Greater scrutiny of new investment projects

During the debates in Parliament on Tuesday last Xavier-Luc Duval asked the Prime Minister whether he was aware that Poly Industries from China which is investing in social housing projects in Mauritius also dealt in arms

During the debates in Parliament on Tuesday last Leader of the Opposition Xavier-Luc Duval questioned the Prime Minister about the company Poly Industries from China that is investing in social housing projects in the country. The PM was questioned about whether he was aware that this company also dealt in arms, and the PM’s answer was that this issue was not the focus of discussions with them, but it may well be that they have branches that do so.

When the Leader of Opposition asked whether the MoU would be made available for scrutiny, the PM answered that it contained a clause of confidentiality which specifically forbade disclosure to any party other than the two parties involved, meaning the government and Poly Industries. Mr Duval queried how this could be forced on a matter where the public’s money was involved, and the PM’s reply was that nobody was being forced; further, he said, the MoU is not an agreement, which would be discussed and signed later after due process.

This raises the question of the need for greater scrutiny of investment projects, especially from new sources which have not previously been significant stakeholders in our development like our traditional partners. There is nothing unusual about concern being expressed in the matter of Chinese investments. Granted that China has been a long-time partner supporting the development of Mauritius in many sectors, nevertheless due diligence if we may call it so is still needed, hence the Leader of the Opposition’s query.

An article in this paper last week, ‘What’s driving Chinese infrastructure investment overseas and how can we make the most of it’ by Shahar Hameiri of the university of Queensland referred to Chinese know-how and financing as ‘both a threat and an opportunity’. The opportunity was Chinese expertise in many sectors, such as high-speed rail and Chinese finance. The threat, however, was to national security because of the ‘potential for misuse of key infrastructure to serve Chinese strategic agendas’.

The article notes that ‘the Australian government, on security officials’ advice, has not joined the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative’. Further, ‘telecommunications giant Huawei will likely be banned from building Australia’s 5G network’. It may be recalled that in the USA also Huawei has been banned from certain projects again on national security grounds. As recently as in May 2018, a Pentagon spokesperson said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal that Huawei and ZTE devices may pose an unacceptable risk to the department’s personnel, information and mission’.

The author therefore made a call for ‘greater scrutiny of investment projects’ through the setting out by government of a ‘clear strategy’ for all investment projects.

This brings us to the Cabinet meeting held on Friday 29 June, when Cabinet took note that His Royal Highness Prince Abdulaziz Bin Saud Bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Minister of Interior of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would visit Mauritius from 1 to 3 July 2018, and would pay courtesy calls on the Acting President of the Republic and the Minister Mentor, Minister for Defence, Minister for Rodrigues and have a tête-à-tête and a working session with the Prime Minister.

The visit did duly take place, and it included some controversies about the ‘who’s who’ of attendees at a dinner, which some felt ought not to have been a private affair since this was an official visit – and paid for from public funds.

Whatever it be, according to information available in the media, Saudi Arabia will be advancing USD 150 million to Mauritius, which amounts to Rs 5.3 billion. Of this USD 50 m or Rs 1.7 billion will come as grant and is meant for the building of University Hospital at Flacq, with USD 25 million or Rs 875 million earmarked for a cancer center there. There are the projects of construction of a landing strip in Rodrigues as well as funding for social housing. It was also in the news that the number of visas for Haj has been upped from 1300 to 1500, with possibly more to come.

According to the Financial Times of London (March 2018), ‘Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is considering opening offices around the world as it plans to expand its assets under management to $400bn by 2020 through overseas as well as domestic investments. Yasir al-Rumayyan, managing director of the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) said it was weighing opening up offices in the US – New York and San Francisco -, the UK and Japan as it seeks to become a “global investment powerhouse”. The PIF has become the vehicle through which the powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to drive the transformation of the kingdom’s economy through high-profile investments (bold added)’.

By any reckoning the investment in Mauritius does not qualify as ‘high-profile’ if we go by the PIF’s mandate as spelt out above. This push for investment comes after the new prince took over, and under his watch recently the ban on women’s driving in Saudi Arabia has been lifted. If these moves, and perhaps others to come, are an indication of a certain openness of attitude that is taking place in the country, they may help to give a better image of a country which has otherwise been widely criticized for ‘exporting’ the radical ideology Salafism or Wahabism, for relentlessly pounding its neighbour Yemen large parts of which have been driven to famine, and for cruelly isolating Qatar through mounting a regional coalition – and thus is not much known for assistance to countries.

There is no gainsaying the fact that engagement with any power is always a trade-off and, in the best of circumstances, creates a win-win situation for both sides either in terms of trade and access to markets – for example in our ‘formative’ post-Independence years with respect to the European Economic Commission and other privileges such as in education and health -, Mauritius as a platform to Africa because of our bilingualism, strategic positioning in the Indian Ocean, etc. In all these instances it is the national and not a sectarian interest that was served.

It would thus be of interest to the public to know whether there is any ‘strategic’ or other agenda behind this substantial Saudi investment in Mauritius. After all, what does Mauritius have to give in return and what, therefore, drives a conservative country such as Saudi Arabia to invest here are questions that the wider public may justifiably ask.

Nevertheless, given that such investments as have been divulged are genuinely needed in the country, they can be accepted in good faith. But we trust that in so doing our leaders will see to it that they are not a Trojan horse being ushered in at the risk of upsetting the fragile cultural and social fabric of the country, which has been built up painfully over many decades to achieve a degree of stability and harmony.

 


* Published in print edition on 6 July 2018

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