Maldives considered GMR buyout, but lacked funds

The Maldivian government considered buying out the 2010 airport development contract from India’s GMR, but lacking the necessary funds declared the agreement invalid, Minivan News can exclusively reveal.

The Maldives is now facing a payout to GMR, potentially as high as US$803 million or over half of the state budget, after a Singaporean tribunal last year ruled that the agreement was valid and binding.

The government, however, expects the compensation claim to amount to US$300 million. The exact figure is yet to be determined by the tribunal.

Testimony by cabinet ministers and airport company officials – in a separate arbitration between the government and an Indian bank over the airport deal – show that ex-president Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan asked his cabinet to estimate the sum required to buy out the concession agreement from GMR.

Minivan News has obtained the opening submissions by the government and the Axis Bank made in February and March, respectively.

According to the submissions, then-minister of youth and sports, Mohamed ‘Mundhu’ Hussain Shareef, said the cabinet did not “have the necessary information to make a reliable calculation, but the potential figures were intimidating … As it was the country would have had difficulty paying even US$200 million.”

Former defence minister Mohamed Nazim said what the cabinet “did establish was that it was almost certainly more than either MACL [the Maldives Airports Company Pvt. Ltd] or the government was in a position to pay.”

The inability to buy out GMR led to a political impasse, Shareef said.

At the time, the Adhaalath Party had issued a six-day ultimatum to the government to nationalise the airport.

The religious conservative party in alliance with the Progressive Party of the Maldives, the Jumhooree Party and a coalition of NGOs had played a key role in ousting former President Nasheed and bringing his deputy Dr Waheed to power.

Shareef said the coalition’s opposition to the concession agreement was one of the main reasons behind Waheed assuming the presidency.

The emergence of the void ab intio or invalid from the outset argument was a way out from the political impasse, he said.

Ibrahim Mahfooz, a director at the state-owned MACL at the time, said president Waheed had also asked the company for an estimate of the sum required to buyout GMR, but said it was clear to the company’s board that the sum would exceed what they or the government could immediately afford.

If president Waheed has asked the company to buy out GMR, “I expect that we would have asked for time to attempt to borrow the money and if President Waheed had insisted on our acting immediately, I expect that some of us would have resigned, forcing President Waheed to appoint new board members who were willing to comply,” Mahfooz said.

At a cabinet meeting on November 27, 2012, ministers unanimously agreed to terminate the deal with GMR.

“This entire agreement has to be brought to an end, as it is believed by everyone that the agreement is invalid and cannot be continued legally,” Dr Waheed said, according to cabinet meeting minutes submitted to the tribunal.

Then-vice president Mohamed Waheedudeen said: “This cabinet represents a lot of political parties. Amongst them, almost everyone does not want to renegotiate this agreement, and wants to terminate this agreement.

“The decision taken today will be for national independence; this country’s existence as nation in the future and making it possible for the coming generations to inherit this nation. And for these reasons the agreement should be terminated.”

The government’s takeover of the airport led to a cooling of relations between India and the Maldives, with India imposing visa restrictions on Maldivians seeking medical treatment in India and ceasing the export of some construction materials.

In the submissions obtained by Minivan News, the Maldives said GMR and Axis Bank had successfully lobbied India for the sanctions.

The restrictions were only lifted after President Abdulla Yameen assumed power in November 2013.

The Axis Bank is seeking repayment of the US$160 million loan as well as an additional US$10 million as interest and fines from the Maldivian government. The bank contends that state is liable for the loan in the event of an early termination or an expropriation of the airport.

The government first argued that declaring the concession agreement void ab initio did not amount to an early termination.

Following the verdict in the GMR tribunal, which said the government had repudiated or refused to honour the terms of the agreement, the government claimed a repudiation did not amount to an early termination.

The Axis Bank, however, says the GMR arbitration ruling is not applicable in its case, arguing that the bank is not bound by the ruling issued in a separate, private and confidential arbitration.


Maldives blames GMR, Axis Bank for sanctions by India after airport takeover

An Indian infrastructure company and a bank successfully lobbied India for sanctions on the Maldives over the 2012 cancellation of a deal to develop the international airport, the government has claimed.

The government made the allegation last month at a Singaporean arbitration tribunal, where India’s Axis Bank is seeking the repayment of a US$160 million loan from the Maldives. The loan was given to GMR group in 2011 to upgrade and manage the Maldives’ main airport.

India had tightened visa regulations for Maldivians and ceased exporting some construction materials to the Maldives, after the government took over the airport in 2012, but neither India nor the Maldives had explained the reasons for the sanctions.

India only lifted the restrictions after President Abdulla Yameen was elected in November 2013.

In its submission to the Axis Bank tribunal – obtained by Minivan News – the government claimed the bank had been involved in an “attempt to secure political pressure from the Indian government” to prevent cancellation of the deal.

The Axis Bank in 2012 also told the government it would “approach the regulatory-diplomatic authorities in India” after GMR was ordered to handover the airport, the government said.

GMR also wrote to the prime minister in August 2012 “requesting intervention by the Indian government, when it was clear that future of the concession agreement was in jeopardy,” the government said.

GMR is meanwhile claiming US$803 million from the Maldives in a separate arbitration after the tribunal ruled last year that the government had “wrongfully” terminated a “valid and binding” concession agreement.

The campaign by GMR and Axis Bank led to Indian officials including then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telling ex-president Dr Mohamed Waheed that the “Indian government stood ready to assist GMR in making sure [the cancellation] did not happen.”

According to minister Mohamed Hussain Shareef, “the message [Waheed] got from them was confident and unbending: they expected [the Maldivian government] not to take any action to terminate the concession agreement”.

The Indian government subsequently “insisted on the repayment of outstanding debts of US$100m” in mid-November 2012 and warned of “repercussions” shortly before the agreement was terminated, lawyers representing the Maldives said.

The lawyers also alleged that then-Indian high commissioner to the Maldives “sought to intervene through several meetings with [then-defence minister Mohamed Nazim] in which he asked the Maldives to cooperate in allowing GMR/GMIAL back into the airport.”

Nazim in his testimony said that the message from India was “either back off or suffer the consequences.”

Documents disclosed during arbitration proceedings also showed that the Axis bank’s officials had met the Indian High Commissioner in January 2013, a month after the government took over the airport, lawyers added.

The submission noted that former president Mohamed Nasheed stated after a visit to India in February 2013 that “India believes the deteriorating ties between Maldives and India will recover” if the 25-year contract is restored.

“On 11 March 2013 several Indian Navy attack craft were reported as having conducted exercises just outside Maldivian territorial waters,” it added.

With the tightening of visa regulations for Maldivian citizens, dozens of people to queued outside the Indian High Commission to obtain visas to travel for medical treatment.

In February 2013, the Indian government revoked a special quota afforded to the Maldives for the import of aggregate and river sand. The move led to a shortage of the supply of construction material and rising costs for construction companies.

The current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meanwhile invited the GMR chairman to a state banquet in honour of President Abdulla Yameen in January 2014, lawyers representing the Maldives noted.

Minivan News is awaiting a response to the allegations from the Axis Bank and GMR, while the government has declined to comment on the ongoing arbitration.

The Axis Bank is seeking repayment of the US$160 million loan as well as an additional US$10 million as interest and fines from the Maldivian government. The bank contends that state is liable for the loan in the event of an early termination or an expropriation of the airport.

However, the government has argued that declaring the concession agreement invalid from the outset does not amount to an early termination. The government also accused the Axis Bank and GMR of colluding to extract large sums of money, claiming the developer paid for the bank’s litigation fees for the separate arbitration process.

The Axis Bank meanwhile dismissed the argument as “highly semantic” and stated: “what words were used by the government to characterise its own acts are irrelevant to establishing whether the acts of the government amounted to an expropriation.”

Verdicts are expected in both the GMR and Axis Bank arbitrations in June.


Maldives faces second crippling payout in airport dispute

The Maldives faces a payout of US$170million to a bank in the dispute over the government’s abrupt takeover of the main airport from an Indian developer in 2012, Minivan News can exclusively reveal.

India’s Axis bank, which loaned US$160million for airport development in 2011, is seeking repayment of the loan and an additional US$10million in interest and fees from the Maldives, according to submissions made to a Singaporean arbitration tribunal.

The airport developer, GMR group, is meanwhile claiming US$803million from the Maldives in a separate arbitration after the tribunal ruled the government had “wrongfully” terminated the concession agreement.

President Abdulla Yameen estimates Maldives will be required to pay a much lower figure of US$300million to GMR. If the Axis Bank wins its claim, the payout of US$470million may cripple the domestic economy.

Although total foreign reserves stood at US$614.7million by the end of 2014, usable reserves stood at only US$143.9million, according to the central bank.

Public debt meanwhile stands at 75 percent of GDP and is likely to increase this year with the government seeking additional loans to finance key projects including a US$600million loan for airport development.

The attorney general’s office last year denied receiving notice of the arbitration, but since then has been silent on the proceedings.

The office declined to comment on the arbitration today, and the ministry of finance was not available for comment at the time of going to press.

A verdict is expected in both the GMR and Axis Bank arbitrations by June.

Early termination?

The Axis bank, in a submission in February, said it is entitled to recover the US$170million from the government under an agreement that states the Maldives state is liable for the loan in the event of an early termination or an expropriation of the airport.

But the government in its first statements in 2013 denied having knowledge of the agreement with the Axis Bank.

When the signed agreement was produced, the government said declaring the concession void ab initio or invalid from the outset does not amount to an early termination.

When the separate tribunal in the first phase of the GMR arbitration said the concession agreement was valid and constituted a “wrongful repudiation” (refusal to honor the contract), the government in March this year claimed that “repudiation” alone does not lead to termination.

The government went on to blame the GMR for terminating the concession agreement by “accepting” the government’s repudiation, and said no force was used in the takeover.

Axis Bank is “perfectly entitled to recover the loaned sums from the party to which it loaned them” i.e. GMR, it continued.

However, the Axis Bank contended the Maldives argument to be “highly semantic” and said: “what words were used by the government to characterize its own acts are irrelevant to establishing whether the acts of the government amounted to an expropriation.”

The bank also pointed out the Maldives civil aviation authority had cancelled GMR’s aerodrome certificate from December 7, 2012, making it “legally impossible for GMR to continue to operate the airport.”

The government also accused the Axis Bank and GMR of colluding to extract large sums of money, claiming the infrastructure giant had paid for the bank’s litigation fees for the separate arbitration process.

As an Indian Bank for whom GMR was a major customer, the Axis Bank wanted to cement its relationship with GMR “by assisting it in making a very substantial claim for damages,” the government alleged.

The Axis Bank has dismissed the allegations as baseless.


GMR compensation claim of US$1.4 billion eclipses annual state budget

Indian infrastructure giant GMR has filed a claim for US$1.4 billion in compensation from the Maldives, following the government’s sudden termination of its concession agreement to manage and upgrade Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).

According to Indian media, the 75 page claim for “wrongful termination” of the concession agreement includes payments to subcontractors and loss of profits over the lifespan of the 25 year agreement.

Both the government and the state-owned Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) will be invited to respond, with a final court order in the case expected in March 2014.

In separate Singapore-based arbitration proceedings one of the project’s lenders, Axis Bank, is also seeking payment of US$160 million for a loan guaranteed by the Maldivian Finance Ministry.

Axis Bank recently raised concerns with MACL and the government, after President Mohamed Waheed moved to create a state-owned airport company and transfer to it MACL’s management responsibilities.

The prospect of MACL’s assets being dissipated led Airports Council International (ACI), the global body representing the world’s airports, to advise its members to exercise caution before making any investment in the Maldives relating to INIA, warning of “legal and financial risks”.

The government subsequently dropped the attempt, after its Attorney General Aishath Bisham warned that President Waheed had exceeded his authority in appointing board members to the new entity.

The lead up to eviction

GMR, in consortium with Malaysia Airports, narrowly won the International Finance Corporation (IFC)-managed bid for the airport in 2010, and signed the agreement with MACL under the former government of Mohamed Nasheed

The then-opposition, including the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), People’s Alliance (PA), Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) and Adhaalath Party (AP), opposed the agreement primarily on nationalistic grounds, and alleged corruption in the bidding process.

Other concerns raised by the opposition at the time included the prospect of GMR allowing Israeli military aircraft to stop over in the Maldives and refuel “after bombing Arab countries”.

The DQP then filed a civil court case, managing to block the developer’s charging of an Airport Development Charge (ADC) stipulated in the concession agreement, on the grounds it was a tax and therefore required parliamentary approval.

Backing the concession agreement, the Nasheed government permitted the airport developer to deduct the ADC from its share of the revenue as a stopgap measure, while it sought to appeal.

However shortly afterwards the Nasheed government was deposed during February 7 2012’s controversial transfer of power, and the opposition parties assumed control of the government – and the prospect of paying GMR for the development of the airport.

The government received US$525,355 from the airport for the first quarter of 2012, compared to the US$8.7 million it was expecting, at time it was facing a crippling budget deficit, a foreign currency shortage, plummeting investor confidence, spiraling expenditure, and a drop off in foreign aid.

In the second quarter GMR presented MACL with a bill for US$1.5 million, and in the third quarter, US$2.2 million.

“The net result of this is that the Maldivian government now has to pay GMR for running the airport,” wrote DQP Leader and newly-appointed Special Advisor to President Mohamed Waheed, Dr Hassan Saeed, in a self-described “candid” letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

A subsequent report by the government’s own Auditor General (AG) found concession revenue due the government had plummeted fourfold as a result of the court verdict sought by Saeed’s own party while it was in opposition.

According to the report, net concession revenue to the government had fallen to just US$6,058,848 in 2012, compared to US$25,424,877 in 2011.

Rather than appeal the Civil Court verdict obstructing the ADC, “The new government took the view that it would not be proper for it to intervene in the legal process for the benefit of a private concern,” the report noted, and instead, on April 19 2012, the informed the developer it was “retracting the previous agreement [to offset the ADC] on the grounds that the then Chairman of MACL did not have the approval of the MACL board to make the agreement.”

GMR asserted that this decision was a political event as defined within its concession agreement, and warned that this would amount to a breach of the agreement by the government.

“The government did not accept this argument,” noted the AG.

Seeking a way out of the agreement but wary of the heavy penalties in the termination clause, the government accused the World Bank’s IFC of “irresponsibility” and “negligence” in its conduct of the bidding process.

“The government must also consider how much money has to be paid back as compensation if terminating the agreement,” said Attorney General at the time, Azima Shukoor, during a prescient press conference in September 2012.

“It is clear to all of you that the Maldives financial and economic situation is at a critical level, and in this situation [termination] is not an easy thing to do,” Shukoor said.

In August 2012, with the new terminal and refurbishment 25 percent complete according to the government’s outside engineering assessment, the government ordered a halt to construction pending new ‘regulatory approvals’, and demanded a second runway not included in the original agreement.

GMR agreed to construct an emergency runway and proposed exempting Maldivian nationals from paying the ADC as a compromise. The company received no response to the offer.

Dr Hassan Saeed meanwhile issued a pamphlet calling for the cancellation of the agreement, likening it to “taking bitter medicine to cure a disease” or “amputating an organ to stop the spread of cancer.”

In his letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, dated September 19 2012 and obtained by Minivan News, Saeed further claimed that “GMR and India ‘bashing’ is becoming popular politics”, and warned that “as a result, “the Maldives is becoming fertile ground for nationalistic and extremist politicians.”

“I want to warn you now that there is a real danger that the current situation could create the opportunity for these extremist politicians to be elected to prominent positions, including the Presidency and Parliament on an anti-GMR and anti-India platform,” Saeed informed Singh.

Saeed went on to accuse GMR of extensive bribery, including the payment of “millions of dollars to buy MPs to get a parliamentary majority for the then ruling Maldivian Democratic Party”.

He claimed that “politicians and MPs who end up in GMR’s pocket keep silent but no one – with the exception of former President Nasheed and his key associates – have defended the indefensible GMR deal in public.”


In late 2012 the government declared the concession agreement ‘void ab initio’ (invalid from the outset), and gave GMR seven days’ notice to leave the country.

The move swiftly followed the Singapore Supreme Court’s lifting of an injunction blocking MACL from taking over the airport pending arbitration proceedings, on the grounds the arbitration court had no jurisdiction to prevent the Maldives as a sovereign state from expropriating the airport.

The full verdict however did not exempt the government from compensation for this maneuver. In fact, according to the verdict document, Financial Controller for the Ministry of Finance Mohamed Ahmed “affirmed in an affidavit that the Maldives government would honour any valid and legitimate claim against it. He also stressed that the Maldives government had never defaulted on any of its payments.”

Moreover, lawyer representing MACL, Christopher Anand Daniel, “also accepted that if the arbitration tribunal found that the Appellants were wrong in their asserted case that the Concession Agreement was void ab initio and/or had been frustrated, but the Appellants had by then already gone ahead with the taking over of the airport, they would at least be liable to compensate the respondent for having expropriated the airport” (emphasis retained).

ACC exonerates airport deal

The Auditor General’s report acknowledged allegations of corruption in the deal, but finding the evidence “not conclusive on this point”, deferred to the judgement of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).

That arrived on June 17, 2013, in the form of a 61 page investigative report that concluded that the bidding process was conducted fairly by the IFC, and that the GMR-MAHB consortium won the contract by proposing the highest net present value of the concession fee.

The ACC further concluded that the awarding of the contract did not contravene amendments brought to the Public Finance Act requiring parliamentary approval for such agreements.

Furthermore,  “Considering the situation (2008, 2009 and 2010) when the decision was made to privatise the Male’ International Airport,” the ACC’s calculations showed that MACL would make a profit of about US$254 million in 25 years if the airport was operated by the government-owned company.

Conversely, the government would receive about US$534 million in the same period from the GMR consortium if the airport was privatised, the ACC found.


Following publication of the ACC’s report, the government has backed away from allegations of corruption and instead declared to evict the developer was made due to its impact on state finances.

“Back before the government took back control of the airport from GMR, the reason we gave was that the deal was bleeding the country’s economy. We were paying GMR to keep them here,” President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad told Minivan News last week.

Azima Shukoor meanwhile labelled ACC’s report “incomplete” and “lacking professionalism”, in an interview with local media.

“There’s no contradiction between the government’s decision and the ACC report. We never levelled any corruption charge in terminating the agreement,” said the former Attorney General, in an interview with local media.

“Did [the ACC] omit the factors deliberately or unknowingly or simply just overlooked them? But a lot of factors have been overlooked and omitted from the report. The state will suffer great losses because of it. Especially when the country is tied up in [arbitration proceedings],” Shukoor was reported as saying.

“The state did a thorough investigation of the contract, including what happened during and after the signing of the agreement. So the government’s legal position doesn’t and shouldn’t change due to the report. We made a very firm decision,” she said.

Speaking at a campaign rally on the island of Thimarafushi in Thaa Atoll, former President Nasheed observed that the figure sought by GMR as compensation amounted to more than the annual state budget of the Maldives.

“Even today in my view it is one of the most important duties of the People’s Majlis to renew the contract, find a way to hold discussions with the company over [renewal], and save the Maldives from the great misfortune our people are about to face,” he said.

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s PPM have meanwhile laid the blame for the airport debacle on President Waheed, accusing him of “ignoring advice”.

“We told the next President Mr Waheed that he should hold discussions with the GMR Group and the Indian government to arrive at an acceptable solution, after which the government was free to act on its own,” he said. “Unfortunately, this was not done and suddenly there was this unhappy ending,” Gayoom was reported as saying in the Hindu, following a visit to India and a meeting with Prime Minister Singh.

Following the PPM’s apparent turnaround on the GMR issue, Parliamentary Group Leader of the Waheed-aligned Dhivehi Rayithunge Party, Dr Abdulla Mausoom, said it was in fact senior figures in the PPM who were among the most vocal supporters for terminating the GMR agreement.

“It is ironic that we are hearing these statements from the PPM, whose leader has been witnessed supporting rallies demanding the cancellation of the [GMR] agreement,” he said.


No intention to transfer assets to MIAL: MACL to Axis Bank

The Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) and its lawyers have denied any intention of dissipating the state-owned company’s assets by transferring them to a newly-created, state-owned entity called Male’ International Airport Limited (MIAL).

MACL and the government of the Maldives are currently party to arbitration proceedings in Singapore after one of the lenders to the terminated GMR-Malaysia Airports (GMR-MAHB) development – Mumbai-based Axis Bank – called in US$160 million worth of loans which had been guaranteed by the Ministry of Finance.

A copy of the agreement from November 24, 2010, in which the Ministry of Finance guarantees the loans to GMR-MAHB, is signed and stamped by both then-MACL Chairman Ibrahim Saleem and Finance Minister Ali Hashim on behalf of the government.

Eviction and arbitration

In December 2012, the GMR-MAHB consortium, which had signed a 25 year concession agreement with the former government to manage and upgrade Male’s airport, was given a seven day eviction notice by the new government after it declared the concession agreement void ab initio, or ‘invalid from the outset’.

That decision is currently subject to arbitration proceedings in Singapore, with GMR-MAHB’s compensation claim expected to reach upward of US$1 billion. Axis Bank is pursuing the US$160 million in separate proceedings.

President Waheed’s government on March 14 meanwhile declared in a one-line statement that it was establishing MIAL as a new 100 percent state-owned company, and several weeks later announced the appointment of a board of directors including tourism tycoon and Chairman of Universal Enterprises, Mohamed Umar Manik, and Island Aviation Chairman Bandhu Ibrahim Saleem as managing director.

Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad informed local media on May 21 that MIAL would take over the operation of the airport under a management contract by July.

The apparent move to transfer MACL’s management functions to MACL led to a flurry of letters from Axis Bank to both MACL and the government, with the bank expressing concern that “if MACL ceases to manage and operate Male’ airport, and MIAL instead performs that role, then MACL will lose almost all of MACL’s revenue stream, and become a shell.”

MACL’s denial

In a letter responding to Axis Bank’s CEO Bimal Bhattacharyya, dated April 24, 2013, and obtained by Minivan News, MACL’s Managing Director Ibrahim Mahfooz claims “your insinuation that MACL is attempting to dissipate assets to avoid and satisfaction of any judgement is insulting and without any basis.”

“For the record, we can confirm that MACL has no plans to transfer any of its assets to another company,” Mahfooz writes.

He accuses Axis Bank of making a case on “hearsay and speculation”, and asks whether its threat of legal action was “part of a concerted plan with any other parties”.

“You have tried to assert that your claim of US$163,596,347.78 remains unsatisfied. We had in our previous correspondence to you made it clear that you do not have a valid claim against MACL,” Mahfooz states.

“At best your alleged claim (at its highest) is purely a monetary claim against MACL and GOM. Please set out clearly the basis in which you think your claim will not be satisfied by MACL and GOM in the event Axis Bank is not successful,” he writes.

That letter triggered a further flurry of correspondence between Axis Bank’s legal representation Norton Rose and MACL’s Singapore-based firm Advocatus.

The latter firm, acting on behalf on MACL in December 2012, successfully overturned an injunction in the Singapore Supreme Court blocking MACL from taking over the airport, on the grounds that the arbitration court had no jurisdiction to prevent the Maldives as a sovereign state from expropriating the airport.

In the Singapore Supreme Court’s full verdict, a copy of which Minivan News has obtained, Financial Controller for the Ministry of Finance, Mohamed Ahmed, “affirmed in an affidavit that the Maldives government would honour any valid and legitimate claim against it. He also stressed that the Maldives government had never defaulted on any of its payments.”

Lawyer representing MACL, Christopher Anand Daniel, “also accepted that if the arbitration tribunal found that the Appellants were wrong in their asserted case that the Concession Agreement was void ab initio and/or had been frustrated, but the Appellants had by then already gone ahead with the taking over of the airport, they would at least be liable to compensate the respondent for having expropriated the airport” (emphasis retained).

Legal barrage

Stern letters exchanged throughout late April and most of May between the two sets of lawyers suggest brewing disagreement over whether MIAL’s assumption of management responsibilities for the airport can be construed as a transfer of assets and an attempt to dissipate its assets in preparation for a costly verdict.

“Almost all of MACL’s income comes from MACL’s management and/or operation of Male’ Airport,” notes Axis Bank.

“The stated purpose for the incorporation of MIAL is for MIAL to manage and operate Male Airport. This is a role presently performed by MACL. The natural consequence of the above facts is that if MACL ceases to manage and operate Male’ Airport and MIAL instead performs that role, then MACL will lose almost all of MACL’s revenue stream, and become a shell company,” Axis Bank’s lawyers noted, adding that the government had made no effort to deny this despite repeated invitations.

In response Advocatus, in a letter dated May 10 and obtained by Minivan News, declared “Your client [Axis Bank] has no evidence that MACL is dissipating assets to begin with. It is obvious that your client is attempting to see if it can create a case by correspondence when it has none.”

Following Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad’s pledge that the transfer of assets to MIAL would be completed by July 1, widely reported in local media, Norton Rose wrote another letter noting “[the Minister’s] statements are in direct contradiction to MACL’s position in its letter of April 24 stating that ‘For the record, we can confirm that MACL has no plans to transfer any of its assets to another company.’”

“These new developments, stated in the various news reports, lend credence to Axis Bank’s legitimate concerns that MACL is in fact attempting to dissipate its assets in favour of MIAL or any other third party and, consequently, there will not be sufficient assets to satisfy any arbitral award that may be rendered in favour of Axis Bank against MACL in the arbitration,” the lawyers wrote.

Advocatus responded on May 29, again accusing Axis Bank off “desperately trying to create a case where none exists.”

“The Minister, who had given the interview in Dhivehi, had been misquoted in the English version of news reports you mentioned,” MACL’s lawyers stated.

“When he gave the interview, the Minister had in fact said that ‘asset management is going to be officially handed over to MIAL’,” Advocatus contended.

Assets, management and the draft agreement

Meanwhile, a working draft of an ‘Operations and Management’ agreement between MACL and MIAL, dated May 21 and obtained by Minivan News, notes that MIAL “is a company established with the primary objectives of operating, maintaining and managing the airport.”

The agreement states that while the Finance Ministry has granted MACL the lease of the site and rights to operate and manage the airport, “MACL, in the interest of the better management of the airport, and/or overall public interest, is desirous of granting to MIAL the functions of operating, maintaining and managing the airport.”

The agreement includes provision for the transfer of employees from MACL to the new company, and the requirement that it obtain an aerodrome certificate from the Ministry of Civil Aviation – the core authority issued by the state for a company to operate an airport.

It also noted that “no proceedings against MIAL are pending or threatened, and no fact or circumstance exists which may give rise to such proceedings that would adversely affect the performance of its obligations under this agreement.”

MIAL would be paid management fees by MACL, although the extent of these are not included in the particular draft obtained by Minivan News. The agreement does however set out how “MIAL shall, on behalf of MACL, deposit all monies received from the operation of the airport into one or more bank accounts in the name of MACL.”

Board issues

Despite the Finance Minister’s comments on May 21, MIAL’s appointed CEO Bandhu Saleem has told Minivan News that “until the arbitration is complete, I think it will be very difficult to start a new company.”

Minivan News is seeking to establish the current status of the new company. However further obstacles appeared this week in the form of the government’s Attorney General Aishath Bisham, who informed local media that President Waheed lacked the authority to appoint the boards of government-owned companies following the ratification of January’s Privatisation Act.

Instead, she said, the privatisation board created under that act operated as “a separate legal entity, and has the sole authority to appoint board members.”

Besides MIAL, President Waheed also in February appointed the board of the Maldives Ports Authority Limited (MPL).

“The Privatisation Board should investigate those cases,” suggested the attorney general.

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) was among the most strident opponents to GMR-MAHB’s development of the airport, meanwhile appeared to have adopted a conciliatory tone during a visit to India last week to smooth troubled relations.

“[The cancellation] was a very populist move at the time as the public had a perception that the contract was bad for the country. The way it was handled was not good,” Gayoom was reported as telling Indian newspaper The Hindu.

“I am sad that this has somehow affected our bilateral relations. We want to overcome that and restore our relationship with India to its former level,” Gayoom told the paper.


Maldives government denies US$160 million arbitration talks with Axis Bank

The Attorney General (AG’s) Office has denied receiving any notice of arbitration from Axis Bank, one of the lenders backing a US$511 million airport development project voided by the government late last year.

In November 2012, President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s government declared void a concession agreement signed by the previous government with Indian firm GMR, to manage and build a new terminal at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA), and ordered the company to leave the country within seven days.

Following the decision – later cleared by Singapore’s Supreme Court – project lender Axis Bank announced its intention to seek a repayment of loans taken out for the project, which were guaranteed by the Ministry of Finance and approved by the AG’s Office under the former government.

“Arbitration process”

The India-based Financial Express publication reported yesterday (April 5) that Axis Bank had initiated an arbitration process with the Maldives government as part of efforts to recover loans granted to GMR with an estimated value of US$160 million (MVR 2.4 billion).

Ahmed Usham, Deputy Solicitor General for the AG’s Office, told Minivan News today that although some discussions had been held with Axis Bank, there had been no notice of arbitration given to the state by the finance group over the loan issue.

“We have requested some documents from [the bank] and we are set to meet with them after receiving these,” he said.  “There has been no talk of arbitration.”

Usham added that the documents requested from Axis Bank by the AG’s Office pertained to loans taken from GMR as part of the INIA development.

Acting Minister of Finance Ahmed Mohamed said he too was not aware of any arbitration hearings concerning Axis Bank, or even if talks had been held on the matter.

“All I am aware of is that there was a teleconference held Thursday (April 4),” he stated.

GMR arbitration

The government meanwhile is set to participate Wednesday (April 10) in the preliminary hearing of a separate arbitration case with GMR over the decision to void its airport concession agreement .

Authorities have previously told local media that the meeting, scheduled to take place in London, was not an official arbitration hearing, but rather a means to outline the timeline for both parties to present their case. Once the process for the arbitration is agreed, official hearings are expected to begin in Singapore.

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.

Concession agreement

In 2010, GMR-Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) consortium, the 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’, or invalid from the outset.

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.

If decided in the Maldives’ favour the case risks setting a legal precedent for effective nationalisation of foreign investments signed under previous governments, and placing existing investors further at the mercy of the country’s turbulent politics.

Kuwaiti interest

Discussing the future of INIA on Thursday, President Waheed was reported in local media as stating that authorities in Kuwait had expressed an interest to “assist in the development” of INIA, following a recent official visit to the country.

“Kuwait is really interested in the airport. It’s because we have received a great deal of assistance from the Kuwait Fund to develop the airport so far. They are well aware of it,” he was quoted in newspaper Haveeru as saying.

“They really believe that we have managed to develop the airport with the assistance of Kuwait. So there is a lot of interest. They are very happy that the government has now taken the initiative to develop the airport.”

President’s Office Media Secretary Masood Imad said he was in a meeting and unavailable for comment when contacted by Minivan News.