The preliminary hearing of the arbitration case concerning the government’s voiding of its concession agreement with Indian Infrastructure giant GMR is scheduled to take place on April 10 in London, reports local media.
On February 3, the parties announced the appointment of arbitrators for the case. According to the Attorney General’s office, the Maldives will be represented by Singapore National University Professor M Sonaraja, while former Chief Justice of the UK, Lord Nicholas Addison Phillips, will represent GMR.
The arbitrator mutually agreed by both GMR and the government is retired senior UK Judge, Lord Leonard Hubert Hoffman.
Speaking to the newspaper, Deputy Solicitor General Ahmed Usham said that the meeting will take place at the presence of three arbitrators appointed to hear the case along with lawyers representing the government of Maldives, Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) and GMR.
“It is not an official hearing of the arbitration case. It is a hearing in which a date for the commencement of the hearings would be agreed and to agree as to how the case should proceed. Decisions concerning how the proceedings should take place will be agreed,” Usham told Haveeru.
He also said that although the preliminary hearing was to take place in London, the official hearings of the case will be heard in Singapore.
In 2010, GMR-Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) consortium, government of former President Mohamed Nasheed and Maldives Airport Company Limited (MACL) entered into a 25-year concession agreement worth US$511 million (MVR 7.787 billion) – in which the GMR-MAHB Consortium was contracted with the management and upgrading of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) within the 25 year contract period.
However in November 2012, the government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik declared the developer’s concession agreement void and ordered it to leave the country within seven days.
A last minute injunction from the Singapore High Court during arbitration proceedings was overturned on December 6, after Singapore’s Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon declared that “the Maldives government has the power to do what it wants, including expropriating the airport.”
GMR is seeking US$800 million in compensation for the sudden termination, while the Maldivian government is contending that it owes nothing as the contract was void ab initio – meaning the contract was invalid from the outset.
Should the argument of void ab initio fail, the government have claimed that its second legal ground on which it would argue in favour of termination of the contract would be that the contract had been ‘frustrated’.
‘Frustration of a contract’ is an English contract law doctrine which acts as a device to set aside contracts where an unforeseen event either renders contractual obligations impossible, or radically changes the party’s principle purpose for entering into the contract.
“The government has given a seven day notice to GMR to leave the airport. The agreement states that GMR should be given a 30 day notice but the government believes that since the contract is void, it need not be followed,” said Attorney General Azima Shukoor at the time of announcement of the contract.
The awarding of the bid in 2010 was overseen by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), which the Waheed government has accused of being “negligent” and “irresponsible”.
Should the matter be decided in the government’s favour, uncertainty remains as to the potential impact on foreign investor sentiment given the prospect of sudden asset seizure under the ‘void ab initio’ precedent.
If decided in GMR’s favour, the outcome of the case could potentially see the Maldives facing sovereign bankruptcy, with millions of dollars in additional debt emptying the state’s already dwindling reserves, crippling the country’s ability to obtain further credit, and potentially sparking an economic or currency crisis.
In December 2012, the Maldives government paid back US$50 million to the State Bank of India, after it refused to extend the period of the treasury bonds issued by the bank during the previous government. India has called in further installments of US$50 million, forcing the government to draw on the state reserves.
Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad has said the government is yet to come to an arrangement to pay the next US$50 million installment to SBI, explaining that the money will have to come from the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA).
“The US$50 million due in February will have to be paid from the reserve. We have been ordered to pay the amount. There has been no change to the order so far. So it must be paid,” Jihad told local media at the time.
At the start of 2013, state reserves had shrunk to MVR 4.9 billion (US$317.7 million), according to the MMA.
“Gross international reserves at the MMA have been declining slowly, and now account for just one and half months of imports, and could be more substantially pressured if major borrowings maturing in the next few months are not rolled over,” an International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation observed during a mission to the Maldives in November last year.
Moreover, one of GMR’s lenders, Axis Bank, is also seeking the repayment of loans for the airport project, which were guaranteed by the Ministry of Finance and approved by the Attorney General’s Office under the former government.
Attorney General’s office was not available for a comment at time of press.