DOHA (Reuters) - Qatar agreed on Monday to invest as much as 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in Italian companies, aiding efforts by Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti to breathe life into a weak economy.
Italy has joined a growing list of European states looking to tap Qatar's vast wealth to support national industries that are struggling to finance their way out of recession.
A joint venture between Italy's strategic investment fund and state-owned Qatar Holding will invest in sectors including food, fashion and luxury goods, furniture and design, tourism and leisure, the Italian fund said in a statement on Monday.
The venture will have capital of up to 2 billion euros ($2.5 billion) provided equally by both partners over the first four years, according to the agreement signed during Monti's visit to the small, energy-rich Gulf state.
The "IQ Made in Italy Venture" will start with 300 million euros of capital.
"We have four or five ideas (for investment in Italy) we are studying at the moment," Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said at a news conference without elaborating.
Qatar is also preparing to sign another agreement with Italy worth 1 billion euros aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises, Sheikh Hamad said, adding that Qatar would participate in half that amount.
Monti's visit to the Gulf was partly aimed at attracting new investment both for Italian sovereign bonds and for companies which have had serious problems raising capital as the financial crisis has squeezed bank balance sheets and cut off lending.
"It's significant that Italy now seems to be proactive in attracting long-term institutional investors and this venture with Qatar clearly signals that," said Rachel Zeimba, senior analyst and sovereign wealth fund expert at Roubini Global Economics in London.
"It is not clear if the investments are restricted to listed companies alone but it proves that Qatar sees long-term value in sectors such as food and fashion in the country and wants to play in on these themes," she said.
Sheikh Hamad said Monti's reform drive since taking office a year ago had helped the Italian economy and been an important step in strengthening its overall economic system.
"We believe Italy is a significant partner for Qatar in Europe," he said.
Monti, called in to head an unelected technocrat government a year ago at the height of the financial crisis, has faced growing speculation about his political future after elections expected in March.
He said nothing about his own plans but repeated on Monday that the next government would continue the reform path.
"There are no guarantees about what comes after the Italian elections. But I am confident that we will always have a responsible government," he said.
Additional reporting by Dinesh Nair in Dubai; Writing By James Mackenzie; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer