BEIRUT

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Etihad Airways nears decision on Alitalia stake

File - The Etihad Airways headquarters in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways said on February 2, 2014 it has entered the final stage of an assessment whether to purchase a stake in Italy's debt-laden airline Alitalia, October 14, 2012. (AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: The United Arab Emirates’ national airline suggested Sunday that it is nearing a decision on taking a stake in struggling Italian carrier Alitalia as a high-level Italian delegation visited the Mideast country.

The two-day visit led by Italian Premier Enrico Letta is aimed at boosting ties and strengthening economic cooperation with the oil-rich federation. It is the first leg of a Gulf tour that will also include stops in Qatar and Kuwait.

Letta began his visit in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi Saturday with talks with the Abu Dhabi crown prince, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. The two men discussed areas of “joint cooperation in areas of economy, trade and investment,” according to Emirati state news agency WAM.

The crown prince plays a key role in the UAE leadership. He is expected to eventually succeed his half-brother, the Emirati president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who is recovering from a recent stroke.

Letta is also expected to meet the UAE prime minister, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, and other officials.

The UAE has shown interest in deepening its investments in Italy. Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments paid $2.2 billion in 2010 for nearly 5 percent Unicredit, Italy’s largest bank.

State-backed Etihad Airways is in ongoing talks with Alitalia about taking a potentially sizable stake in the debt-laden carrier.

The airlines said Sunday that they have “entered the final phase of a due diligence process about a possible investment” into the Italian carrier. They will work toward developing a common strategy over the next 30 days “which meets the objectives of both parties,” though they acknowledged that hurdles remain.

“Any issues that may prevent the establishment of an appropriate business plan will have to be resolved to ensure the plan can be implemented to move Alitalia to sustainable profitability,” the airlines said.

They gave no indication of how big of a stake Etihad would consider or how much it might pay.

Alitalia’s board in October approved plans for a 300 million euro ($404 million) capital increase as part of a broader rescue plan to help it stave off bankruptcy. But the money-losing airline still faces strong financial headwinds after one of its main shareholders, Air France-KLM, said it would not join in the money-raising effort.

In December, the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour paid a visit to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the seven-state UAE federation.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 03, 2014, on page 5.

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