President Abdulla Yameen has hailed People’s Majlis passage of flagship Special Economic Zone (SEZ) bill as an incentive for multi-million dollar investments in the Maldives.
The bill was passed with six minor amendments at an extended Majlis sitting at 10:54 pm on Wednesday night, with 60 MPs of the 85 member house voting in favor.
Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had proposed over 180 amendments, but all were rejected.
Speaking to the press today, Yameen said the SEZ bill dispels investor concern over short lease periods and legal protection.
“Investors willing to invest billions of dollars raise questions over land lease periods. If its 33 years, they are not interested in [investing]. This is why major investors lack interest in the Maldives. We cannot even hold discussions with such investors. We have now created the legal environment required to attract major investments. This creates such a framework,” he said.
People’s Majlis Speaker Abdulla Maseeh has also applauded the passage of the bill as an example of democracy, similar to that of American democracy.
The bill will be ratified after Attorney General Mohamed Anil reviews the bill, Yameen said.
Meanwhile, MDP MPs have contended the SEZ law would pave the way for money laundering and other criminal enterprises, undermine the decentralization system, and authorize a board formed by the president to “openly sell off the country” without parliamentary oversight.
Speaking to the press after the Majlis session, MDP MP Rozaina Adam said the passage of the bill without any consideration to concerns raised by the opposition indicates the return to authoritarian rule.
“We now have a dictatorship here. The People’s Majlis, the presidency and the courts are all under one party,” she said.
The MDP proposed a large majority of the 245 amendments to the SEZ bill. These include revising a provision that allows leasing of land to foreign companies for 99 years to reduce lease periods and adding provisions to require 75 percent of jobs in the SEZs to be reserved for Maldivians.
The MDP also proposed companies with a 49 percent foreign shareholder stake to lease land instead of purchasing land.
It also proposed scrapping Article 74, which allows up to 40 percent of any zone to be tourism-related development with tax and duty exemptions.
Amendments were also forwarded for mandatory consultation with local councils ahead of declaring any region under council jurisdiction as an SEZ.
None of the opposition amendments passed.
The MDP had also proposed to return the bill to a committee for further review, although this proposition failed with 57 of 73 parliamentarians present voting against it.
Former ruling coalition partner Jumhooree Party (JP) previously claimed the SEZ law would facilitate massive corruption and undermine independence, but on Wednesday announced a three-line whip in favor of the bill.
The change in the party’s stance closely follows the state’s cancellation of various business agreements made with the JP leader’s business Villa Enterprises.
On Monday (August 25), the Civil Aviation Authority downgraded Gasim’s Villa International Airport based on the MP’s constituency island of Maamigili to domestic status.
Similarly, on August 14 the government terminated an agreement with Villa Air to develop and manage the regional airport on Gaaf Dhaal Kaadehdhoo, while the fisheries ministry has also decided to reclaim Laamu Atoll Baresdhoo from Villa, stating that the company had not used it for the agreed purpose.
“Castles in the air”
Former President Mohamed Nasheed had dubbed the legislation the ‘Artur Brothers bill’, referring to an infamous pair of Armenians linked with money laundering and drug trafficking who made headlines last year after they were photographed with cabinet ministers.
Nasheed has also dismissed SEZs and the touted mega projects as “castles in the air.”
Referring to the opposition to his administration’s public-private partnership projects on religious and nationalistic grounds – with opposition parties accusing the government of “selling off state assets” – in a speech at an MDP event on August 12, Nasheed argued that the current administration’s economic policies were far worse judging by their terms.
“There could be no bigger deception of the Maldivian people,” he said.
Nasheed also contended that Maldivian law would not be enforced in the SEZs, claiming that gambling would be allowed in the zones.