athens if necessary permission is granted and Mr Samaras showed a positive attitude,” the Turkish prime minister is quoted as saying. Kathimerini understands that Samaras rejected the offer.

When questioned whether there was an option for Greece to fund the Halki Seminary in Istanbul, Erdogan reportedly replied: “Why not? That’s possible.”

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