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The UAE private investor, with ties to the Dubai Ruling Family, at the heart of the battle for Fortenova

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When Saif Alketbi purchased a stake in Fortenova, the Croatian food giant and the country’s biggest private employer, many welcomed this significant foreign direct investment from the Gulf.

But, since making the acquisition, it has not at all been plain sailing for Mr. Alketbi. After acquiring the 43 per cent stake in Fortenova, purchasing SBK ART LLC from the Russian bank, Sberbank, for €400 million, SBK ART (though not Mr. Alketbi himself) found itself targeted by EU sanctions, at the request of the Croatian government.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Croatian state had previously attempted to sell Fortenova to Croatia’s pension fund. When the deal collapsed at the last moment, and in the absence of any other bidders, the respected Emirati businessman stepped in to acquire Sberbank’s stake. Since then, the Croatian government has been desperately trying to keep Fortenova in Croatian ownership, which has created the conditions for local tycoon, Pavao Vujnovac, to capitalise. To the fury of Croatia’s opposition parties.

Mr. Vujnovac is a powerful Croatian businessman, considered very close to the country’s political elite, which is causing opposition MPs to fear that Croatia is becoming a "country of oligarchs”. Already a minority shareholder in Fortenova, through his company, Open Pass, Mr. Vujnovac has taken advantage of Mr Alketbi’s misfortune to seize majority control of the company.

Mr. Vujnovac’s aggressive move comes against the backdrop of previous allegations in the media that he is too close to Croatia’s political elite with claims that a number of Mr. Vujnovac’s business partners belong to a small circle of entrepreneurs close to ruling party.

It has also been stated that Mr. Vujnovac, the owner of the natural gas company, PPD, does not hide that his firm “actively participated in creating primary and secondary legislation that allowed the preconditions to open up the [energy] market” for PPD.

In any event, Mr. Vujnovac has enjoyed remarkable good fortune and has swiftly grown PPD’s vast business interests and generated significant wealth.

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Mr. Vujnovac’s bid has also raised alarm in Washington DC, due to his ties to Russia. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democratic Member of Congress who sits on the US Intelligence Committee, has noted his concerns in a letter to Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor. Mr. Vujnovac’s energy company, PPD, signed a ten-year contract in 2017 with Gazprom, which gave Gazprom access to 70 percent of the Croatian energy market. These links continue. Earlier this year, PPD stated that the company has “not received a request from our supplier, Gazprom Export, to change the contractual provisions. Deliveries are running smoothly and PPD is meeting all its obligations towards all its buyers.”

Mr. Alketbi, however, isn’t giving up so easily. Dismayed at the attempts to force Fortenova into the hands of a man who will control vast swathes of the energy and food markets in the Balkans, Mr. Alketbi is fighting a rear-guard action and challenging Mr. Vujnovac’s  moves in the courts. He has expressed his strong interest in acquiring Fortenova for a fair price, reportedly significantly in excess of that being offered by Mr. Vujnovac.

Mr. Alketbi, who is from an important family in the UAE, is part of the UAE’s new generation of private investors. An experienced private investor, he encapsulates the Gulf state’s hungry, entrepreneurial spirit.  Formerly close to the Dubai ruling family, Mr. Alketbi held numerous roles in the Office of the Royal Family of Dubai until 2016, including as Director General of the Office of the Dubai Crown Prince, His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum.

Mr. Alketbi managed one of the Royal Court’s investment vehicles, Leemar Investments, well-known to western food and beverage giants, for its investment (since exited) in Costa Coffee. Under Mr. Alketbi’s management, Leemar purchased a 50% stake in the global restaurant group, Samba Brands, which operates successful restaurant chains across the US, Europe, and the Middle East. Mr. Alketbi also co-invested in a number of companies with the Crown Prince, including in the UAE’s largest aquaculture farm, and Skydive Dubai, a leading indoor and outdoor skydiving centre in Dubai. 

Mr. Alketbi has since grown to prominence as the chairman and founder of D-One Investment L.L.C. Mr. Alketbi’s portfolio spans a wide range of sectors, including agriculture, real estate, technology, renewable energy, and pharmaceuticals. This includes investments in a leading pharmacy chain in the UAE, Novo Healthcare Investments LLC; D-One Properties; Xoom Volt, an EV start up in the UAE; and Xoom Delivery, one of Amazon’s partners in the UAE.

For Fortenova, having gone from crisis to crisis, Mr. Alketbi’s acquisition of Sberbank’s stake appeared to represent a clean break from the company’s turbulent past. However, Mr. Vujnovac’s move to usurp Mr. Alketbi is raising eyebrows.

Gulf investors looking to invest in the Balkans will be asking themselves whether US, UK or Swiss investors would be treated with the same contempt. Other international investors are also watching the situation with Fortenova very closely, fearful that if someone with ties to the Dubai Royal Family can be subjected to unlawful expropriation in the heart of the EU, could it happen to them? 

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