Maldives obtains US$20m from Saudi Arabia to manage cash flow

The Maldives has obtained a US$20 million grant from Saudi Arabia for budget support, despite official figures indicating record levels of income and the economic ministry saying it has authorised US$600 million worth of foreign investment this year.

Finance minister Abdulla Jihad told Minivan News today that the Saudi funds will be used to “manage cash flow” as revenue was lower than expected.

A large portion of forecast revenue is expected later in the year, he said, adding that shortfalls are currently plugged through sale of treasury bills.

The forecast for government income in this year’s record MVR24.3 billion (US$1.5 billion) budget is MVR21.5 billion (US$1.3 billion).

The projected revenue includes MVR3.4 billion (US$220 million) anticipated from new revenue raising measures, including revisions of import duty rates, the introduction of a “green tax”, acquisition fees from investments in special economic zones (SEZs), and leasing 10 islands for resort development.

Import duties hikes came into effect on April 1. However, three weeks later, the government reversed hikes for motorcycles and garments. Jihad said revenue from custom duties will be lower than expected as a result of the policy reversal.

Jihad also said acquisition fees from SEZs are expected during the second half of the year.

Tax revenue

The Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA) said today that the revenue collected in April was 6.5 percent above forecasts and 14.9 percent higher than the same period last year.

Total revenue last month reached MVR940.3 million (US$60.9 million), with goods and services tax accounting for 70 percent of income. Total revenue collected so far this year has reached MVR4.6 billion (US$298 million).

The customs authority also collected MVR574 million (US$37 million) during the first quarter of 2015 as import duties, fees, and fines, representing a 28 percent increase from the previous year.

Further figures by the MIRA show revenue from taxes have been higher than expected in the first quarter of 2015.

The central bank, the Maldives Monetary Authority, meanwhile says business activity in the tourism, construction, wholesale, and retail sectors increased during the first quarter of 2015, and expects further improvements in the second quarter.

Foreign investment

The economic development ministry revealed today that it has authorised foreign investments worth nearly US$600 million this year, and says it is expecting US$1.8 billion worth of foreign investments in the next five years

Registrar of companies Mariyam Wisham told the press that most foreign businesses registered between January and April were investors interested in the tourism, construction, and real estate sectors. The investors were mainly from the Middle East, South Asia, and China, she said.

Economic development minister Mohamed Saeed said the number of foreign businesses registered under the current administration showed investor confidence in the Maldives.

Wisham also revealed that 5,014 new small and medium-sized enterprises have been registered so far this year following the enactment of a new company registration law last year.

But the opposition has criticised the lack of significant foreign investments despite assurances from the government following the passage of its flagship SEZ legislation in August last year.

The government signed a Memorandum of Understanding in March with Dubai Ports World to develop a commercial port and free trade zone near Malé and said a joint venture agreement will be signed in a month.

However, Saeed told the press today that an extension has been agreed upon for negotiations, citing the government’s unwillingness to compromise “national issues” as the reason for the delay.

The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has alleged corruption in the deal.

Saudi-Maldives relations

The Saudi Arabian government had pledged the US$20 million during president Abdulla Yameen’s state visit to the kingdom in March.

Contrary to Jihad’s statement that the Saudi funds will be used to manage cash flow, fisheries minister Dr Mohamed Shainee told Haveeru today that the US$20 million in grant aid will be “spent through the budget on various projects the government wants.”

A delegation including officials from the Saudi Fund for Development as well as Saudi contractors meanwhile visited the Maldives last week and gathered information on the various projects for which the government is seeking loan assistance.

The projects included road construction at the airport, an airport hotel, and a road network for Hulhumalé, Shainee said.

Shainee has previously said the Saudi Arabian government also assured loan assistance to develop the international airport.

During the visit, President Yameen held talks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud and Saudi Arabian ministers for education, defence, petroleum and mineral resources, and finance.

Then-Crown Prince Salman had visited the Maldives in March last year. During the trip, he pledged US$1.2 million to build 10 mosques across the country and donated US$1.5 million and US$1 million, respectively, to the health sector and the Islamic ministry’s waqf fund.

Prince Salman also visited the Maldives in April 2010. He ascended to the Saudi throne in January following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

A joint communique issued during president Yameen’s visit stated that the two sides agreed to increase “their commercial exchange while expanding and enhancing investment between the two countries and extending invitations to their respective private sectors to explore the available investment opportunities in both countries.”

“The Saudi Fund for Development will continue to finance the development projects in the Republic of Maldives and will consider participating in the expansion of Malé airport and beach preservation in Hulhumalé,” it added.


Vice President departs on official visit to Qatar and Kuwait

Vice President Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed departed on an official visit to Qatar and Kuwait last night.

Speaking to reporters prior to his departure, Dr Jameel said the main purpose of the trip was to strengthen ties with Arab Islamic nations.

He added that the government was seeking investments from Arab countries in healthcare and housing as well as assistance for development projects.

Discussions would also take place about establishing an Islamic university in the Maldives, he said.

“In addition to this, we will also talk with these countries about providing budget support to the Maldives,” he said.

The vice president was accompanied on the trip by Islamic Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed and President’s Office Minister Abdulla Ameen.


Indian Prime Minister extends invitation to President Yameen

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has invited President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom for an official visit.

The invitation comes in reply to a letter by Yameen to the prime minister in which he assured Singh of his administration’s desire for enhanced bilateral ties and urged Singh to pay an official visit to the Maldives as soon as it was mutually convenient to do so.

President’s Office Spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz Ali said Yameen has accepted the invitation, but a date has not yet been decided for the visit.

Meanwhile, the Indian High Commissioner Rajiv Shahare paid a visit on the new Vice President Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, describing Indo-Maldivian ties as “privileged”.

The President’s Office noted that Jameel and Shahare took the opportunity to discuss the easing consular and visa restrictions for travelers between the two countries, as well as healthcare, defense cooperation, and human resource development.

Writing to  Singh, the President’s Office website reported Yameen as emphasising that “diverse Indo-Maldives people-to-people contact offers avenues for further cooperation”.

The Maldives’ traditionally close ties with India came under increasing strain under the previous government – of which the PPM was a prominent partner. The cancellation of a deal to develop Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in December 2012 was a particularly contentious issue.

The government’s sudden eviction of the Indian investor was quickly followed by visa restrictions and a list of 11 grievances handed to all senior Maldivian reporters by the Indian High Commission in January this year.

India has extended budget support aid to the Maldives on several occasions, most recently extending a Standby Credit Facility of US$ 100 million in 2008 and 2011 during President Mohamed Nasheed’s tenure.

Minivan News understands the Government of Maldives is currently in discussion with India to secure further budget support to plug the 2014 budget deficit.

Yameen has said the Maldives economy is in a “deep pit” and has pledged to reduce state expenditure.

During a visit to India in June, former President and PPM leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom told the Indian PM of his disappointment that the Maldives’ relationship with India had been impacted upon by the then-government’s decision to evict GMR from the country with seven days notice.

“This was a mistake. Had he consulted all political parties, the public would not have formed the impression that corruption had taken place,” Gayoom was reported as saying in the Hindu.

The cancellation of the project is currently being investigated in a Singapore court of arbitration, with the Indian infrastructure company seeking US$1.4 billion in compensation – more than the Maldives’ annual budget.


India calls in debts of US$100 million; “not a major concern” says Finance Minister

Despite India requesting repayment of US$100 million in treasury bonds by February 2013, Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad has said his earlier fears that the Maldives would be unable to cover expenditure for the final months of 2012 were “no longer a concern”.

Jihad told Minivan News that India was also yet to provide a final US$25 million installment of a promised loan, one Jihad said just last month was vital to ensure the Maldives could cover its wage bill.

The Maldives is now required to pay US$50 million in T-bond payments to India by next month, with a second payment due in February, local media has reported.

The Finance Ministry said the debt would be repaid through state reserves, which Sun Online reported could fall to US$140 million (MVR2.2 billion) once the payments to India are settled.

Concerns over state reserves are shared by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which earlier this month called on the Maldives to introduce a raft of new measures to try and raise revenue and cut spending to alleviate a ballooning fiscal deficit.

“The fiscal deficit is expected to rise in 2012 to 16 percent of GDP [Gross Domestic Product] in cash terms, and likely even higher if one accounts for the government’s unpaid bills, accumulated in an increasingly challenging environment for financing,” the IMF mission stated, following its visit to the Maldives.

Finance Minister Jihad said that as part of trying to balance the country’s expenditure, the Economic Ministry was attempting to secure private sector funding to make up any shortfalls in budget support resulting from a lack of funds anticipated from India. However, he did not give further details on the nature of the private sector groups presently being sought.

Jihad claimed that a “significant” part of the private sector focus would be through issuing treasury bills (T-bills) to the private sector as recommended earlier this year by the IMF.

“When we opened up treasury bills to the private sector initially there was no response,” he said. “However, there have now been consultations with private groups.”

T-bills, which are sold by governments all over the world, serve as a short-term debt obligation backed by sovereign states. In the Maldives, T-bills have a maximum maturity of six months, after which time they must be repaid.

Meanwhile, Jihad said the Finance Ministry had received no notice from Indian authorities regarding when it may receive the final US$25 million installment of a US$100 million loan agreed late last year.  The finance minster said his department had been given no ultimatum or conditions to be met by Indian authorities in order to receive the money.

“I don’t know why the delay [in receiving the funds] has happened. You would need to ask the Indian High Commission about that,” he said.

The  US$25 million was agreed as part of the $US100 million standby credit facility signed with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November 2011.

Diplomatic tension

Tensions between India and the Maldives has risen in recent months as divides within the coalition government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan began to appear over opposition to a contract signed by the previous government, to develop and manage the country’s main airport with Indian infrastructure group GMR.

The divides have threatened to spill into a major diplomatic incident in recent weeks, after the President’s Office issued a release distancing itself from the comments of its own spokesperson, Abbas Adil Riza, who had accused India’s representative in the Maldives of being “an enemy and a traitor to the Maldivian people”.

The dispute between the government and GMR – currently being heard in an arbitration case at Singapore’s High Court – has become increasingly acrimonious with ongoing demonstrations across Male’ and even the water ways surrounding the airport.

The demonstrations have been backed by certain parties within President Waheed’s coalition government, who have set him an ultimatum of reneging on the contract by the end of the month.

While the GMR contract is not implicitly backed by other coalition parties, several senior party figures have opted against plans to “take to the streets” in calling for the airport to be “renationalised” or acting in a manner that could potentially damage future foreign investment in the country.

The GMR contract, which was overseen by a number of organisations including the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – a member of the World Bank group – represents the largest ever foreign investment in the Maldives. President Waheed himself told Indian media that his government was committed to protecting foreign investments in the Maldives, despite questioning elements of the deal.

Foreign borrowing

Earlier this year, President Waheed reportedly said he would not resort to borrowing from foreign governments in order to finance government activities.

“I will not try to run the government by securing huge loans from foreign parties. We are trying to spend from what we earn,” he was reported to have told the people of Nilandhoo.

“The Maldivian economy is fine. Don’t listen to whatever people say. We don’t have to [worry] about the Maldivian economy being in a slump,” he was quoted as saying at the time during a rally in Meedhoo.

Despite Waheed’s reassurances, October saw a number of state owned institutions face disconnection from the capital’s power grid as bills amounting to around MVR 150 million (US$9.7 million) were owed to the State Electricity Company (STELCO).

Responding to the institutions’ blaming of his ministry, Jihad at the time told Sun that the finances were simply not there.

“We are not receiving foreign aid as was included in the budget. How can we spend more than we receive? That’s why those bills are unpaid. We can’t spend money we don’t have,” he told the paper.

Since coming to power in February, the government has committed to reimbursing civil servants for wage reductions made during the austerity measures of the previous government, amounting to Rf443.7 million (US$28.8 million), to be disbursed in monthly installments over 12 months from July.

A MVR 100million (US$6.4 million) fuel subsidy for the fishing industry was also approved by the Majlis Finance Committee, with the hope of stimulating the ailing sector.

The overall deficit for government expenditure has already reached over MVR2billion (US$129million). Jihad has told the Majlis’ Finance Committee that he expected this figure to rise to MVR 6 billion (US$387 million) by year’s end – 28 percent of GDP – alleging that the previous government left unpaid bills equal to over one third of this anticipated deficit.

Former Minister of Economic Development Mahmood Razee has previously told Minivan News that this increased expenditure in the face of a pre-existing deficit represented the government “ignoring reality.”

“If they don’t get the loan, they will have to cut travel expenses, stop certain programs – take drastic measures or get another loan,” said Razee, claiming that the only alternative would be to sell treasury bills.

Following reports in August that the government was attempting to raise funds through the sale of treasury bills, former Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz claimed such a measure would not address IMF concerns about state spending, prolonging economic uncertainty.

In August, the current Finance Ministry announced its own austerity measures intended to wipe over MVR2.2billion (US$143 million) from this year’s budget deficit though few of these propositions have as yet been followed through.