“Worst fears” over Blackstone seaplane buyout now a reality, warns hotel group

Several multinational hospitality groups have alleged that the decision to sell the Maldives’ two main seaplane operators to US-based private equity fund Blackstone is having a “significant” negative impact on industry profitability – potentially compromising local jobs.

Blackstone announced back in February this year that it had purchased a controlling stake in both the Maldives’ seaplane operators, Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) and Maldivian Air Taxi (MAT) for an undisclosed sum. Since the merger, the company has been operating under the TMA brand.

Major resort groups – speaking on condition of anonymity – have alleged that a number of properties were losing money on a monthly basis as a result of being reliant on services provided by the now-consolidated national seaplane operator.

“Worst fears”

In a letter addressed to the Secretary General of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) – obtained this week by Minivan News – one of the largest multinational companies operating in the country expressed concern that “our worst fears about the [seaplane] monopoly situation are becoming a reality.”

“You are of course aware that The Blackstone Group’s recent entry into the market has had the effect of eliminating competition and creating a monopoly in the charter seaplane market in the Maldives,” wrote the multinational’s CEO in a letter dated August 5, 2013.

“We were concerned from the outset about the potential disruptions this could cause in the market and have been monitoring the situation closely.”

The CEO added that, with discussions ongoing over securing a seaplane charter contract for its resort properties in the country, the company was particularly concerned at several contractual points being “forced” onto the group by TMA.

According to the letter, these concerns include:

  • A significant increase in prices from previous seaplane contracts
  • A reduction in services and benefits being offered to hospitality groups
  • An exclusivity clause forbidding any deals between the company and other seaplane operators
  • A “contractual link” to use landplane operations it alleges are set to be launched by TMA
  • Minimum contract term of three years for seaplane operations

“As you can see, the terms being forced upon hotel owners are highly anti-competitive and will have a significant negative impact on the market. We are being forced to accept unfavourable terms and TMA is trying to lock itself into a monopoly position by insisting on long-term exclusive contracts,” the multinational hospitality group’s CEO continued in his letter to MATI.

“Ultimately, these costs will be passed on to tourists, which will make the Maldives an even more expensive tourist destination and ultimately deter tourists from visiting , this will cost Maldivian jobs and damage the industry and economy.”

“Sensitive issue”

A senior official for another major multinational hotel group using TMA’s services said it had been experiencing a number of problems in recent months related to transporting clients by seaplane – describing the matter as a “sensitive issue”.

As well as general concerns about service costs, which it said were now “quite high”, the resort source claimed they had also noted issues with TMA cancelling flights without providing prior notification to the resort or its passengers.

In some cases, the resort official alleged that the resort had been given no choice but to provide customers with free meals and even additional nights stay on their property as a result of what it said were last minute cancellations by TMA.

“Although we have had no complaints from guests themselves, this has become quite expensive for the resort,” added the resort official. “I speak with many other resorts and many have said they are losing money monthly by having to provide these transfers [by seaplane].”

The source also noted what they believed was a decline in service in recent months, personally finding travelling with TMA a comparatively “unpleasant experience”.

“Right now, there is no competition as it is only TMA offering services,” the source said.

Domestic alternatives

Meanwhile, the general manger of a resort based in the north of the country, which is currently in negotiations with TMA to renew its contract, also raised concerns over the recent services being provided to guests since the takeover by Blackstone.

“We are not the only resort I know of who believes the services are not as good. There are less flights and more island hopping,” the source claimed.

The manager said that with the recent inauguration of a domestic airport in the country, the resort’s own reliance on TMA was no longer as strong, though they added that many guests preferred the opportunity to travel the country by seaplane where possible.

Despite the preference of many tourists to fly by seaplane, the general manager said that tour operators were now opting to use domestic air travel for customers travelling to the resort as “standard”.

“We are expecting more clients to travel by domestic flights, although some would rather pay to upgrade and fly by seaplane,” added the general manager.

Minivan News was awaiting responses from TMA, Blackstone, MATI Seceretary General Ahmed Nazeer, and Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb at time of press.

Investment climate

Speaking this week during a live question and answer session ahead of the upcoming election on September 7, President Dr Mohamed Waheed took full credit for securing Blackstone’s purchase of the country’s seaplane operators.

He cited the deal as an indication of the health of foreign investment under his administration, amidst criticism over his government’s termination of two high-profile foreign investment contracts, including a US$511 million valued agreement with India-based GMR to develop and manage Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).

“It is ridiculous to claim we are not getting foreign investments now. They are very eagerly coming, even more now. One example of a great investor that I brought in recently is Blackstone,” President Waheed said during the televised event.

Attorney General Azima Shukoor last month accused the previous government of failing to conduct sufficient research before signing several major foreign investment projects that have since been terminated by the present administration.

Speaking at the time of the sale back in February, former Minister of Economic Development Mahmood Razee, also former Minister of Civil Aviation, noted that the purchase of a controlling stake in the only two seaplane operators by a single company had effectively monopolised the market.

“This is a very exclusive market, and critical to the tourism industry. Even though both MAT and TMA operate the same aircraft, they have not previously been willing to cooperate,” Razee said, explaining that the Maldives did not have anti-monopoly laws which may have otherwise obstructed the sale.

Previously, resort managers could approach both companies seeking the better price for seaplane services, upon which they were reliant for the vast majority of their guest arrivals: “Now there is no effective competition, as the major shareholder is one and the same,” Razee said at the time.

He acknowledged that “in an ideal world” prices could come down, as the two companies have been operating identical aircraft but duplicating maintenance and other services.


AG slams former government over foreign investment “damage” from alleged lack of financial research

Attorney General Azima Shukoor has accused the previous government of failing to conduct sufficient research before signing several major foreign investment projects, that had now been terminated by the present administration.

Azima was quoted by private broadcaster Villa Televison (VTV) (Dhivehi) as claiming that unspecified “economic damage” currently faced by the state had resulted from a lack of economic and legal research by the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed.

She was quoted in local media arguing that “damages” to the state had resulted from a number of foreign investment projects signed by Nasheed’s administration, including the US$511 million concession agreement signed with GMR to build and manage a new terminal at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport. Azima also raised over another deal with Malaysia-based Nexbis to manage and operate a border control system in the country.

Both agreements have since been terminated by the administration of President Dr Mohamed Waheed, with the Maldives facing a US$1.4 billion compensation claim from GMR after its contract was suddenly declared void in November. The company was then given a seven day notice period to leave before being evicted by authorities.

Nexbis was last week given 14 days to vacate by the government, which likewise terminated its concession agreement with the company.

However immigration officials last week questioned whether  replacement technology was ready to be implemented, in place of the Nexbis system.

Former government response

Responding today to the attorney general’s criticisms, Mahmood Razee, former economic development minister during the Nasheed administration, stressed that the former government had engaged with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) before moving ahead with the airport privatisation program.

As such, he rejected accusations that no research had been conducted before undertaking such a high profile project.

“Clearly this was not a stab in the dark,” Razee said of the deal. “[The World Bank engagement] determined how best to proceed with the airport development for the benefit of the government and the people. After looking at the revenue streams, it was concluded that it was best to move forward with the public private partnership.”

He claimed that aside from potential financial benefits of agreeing the deal, the consortium consisting of GMR and Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhard (MAHB) had been picked based on the companies’ experience in managing other airport projects.

With the deal now terminated, Razee added that it remained critical to secure development at the airport as soon as possible, claiming the current facilities at INIA did not meet the required standards.

Waheed’s government last year accused the IFC itself of negligence during the bidding process for the development of INIA, charges the World Bank rejected at the time.

By June this year, the Maldives’ Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) ruled out corruptionin the awarding of a concession agreement in June 2010 to the GMR/MAHB consortium. The government meanwhile continues to insist the sudden termination of the contract was in the national interest.

“Cause and effect”

Former Economic Development Minister Razee said the Maldives would remain reliant on development funding for future development projects, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars out of reach of the government.

With the country now lacking sufficient rating to obtain credit commercially, Razee argued that development funds remained the only means for a country like the Maldives to secure sizeable finance.

The present government’s decision to cancel two major foreign investments would have a “cause and effect”, he suggested.

Should the MDP be elected to power in the presidential election scheduled for next month, the party would have to consider returning to negotiations with GMR in a bid to avoid huge financial fallout from arbitration proceedings now being conducted in Singapore.

He claimed that the cooperation of international bodies such as the World Bank in securing the GMR deal would likely to be sought in other high-profile investment projects sought under an MDP government.

Economic problems

The Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industries (MNCCI) meanwhile last month accused senior politicians under successive governments of trivialising the severity of the country’s economic problems.

MNCCI Vice President Ishmael Asif claimed parties were addressing financial concerns and issues impacting foreign investment with negative slogans rather than actual policies in the run up to September’s election.

While accepting the present “bad shape” of the Maldives economy, the chamber of commerce was particularly critical of what it called negative economic campaigning by senior figures in the last two governments – arguing they had done little to address an ongoing shortage of US dollars and a lack of investment banking opportunities and arbitration legislation in the country.

Asif’s comments were made in response to claims by the government-aligned Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) that foreign investors were now turning away from the Maldives due to concerns about political stability and safety in the country.


Maldives government terminates Nexbis agreement, gives 14 days to vacate

The Maldives government has terminated its agreement with Malaysian security firm Nexbis to install and operate a border control system, giving it 14 days to vacate.

Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim local media that the disputed contract – signed under the previous government of former President Mohamed Nasheed in 2010 – was terminated by the cabinet yesterday over fears it was causing unspecified “major losses” to the state.

The termination was announced as immigration officials today said replacement technology being provided by the US government was not presently functional, with implementation “on hold” pending a legal hearing into the matter.

Department of Immigration Spokesperson Ibrahim Ashraf told Minivan News this morning that he had not personally been made aware of any decision by the government to terminate the agreement.

However, Ashraf confirmed that replacement technology being provided free of charge by the US government was “not 100 percent functional” at present.

“Because of legal issues, the project has been on hold,” he explained.

Immigration officials last month confirmed that “testing” had been underway on the new US-donated system, while Nexbis’ border control technology remained in use to monitor the arrivals and departures of foreign nationals

Ashraf referred further questions on the Nexbis system to Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali, who was not responding to calls at time of press.

Nexbis is the second high profile foreign investment to be suddenly evicted by the administration of President Dr Mohamed Waheed in the past 12 months.

The government last November announced it was terminating a 25-year concession agreement with India-based GMR to construct and operate a new terminal at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) in Male, giving the company seven days to vacate the country.

GMR is currently seeking compensation totaling US$1.4 billion from the government as part of arbitration proceedings to be heard in a Singaporean court, damages eclipsing the annual state budget.

Speaking to local media today, Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim was quoted as saying that the government expected to assume control of the country’s borders at the end of the 14 day notice period given to Nexbis.

He claimed that the US system was also “ready to be operational”, although no decision had yet been made to use the technology.

Attorney General (AG) Azima Shukoor added that discussions were presently being held with Nexbis over reaching an out of court settlement for terminating the contract, although she declined to provide any more details to media today.

“We assure you that the burden on the state will be far less with the termination of the agreement rather than continuing with it. We will take this process forward in the best interest of the state,” she was quoted as saying by Haveeru.

Concession agreement

Under the concession agreement signed with the Maldives government, Nexbis levied a fee of US$2 from passengers in exchange for installing, maintaining and upgrading the country’s immigration system.  The company also agreed a fee of US$15 for every work permit card issued under the system.

Both AG Azima and Defence Minister Nazim were not responding to calls at time of press.

Nexbis last month invoiced the Department of Immigration and Emigration for US$2.8 million (MVR 43 million) for the installation and operation of its border control technology in line with a concession agreement signed in 2010 – requesting payment be settled within 30 days.

Nexbis’ lawyers argued that the company had expected the fee to be included in the taxes and surcharges applied to airline tickets in and out of the country, according to local media.  However, lawyers argued these payments had not been made due to the government’s “neglect” in notifying the relevant international authorities.

Minivan News was awaiting a response from Suood, Anwar & Co – the company’s legal representatives in the Maldives – at time of press.

Parliamentary vote

Parliament had voted unanimously to terminate the agreement on 25 December 2012, in line with a recommendation from the Finance Committee alleging foul play in the signing of the agreement with former Immigration Controller Illyas Hussain Ibrahim.

Presenting the Finance Committee report to the floor, Chair MP Ahmed Nazim explained at the time that the “main problem” flagged by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) was that the tender had not been made in accordance with the documents by the National Planning Council authorising the project.

The Finance Committee also recommended terminating the agreement over concerns it contained clauses to waive taxes to the company, Nazim said.

He noted that imposing or waiving taxes was a prerogative of parliament under article 97(d) of the constitution.

Following parliament’s termination of the project in December, Nexbis sought a legal injunction to prevent any cancellation of the agreement while court hearings over the contract were still ongoing.

The company had sought to contest whether the ACC has the power to compulsorily request the government to cease all work in relation to the border control system agreement.

However, in April of this year, the High Court overturned a Civil Court ruling declaring the ACC could not terminate a border control system (BSC) agreement signed by the Department of Immigration with Malaysian mobile security firm Nexbis.

The High Court ruling (Dhivehi) cleared the way for the Civil Court to hear the case filed by the ACC should it be resubmitted.

Nexbis has emphatically denied allegations of corruption, previously speculating that “criminal elements supporting human trafficking” were seeking to sabotage the agreement.


Comment: The unfortunate reality of an island airport

Milton Friedman, one of the most influential economists of 20th century, once said “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand”.

While it has been proved time and again that Governments have no business being in business, the issue is still widely debated and will probably linger on in eternity. However, in the Maldives, this issue of state ownership of businesses takes a totally different dimension. When Mr Friedman made this, now legendary, comment he referred to only the inefficiencies in decision making and economic management that most governments and politicians are riddled with. In the Maldivian context, one has to take into account the mala fide intent as well as narrow self-interests of people in the government as well.

An unfortunate example of how the Government of the day not only destroys value but systematically works against the interest of the people is our prized national asset – Ibrahim Nasir International Airport.

Caught in the middle of political wriggling and costly lawsuits, politicisation of the airport by everyone across the political spectrum and the mullahs typifies all that is wrong with our economy, our businesses and our government.

Ever since the ousting of GMR, whatever progress that had been made at the airport is now being undone – reversal of employees benefits such as employee insurance which was given by GMR to stalling of development works at the airport are just a few examples.

I have been told of way too many stories of flight delays due to systems outages, long unmanageable queues and leaking roofs to be convinced all over again of the Government’s inefficiencies in managing enterprises.

But I do not intend to focus on Government’s inefficiency in managing our national airport in this article. I would rather highlight the systematic manner in which the current Government seems to have taken control of the airport to serves its and its cronies’ own narrow self-interests rather than let it be run in a professional manner that is best for the passengers as well as the nation.

First, Dr Waheed’s government wanted to create a new airport company (MIAL) to take over management of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport with a new MD and a new Board of Directors with the intent of setting up tight control on the airport management. When the AG advised them of legal impossibilities related to this action, he appointed the same set of cronies to the MACL board to ensure he controls the board and all important commercial decisions at the airport.

Of course, at the time of cancelling the agreement, Government did say that new and professional management will be brought to manage the airport within 3 months and there will be no political influence in managing it going forward. Whatever happened to Dr Waheed’s ideas of ‘professional management’, Dr Hassan Saeed’s idea of ‘internationally experienced  foreign CEO and CFO’ and Sheikh Imran’s ‘national consultations for deciding the future of the airport’.

On political appointees and lack of professional management, it is interesting to note that Dr. Waheed’s political appointee as the MD of MACL– Bandhu Saleem has at least started making some noises around what are all the challenges that are facing the airport – lack of funds, no master plan and hardships & sacrifices for 3-4 years in each phase of airport’s development. He said these things in an interview to a local daily and what is most painful is that whatever he said only highlights the stupidity of the decision to oust GMR.

If it was that easy for a government company to get US$350 million funding for the airport, then why would anyone anywhere across the world privatise airports in the first place?

And by that logic, even Dr Waheed would have got his US$500 million loans from China and US$350 million grant from Saudi Arabia for budgetary support by now surely? As for the master plan for development, it was to be announced within 3 months of GMR’s ouster and we haven’t heard a word from anyone on this yet. There are bigger battles for all the politicians to fight, within themselves, in two months.

It’s clear by now that all these lofty promises always sound good to the general public and Bandhu Saleem’s game plan seems to be the same for now, even though reality it is most important to first take care of the basics. I have been told by sources that in one of the first meetings that he called after moving to his office at the airport, his authority was challenged and thwarted directly by the attendees. He intended to undertake frivolous discussions on the “Vision & Mission” for the airport when all the other attendees didn’t even have permanent contracts or medical insurance covers, something that they enjoyed under GMR management.

While airport’s development by MACL is an elusive dream that may never see the light of day, the fear really is that since it is back under MACL (effectively government) control, systematic corruption will rise like never before. What is most interesting for us to note is that all of these moves to take control of the airport operations come at a time when the Presidential elections race is heating up by the day.

Campaign funding is the need of the hour and we know that most elections are won or lost on the level of funding that is available to a candidate. With his allies deserting him thick and fast, what may still keep Dr Waheed in the hunt for the election is the money that his cronies are willing to bet on him while he is still in power.

It is well known that the likes of MVK Shafeeg and Najah have their eyes set on more airport concessions. MVK Shafeeg has been funding most of the anti-GMR protests and has been providing campaign funding aggressively to Dr. Waheed’s coalition.

So, I’ll not be surprised if we see MVK shops coming up in duty free section of the airport soon. A refurbished and world class duty free offering was one of the best things that GMR had done at the airport. MACL’s previous MD Mafooz had publicly stated that duty free is one of the best profit earners for the airport. It will only be in return for securing his campaign funding that Dr. Waheed’s government will allow MVK to get duty free shops at the airport for peanuts.

After all, securing massive amount of funds may be half the battle won in the presidential race of September 2013.  Whatever happens to the airport and its development after that can be put on the backburner like it had been for each of the last 25 years – except for the two when GMR managed it!

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Politicians trivialising severity of economic problems, foreign investment: Chamber of Commerce

The Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industries (MNCCI) has accused senior politicians of trivialising the severity of the country’s economic problems, claiming parties are addressing financial concerns with negative slogans rather than actual policies.

The concerns were raised as the government-aligned Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) claimed over the past week that foreign investors were now turning away from the Maldives due to concerns about political stability and safety in the country.

“Bad shape”

While accepting the present “bad shape” of the Maldives economy, the chamber of commerce criticised negative campaigning on the economy by senior figures in the last two governments – arguing they had done little to address an ongoing shortage of US dollars and a lack of investment banking opportunities and arbitration legislation in the country.

On Saturday (June 29), PPM presidential candidate Abdulla Yameen was quoted in local media as expressing concern that foreign businesses were shunning the Maldives in favour of financing projects in other countries in the region.

“With our present woes no one wants to invest here. They are looking at Seychelles and Caracas. No foreign investor wants to come to the Maldives,” Haveeru reported him as saying.

The concerns were shared by Yameen’s running mate, former Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, who told a campaign rally in Raa Atoll days earlier that the PPM was the only party able to secure peace and safety in the country required to boost foreign investor confidence.

Dr Jameel was dismissed as home minister by President Dr Mohamed Waheed in May this year after announcing his decision to stand as running mate for rival candidate Abdulla Yameen in September’s election.

Minivan News was awaiting a response from Dr Jameel about the party’s economic policies at time of press.

While MNCCI Vice President Ishmael Asif accepted that political stability was a key challenge to building foreign investor confidence, he added that senior political figures such as Dr Jameel had failed to implement much needed legislative reforms to aid investment while in power.

Asif argued that Dr Jameel was not the only government figure in the last five years guilty of failing to try and boost investor confidence in the Maldives.

“We are not happy. People are using the economy as a campaign slogan. All parties are looking to come to power and they will do or say anything to be in power,” he said.

Asif expressed particular concern over various parties’ using the country’s present economic difficulties to score points during campaigning without offering their own solutions.

“The economy is not healthy right now. We do not hear any solutions from these people. We want to hear positives about will they change,” Asif said.

“What exactly did Jameel do for the economy? What did Anni [former President Mohamed Nasheed] do? What also did Dr Waheed do? What did any of them do?”

Economic record

Asif argued that ahead of the upcoming presidential election scheduled for September, it was hugely important that voters evaluated all candidates on the basis of their recent economic record.

He said that the Maldives’ first multi-party democratic election in 2008, the country had failed to implement a number of legislative reforms required to provide greater freedom to foreign investors.

According to Asif, key economic reforms lacking included the establishment of investment banks to encourage foreign parties to borrow domestically, and arbitration law to ensure that investments were protected in the country’s courts.

He said that with rival parties and President Waheed all campaigning ahead of this year’s election, there appeared to be little consensus to try and deal with “huge issues” such as the dollar shortage.


Asif said he believed that the majority of voters had failed to properly hold their leaders to account since the democratic transition in 2008, comparing the nation’s democratic freedoms over the last five years as being comparable to “a child with a new toy”.

“We have not really understood democracy here. Many have not grown up with the right to question that comes with democracy, so we don’t know how to test the capacity of our leaders,” he said.

Raising concerns that the loudest and most controversial figures had dominated the country’s political arena since 2008, Asif said fears of a lack of accountability were a significant difficulty for the economy.

“Take the Ministry of Trade for example. There is a huge issue over the supply of US dollars, yet instead everyone is focused on their own parties. There is no mandate to address this,” he said.

Opposition concerns

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) meanwhile rejected criticisms over its foreign investment record, claiming it had attempted to introduce a raft of economic reforms for the economy while in power, before the government was controversially changed on February 7, 2012.

The present government, made up entirely of former opposition parties, came to power after former President Mohamed Nasheed resigned from office during a mutiny by sections of the police and military.

MDP MP and Spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor said that it was hypocritical for the PPM, or any other party serving in the present government, to raise concerns about political stability, given that they had intentionally deposed the country’s first democratically-elected government.

On an economic level, Ghafoor claimed the former MDP government had sought to introduce an economic reform package aimed at encouraging investment not only in the country’s tourism industry, but in a wider number of sectors such as energy, communications and infrastructure.

He said that this investment focus had been seen in the introduction by the former administration of direct taxation, the restructuring of government finances and the reduction or elimination of import duties on a wide range of goods.

Before Nasheed came to power, Ghafoor said the country had been managed much like a “corner shop” – with no mechanisms to attract and keep investors in the country.

He argued that one legacy of this approach to foreign investment could be still be seen in the country’s courts, which he continued to remain a “mess”.

Judicial criticisms

Before his resignation, former President Nasheed controversially detained the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court Abdulla Mohamed, in a move he claimed was needed to prevent him from continuing to rule on cases while charges of misconduct against him were investigated.

In November 2011, the Civil Court ordered the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to take no action against the chief judge over an investigation into his alleged misconduct until the country’s court reached a verdict in a case filed against him. The Civil Court case preventing action against Abdulla Mohamed was filed by the chief judge himself.

In the build up to the judge’s arrest, Nasheed continued to raise concerns over allegations of perjury and “increasingly blatant collusion” between senior judicial figures and politicians loyal to the former autocratic President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Since Nasheed’s resignation, NGOs and independent experts including UN Special Rapporteur for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Gabriela Knaul have expressed concern over politicisation within the country’s court system.

Accusing the PPM – as part of the present coalition government –  of being directly involved in instigating a mutiny within the country’s security forces prior to the change of government last year, MDP MP Ghafoor alleged the party was also culpable for ruining interest in foreign investment.

He accused PPM presidential candidate Abdulla Yameen in particular of using President Waheed as a “pawn” last November to abruptly terminate a US$511 million contract with India-based GMR to develop and manage Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).

Indian infrastructure giant GMR recently filed a claim for US$1.4 billion in compensation from the Maldives, following the government’s sudden termination of its concession agreement citing  “wrongful termination” and loss of projected profits.

Meanwhile, the PPM accused President Waheed of ignoring the advice of his coalition government by terminating the agreement.

Waheed’s allies hit back by accusing the PPM of making “contradictory statements” regarding the decision to terminate GMR’s concession agreement, claiming the party’s senior leadership tried to terminate the deal without discussion or following due process.

The MNCCI claimed in September last year that legal wrangling between the government and India-based developer GMR over the multi-million dollar airport development contract was not anticipated to harm confidence in the country’s “challenging” investment climate.


Restrictions on foreign investment to remain under amended business registration bill

A ban on foreign investment in the Maldives involving capital of under US$5 million will continue under amendments to the country’s Business Registration Bill proposed by parliament.

The health, accounting, taxation and financial services sectors will be exempted from the minimum investment requirement. However involvement in any other sector will require a foreign national to have capital of over US$5 million and a deposit of US$1 million with a group approved by the Maldivian government, local media has reported.

Parliament’s Committee on Economic Affairs omitted a proposed amendment from the latest draft of the Business Registration Bill, that would have potentially opened up smaller businesses such as retail and coffee shops to foreign investors.

The Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industries (MNCCI) has called for even tighter restrictions on specific sectors, stating a need to protect smaller-scale local businesses such as restaurants and retail outlets.

Former Minister of Economic Development Minister Mahmoud Razee said the Business Registration Bill was designed to open up new forms of capital from foreign investors in areas such as large-scale agriculture and fisheries projects, rather than allowing foreigners to directly compete with local retail businesses.

President Dr Mohamed Waheed has returned the bill after it was passed by parliament in June 2012, citing unspecified “socio-economic” concerns.

According to the Sun Online, President Waheed opted not to ratify the bill over concerns it would abolish a law restricting foreign involvement in imports, cafes and canteens.

The bill is also reported to include provisions restricting foreigners to involvement in the wholesale trade,  with the exception of duty free stores, while also restricting businesses said to be ‘against the interest of the Maldivian public’.

Investment friendly

MNCCI Vice President Ishmael Asif told Minivan News that foreign investment should be opened up in the Maldives, but only in terms of large-scale projects like resort development and infrastructure – areas where Maldivians lacked sufficient experience.

Responding to the latest draft of the bill, Asif contended that the Maldives had always been “very friendly” to foreign investors and would continue to welcome large-scale projects such as resort and airport development.

The government last November cancelled the country’s largest single foreign investment project – a US$511 concession agreement with Indian infrastructure giant GMR to manage and develop a new terminal at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, declaring the sovereign agreement “void” from the start. The company was then given seven days to leave.

Asif said while the MNCCI had not yet had any input on the current iteration of the bill since it was returned to parliament, it was concerned about provisions allowing a foreigner with over US$5 million in capital to invest in any sector.

Asif said that the chamber of commerce favoured sector-specific restrictions that would outlaw any foreigner from investing in areas such as retail or food and beverage. However, he maintained that opportunities should remain for international investors to join with medium-sized local businesses in the form of joint ventures.

With the bill undergoing review at parliamentary level, Asif accused regulators of remaining far behind the industry, pointing to the emergence of online consumers and the lack of an international secure payment service like ‘Paypal’.

“A lot of the time regulators are far too behind the industry. The focus of the bill should be to encourage enterprise here,” he said.

Business Registration Bill

Razee said the business registration bill was devised under the Nasheed administration to open new areas for foreign investment, as well boost the capabilities of national industries in the longer-term.

He added that investment areas such as in the retail sector would have been protected from direct competition from foreign investors, while  large-scale investment in areas such as agriculture and the fisheries sector would be promoted.

The bill was first proposed as part of a wider economic reform package championed by Nasheed’s administration, which was further revised following consultations in 2011 with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

These policies included introducing a general Goods and Services Tax (GST), raising import duties on pork, tobacco, alcohol and plastic products, raising the Tourism Goods and Services Tax (T-GST) to six percent, and reducing import duties on certain products.

Razee said last year that the registration bill was intended to provide a “clearer means” for facilitating foreign investment in the Maldives.

“We were trying to make it easier for foreign shareholders to register here,” he said.

Acting Minister of Finance and Treasury Ahmed Mohamed, State Minister for Finance Abbas Adil Riza, and Presidents Office Spokesperson Masood Imad were not responding to calls at the time of press.


Government lacks plan to address “bad shape” of airport: dismissed transport minister

Former Transport Minister Dr Ahmed Shamheed has said criticism leveled at the government by Adhaalath Party (AP) President Sheikh Imran Abdulla over a lack of development at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) was justified considering the “bad shape” of the site.

Dr Shamheed, who served under the current government before being dismissed in November 2012, has warned that failure to outline a development plan for INIA after the government evicted the foreign investor renovating the site could be disastrous for the country.

Late last year President Waheed’s government declared void an agreement with Indian infrastructure group GMR to upgrade and develop the airport, and gave them seven days to leave the country. The deal was the Maldives’ largest single foreign investment project, valued at  US$511 million.

The Adhaalath Party was a key opponent of foreign development of the airport, demanding it be reclaimed on nationalistic grounds.

However speaking to private broadcaster DhiTV yesterday (January 28) the party’s President Sheikh Imran Abdulla claimed that there had been a worrying lack of progress in developing the site after it had been handed to the state-owned Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL).

Sheikh Imran, an outspoken supporter of attempts to “reclaim” the management of INIA from GMR, raised concerns that the airport was returning to the “bad condition” it was previously in, criticising MACL for lacking a vision to manage and develop the site,” according to Sun Online.

“Maldivian people had great hopes when the airport was reclaimed from GMR. It was been two months since and still, there is no vision for the airport. There is no proper plan for how it will be managed,”  he was quoted as saying.

Development plans

Former Transport Minister Shamheed told Minivan News today that he believed Sheikh Imran’s criticisms were fair, adding that if the government did have a plan for development, they had not demonstrated it so far.

“I haven’t heard what the government is planning. They seem to be managing the airport as if everything is perfect. Yet they may have to close down the site in future without further development. If [the government] has a plan they haven’t revealed it yet. All they have talked about is setting up a company to manage the site.”

According to Dr Shamheed, following the decision to terminate the GMR contract last year the government has been facing two key challenges with regard to the airport.

The first of these challenges is securing sufficient financing for completing renovation of the existing terminal and runway.  The second key issue, Dr Shamheed said, obtaining expertise and skilled developers to bring the airport in line with international standards as expected of a destination like the Maldives.

“To get the airport to the right level, they will need to bring in outside help,” he claimed. “The airport is in very bad shape right now and work is needed on the runway, all of which cannot be done without finance.”

Minivan News was awaiting a response from MACL at the time of press. Meanwhile, both current Minister of State for Transport and Communications Mohamed Ibrahim and President’s Office Media Secretary Masood Imad were not responding to calls.

Despite the criticisms, President Dr Mohamed Waheed today asserted that “shockingly big investments” would be coming to the Maldives in unspecified areas.

Speaking at the opening of the MACI BuildExpo 2012/2013 show at the Dharubaaruge convention hall in Male’, President Waheed claimed that despite the decision to void a sovereign agreement with GMR – a decision backed by Singapore’s Supreme Court – investor trust in the Maldives had not been diminished.

Sublease plans

Just last month, Minister of Tourism Ahmed Adheeb stated that the government was not planning to hand over full control of operations at INIA, but might sublease specific development projects to international parties through a “transparent” bidding process.

Adheeb told Minivan News that privatising the only international airport allowed it to become a monopoly which was not in the best interests of the country.

The Maldives cabinet also last month recommended forming a government-owned company to operate INIA  through a special contract with the Maldives Airports Company Ltd (MACL).


Decision on future of waste management project expected within a week: State Minister Matheen

A decision over whether to cancel a contract with India-based Tatva Global Renewable Energy for the provision of a waste management system in the Male’ area will be taken by the Environment Ministry this week, according to local media.

A final decision on the contract – which was last month in the process of renegotiation between the current government and Tatva Global Renewable Energy – is expected to be taken within the next five days, State Minister for Environment and Energy Abdul Matheen Mohamed has reportedly confirmed.

Matheen claimed Monday (December 25) that final discussions with the company were set to take place over whether the ministry would seek to scrap the contract, Local newspaper Haveeru has reported.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration signed the original waste management agreement with Tatva in May 2011 in a deal that was supposed to have generated power from recycling waste. The scheme was also said to be part of attempts to improve the overall standards of waste management in Male’ and the nearby “garbage island”, Thilafushi.

The deal, like the airport development agreement with India-based GMR declared void by the government last month, was been backed by International Finance Corporation (IFC), an affiliate organisation of the World Bank, according to the Inter Press Service news agency.

However, parts of the agreement were ordered halted by the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in August this year over alleged concerns about the contract approved by the former government.

The ACC received concerns that the project would lead to an anticipated loss of MVR 1 billion (US$64.8 million) in government finances over a 20 year operating period, according to local news reports at the time.

“Mutually beneficial”

Environment Minister Dr Mariyam Shakeela announced earlier this month that discussions were taking place as to whether the previous contract agreed with Tatva could be replaced with a more “mutually beneficial” agreement.

“Provided they perform within the time frame given, the contract will remain with Tatva,” she said in response to whether the company would retain its role on the waste management project.

However, Male’ City Council (MCC) has criticised the renegotiation attempts, accusing the state of trying to sabotage the agreement outright for political gain.


Male’ City Council accuses government of sabotaging Tatva Global waste management project

The government has announced is it in the process of renegotiating a waste management contract for the Male’ area with India-based Tatva Global Renewable Energy – leading to criticism by the opposition-dominated Male’ City Council (MCC) that the state is trying to sabotage the agreement for political gain.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration signed the original waste management agreement with Tatva in May 2011 in a deal that was supposed to have generated power from recycling waste. The scheme was also said to be part of attempts to improve the overall standards of waste management in Male’ and the nearby “garbage island”, Thilafushi.

The deal, like the airport development agreement with India-based GMR declared void by the government this week, was been backed by International Finance Corporation (IFC), an affiliate organisation of the World Bank, according to the Inter Press Service news agency.

However parts of the agreement were ordered halted by the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in August this year over alleged concerns about the contract, which was also signed under the former government.

The ACC received concerns that the project would lead to an anticipated loss of MVR 1 billion (US$64.8 million) in government finances over a 20 year operating period, according to local news service Haveeru.

ACC President Hassan Luthfee had phone switched off at the time of going to press.

In correspondence sent to Minivan News this week, Dr Mariyam Shakeela, who has served as Environment Minister for the last few months and was most recently appointed acting Human Rights Minister, announced that a previous contract agreed with Tatva was expected to be replaced with a “mutually beneficial” agreement.

“Provided they perform within the time frame given, the contract will remain with Tatva,” she said in response to whether the company would retain its role on the waste management project.

Dr Shakeela, who did not respond to a question on the nature of the government’s concerns with the previous contract, said the time frame for the deal was “under negotiation”.

“[The] whole agreement is being formulated,” she added.

A spokesperson for Tatva Global Renewable Energy was not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press.

MCC criticism

However, the MCC has claimed that following a visit of senior officials from Tatva Global Renewable Energy between November 18 to November 20, a failure by the government to involve its councillors in the process and ongoing delays to commencing the project had let it to conclude that the deal would be eventually cancelled. The MCC said it expected the project to eventually be cancelled, despite increasing problems with waste management in the capital.

MCC councillor Mohamed Abdul Kareem told Minivan News that he had been informed senior Tatva executives had been invited to the Maldives for several days earlier this month to meet with ministers and stakeholders involved in the energy project.

“However, I don’t know what the discussions were focused on. Many groups were there; the Finance Ministry, other government departments, the Attorney General’s Office and the State Electricity Company (STELCO) were all there,” he said.

However, Kareem questioned why the MCC – as a major stakeholder in its own waste management project – had also not been invited to the discussions to express its concerns over the need for the waste management project.

“The issue has been continually delayed and the waste management problem is getting worse, while we don’t have the budget to meet our waste management needs,” he claimed.

Kareem alleged that while the government was providing small amounts of funding for waste management, he believed attempts were purposely being made to exacerbate the capital’s refuse problems in order to undermine the municipal council’s work. Kareem added that he was presently consulting lawyers over where the MCC stood on the waste management project.

“We don’t have enough budget to collect the waste, meanwhile the collection centres in Male’ are full and waste is openly being burnt on Thilafushi,” he claimed. “I think this is a game [for the government], I am certain they will cancel this contract.”

Kareem claimed that with an estimated 150,000 inhabitants in Male’ each generating a kilogram of waste per day on average, managing the capital’s waste management was the largest logistical operations in the entire country on a daily basis.

“We are dealing with 150,00 kg of waste everyday, we don’t have efficient enough operations for this. We don’t have enough boat fuel and the excavators we use are 20 to 30 years old. “[Wednesday] even, the starter motor failed on one of these,” he said.