Preliminary debate on the government’s flagship special economic zones (SEZs) legislation began today with opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs warning that the envisaged law could turn the Maldives into a haven for “money laundering and washing black money.”
If the bill is passed into law, the government could hand out uninhabited islands or plots of land for periods, prices, and terms of its choosing without either parliamentary oversight or a role for local councils, contended MDP MP Ibrahim Shareef.
“The Maldives could become a machine for money laundering and turning black money white,” he added.
If the country becomes a money laundering destination for international criminal enterprises, Shareef warned that developed nations could impose sanctions on the Maldives.
Shareef also expressed concern with the impact of tax exemptions for investors in the SEZs on the local tourism industry.
Among other MDP MPs who spoke during the debate, MP Ahmed Nashid noted that the bill “supersedes” 14 other laws while MP Abdul Gafoor Moosa insisted that the legislation should be amended with the input of the main opposition party.
Speaking at an MDP gathering last week, former President Mohamed Nasheed had dubbed the SEZ legislation the “Artur Brothers bill,” referring to the infamous Armenians linked with money laundering and drug trafficking who made headlines in Maldivian media last year after they were photographed with cabinet ministers.
Nasheed claimed that the zones are intended for criminal activity, money laundering, gambling, and “other irreligious activities.”
The Maldivian government’s liaison officer in Addu during British occupation of Gan island had more authority and freedom than what the government would have in the SEZs, Nasheed contended.
Introducing the 70-page draft legislation (Dhivehi), MP Ahmed Nihan – parliamentary group leader of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) – stressed that the bill includes provisions for terminating agreements with investors if an act of corruption specified in the International Convention against Corruption is proved.
The MP for Vilimale’ appealed for “cooperation and assistance” from opposition MPs in reviewing the legislation and addressing shortcomings at the committee stage.
In the ensuing debate, Jumhooree Party (JP) MP Ibrahim Hassan declared support for the legislation but suggested that the power to form a board of investment to oversee the zones should not be vested solely with the president.
JP MP Moosa Nizar Ibrahim suggested that environmental and national security concerns should be addressed, while JP Deputy Leader Ilham Ahmed said the bill contained “serious problems.”
While supporting the “concept” of SEZs, Ilham expressed concern with the bill offering tax exemptions to investors for a 10-year period and allowing uninhabited islands to be leased without advance payments.
The government would not receive any revenue from investors during the 10-year period, he noted, while investors would enjoy subsidised staple foodstuffs.
PPM MP Jameel Usman argued that the bill was intended to assure investor confidence and offer incentives to choose the Maldives over other developing economies in the region.
SEZs in the Dominican Republic and Philippines created thousands of jobs, noted PPM MP Abdulla Rifau, suggesting that new jobs for Maldivian youth would make up for lost tax revenue.
Moreover, the bill requires investors to carry out corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects, he added.
Incentives for investors offered in the bill include tax exemptions and relaxed regulations for employing foreign labour.
Investors would be exempted from paying either import duties for capital goods or business profit tax, goods and services tax and withholding tax.
Moreover, regulations on foreign workers would be relaxed while companies with foreign shareholders would be allowed to purchase land without paying privatisation fees or sales tax.
Geographical areas or regions declared an SEZ by the president would also be removed from the jurisdiction of local councils.
The nine SEZs envisioned in the bill includes an industrial estate zone, export processing zone, free trade zone, enterprise zone, free port zone, single factory export processing zone, offshore banking unit zone, offshore financial services centre zone, and a high technology park zone.
President Abdulla Yameen had declared in April that the SEZ bill would become “a landmark law” that would strengthen the country’s foreign investment regime.