Sadeen Group, owned by Jordanian entrepreneur Hani Salah who launched the controversial American University of Malta (AUM), was considering taking over the Rialto cinema in Cospicua, a theatre which belongs to the Malta Labour Party (PL), court documents reveal.
Emails discussing the PL’s property form part of a set of documents filed along with an affidavit by the former deputy project manager for AUM, Edoardo Pagani. He is suing the company for unfair dismissal.
In an email sent in January 2017 to representatives of his employer, Sadeen Group, Pagani refers to “the theatre” and “give money to Partit Laburista”.
The email refers to “the commitment to start teaching” and for the “search of an eventual different place to start teaching” following serious delays in the development of the project.
“As an alternative, we can also search for an eventual different place to start teaching at least for the first semester. However I am not sure if this [is] politically feasible and for sure (sic) politically you should know we cannot think about the theatre as first please (sic) to teach considering politically [it] will NOT be accepted [if] we give money to Partit Laburista,” the email states.
The theatre owned by the Labour Party is located opposite the site where the controversial AUM was set up. It remains unclear how a contractor from Italy who carried out works for Sadeen Group in other countries became aware of a theatre owned by the Party in government.
What is evident is that the former projects manager deemed the alternative for Sadeen to acquire PL’s theatre as “politically unacceptable” and told his Jordanian employers to stop thinking about it, at least for the time being.
In 2015, national protests had broken out in Malta over the proposed awarding to Sadeen of 31,000 square metres of agricultural and arable land in Zonqor. The land was eventually granted on emphyteusis to Sadeen in 2016 for 99 years on condition that Sadeen commences AUM’s operations from its site in Cospicua first.
Questions sent to PL to clarify the matter have remained unanswered, despite reminders. The Party was also asked to confirm or deny whether Sadeen or AUM had ever discussed the possible takeover of Rialto.
The Shift has also sent questions to the AUM asking whether they had ever spoken to PL regarding Rialto Cinema. The emails were ignored.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party has recently announced a Request for Expression of Interest to submit proposals for the lease, emphyteusis and commercialisation of the Rialto cinema.
Sadeen shopped around for other properties
Court documents also reveal that Sadeen had made other attempts to acquire more property in the Cottonera area, where AUM is based.
One such attempt was made in December 2016, when the Group was in talks to acquire property in Cospicua. Sadeen, through a company called SOSO Malta, tried to get its hands on a house in Triq San Pawl. Court proceedings show that the seller instead sold the property to MCST Chairman Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.
Despite a promise of sale agreement signed with SOSO, the seller changed his mind before the final deed. SOSO Malta decided to sue him arguing that he had breached their promise of sale. The company had filed a judicial letter about the issue and the case was eventually settled out of court in 2020.
The company had reportedly also bought a property in Tarxien worth €2.7 million. Yet Sadeen later filed court proceedings trying to rescind the deal it made after discovering a number of planning illegalities on the property. Proceedings are still ongoing before Judge Toni Abela.
The Jordanian developer had tried to acquire these properties to form part of the campus or as places where students could be accommodated. The organisation’s attempts to expand the campus in Cospicua are still ongoing. The Planning Authority has so far turned down the request to extend the campus with three administrative and residential blocks and an underground car park. A hearing before the Planning Authority’s appeals tribunal last December was postponed to an unspecified date at Sadeen’s request, perhaps signalling a change of plans.
The AUM has so far failed to attract a close-to-decent amount of students. The project was launched under disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and the public was fed the idea of a grand, successful investment. Yet the project was immediately met with harsh criticism as large tracts of public land were to be given to a Jordanian company with no prior experience in the education sector.
The project not only failed to properly take off, but the AUM is facing huge liabilities which outweigh its assets. Documents show the university has accumulated a hefty €11 million loss in its first three years of operations.
Edoardo Pagani, who has taken the AUM to court to sue for moral damages and to fight for wages that were withheld, had flagged numerous issues with the project with the company’s top management, documents in the affidavit show.
He states that worrying developments in the project in Cospicua were falling on deaf ears. He has even accused the Jordanian company of causing him “psychological” harm to the point that he could no longer go to work.
Pagani’s court actions came about following the mass dismissal of lecturers and members of its administration in January 2018.