The government has been given less than a week to “reclaim” Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) from infrastructure group GMR under order of the religious conservative Adhaalath Party, a member of the coalition backing President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan.
Adhaalath Party President Sheikh Imran Abdullah gave the deadline yesterday, during a rally calling by November 15 for an annulment of the contract signed between the former government and GMR to manage and develop a new terminal at INIA.
Imran also told those gathered to stand ready for “activities on sea” planned for the November 12. The gathering, held yesterday at the artificial beach area of Male’, is expected to reconvene this evening.
Sheikh Imran was not responding to calls from Minivan News at the time of press, while fellow party member and State Islamic Minister Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed said he did not wish to comment on the “GMR issue”, asking that he only be contacted over religious matters.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed, whose government approved the deal back in 2010, this month slammed statements over the “reclaiming” the airport from GMR. Nasheed claimed such comments were “highly irresponsible”, stating that such words from the government could cause irreparable damage to the country.
Several Indian companies operating in the Maldives including GMR and TATA have also this month expressed concerns over political interference that they claimed is derailing their substantial investments in the country.
Following the controversial transfer of power on February 7, members of President Waheed’s unity government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan has swung between issuing reassurances within diplomatic circles that Indian investments in the country would be protected, while locally stepping up nationalisation rhetoric.
President’s Office Media Secretary Masood Imad and Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza were also not returning calls on whether the government had been officially notified of the deadline or how it will proceed on the matter at time of press.
The present government has continued to press to “re-nationalise”the airport, with the country’s Deputy Tourism Minister confirming to Indian media in September that the administration would not “rule out the possibility of cancelling the award [to GMR]”.
Despite these pledges, government coalition partners including the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) and Jumhoree Party (JP) have both called for further investigation into alleged wrongdoing over the deal and to follow legal guidelines.
Senior representatives of both parties have told Minivan News that any potential action taken against GMR to be taken through the courts and after negotiations with the infrastructure group. Any actions should then be conducted in a manner not detrimental to securing future foreign investment opportunities, both parties have concluded.
Under the terms of the agreement – an estimated US$511 million deal that represents the largest ever case of foreign investment in the Maldives – GMR agreed to a 25 year concession agreement to develop and manage the site, as well as to overhaul the existing terminal by the end of this year.
The document was overseen by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank group and the largest global institution focused on private sector projects in developing countries.
The Maldives government has accused the IFC of negligence during the bidding process for INIA – allegations there were rejected by the organisation. Both the government and GMR are presently involved in an arbitration case in Singapore over the airport development that is anticipated to conclude by year end.
However, the Adhaalath Party, as part of a civil society coalition that was formed last year, has stepped up efforts of late to oppose upholding the airport deal.
The efforts have included an ongoing number of gatherings in the capital Male’, promotional material including a “Go Home GMR” balloon, the publication of a book on the deal and a petition sent to the government.
Local media reported this week that some 10,000 people had so far signed the petition.
Sheikh Imran has previously predicted there would be “some unrest and damage” should the GMR deal be annulled, but nontheless urged people to come out and support the calls for nationalisation. The GMR deal is actually a 25 year lease arrangement and the airport still belongs to the government.
Imran said the Maldivian population would be able to endure economic hardship should the deal be annulled, before threatening “a completely different activity” should the government fail to resolve the issue to the coalition’s satisfaction.
Also against the GMR deal is the government-aligned DQP, whose leader Dr Hassan Saeed serves as special advisor to president Waheed, as well as being his party’s presidential candidate.
Late last month, Dr Saeed launched a book authored by himself that concluded the only option for “reclaiming the airport from GMR” is to invalidate or cancel the concession agreement with the Indian infrastructure giant.
The DQP has claimed the book would reveal a number of facts that the Maldivian people were unaware of before the signing of the agreement.
It follows the publication last year of another DQP publication that claimed that the government’s lease of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) to developer GMR posed a threat to local industry that will “enslave the nation and its economy”.
The Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industries (MNCCI) has previously claimed that legal wrangling between the government and India-based developer GMR over the multi-million dollar airport development would not harm confidence in the country’s admittedly “challenging” investment climate.
This week alone, cabinet ministers announced efforts were being taken to try expanding the number of investment opportunities available in the Maldives in order to generate greater interest from foreign enterprises.