Tista’ taqra dan l-artiklu bil-Malti
When President George Vella visited Qatar in June, he shook hands with two Syrian brothers accused of funding terrorism by transferring money to an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group – the aim of the meeting was to encourage them to invest in Malta.
The President’s Twitter account features several meetings he held in the Gulf State six months ago, including the one in question with UCC Holding, “where discussions were held on several sectors in which it operates and the possibility of investing in Malta”.
Malta’s President was shaking hands with two billionaire brothers, Moutaz and Ramez Al-Khayyat, who were accused only two months earlier in a British court of using their accounts at Doha Bank to fund the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Al Nusra Front and its militants in Syria.
Accompanied by the Minister for Finance and Employment, Clyde Caruana, on Tuesday morning, I visited the company UCC Holding, where discussions were held on several sectors in which it operates and the possibility of investing in #Malta. pic.twitter.com/lmHQQT5hqb
— President of Malta (@presidentmt) June 28, 2022
The trip was one of at least eight visits Malta’s top officials paid to Qatar over the last 12 months alone, while the country was facing accusations of corruption and gross human rights violations related to its bid to host the World Cup and of having laced the European Parliament with bribes in exchange for influence and a positive image.
The Maltese government has meanwhile put significant effort into building relations with Qatar just as it did with Azerbaijan when it was striking a corruption-laden energy supply and power station deal with the country, which resulted in the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Once again, in the case of Qatar, the energy sector came into the picture as Energy Minister Miriam Dalli met her counterpart in Doha last May.
President George Vella visited the country just a month later, where he held a meeting with the Al-Khayyat brothers, accompanied by Finance Minister Clyde Caruana, to lobby for investment in Malta, the President announced on his Twitter account.
Following the President’s visit in June, Foreign Affairs Minister Ian Borg paid a trip to the country in December, effectively endorsing Qatar right as the Qatargate scandal raged through Europe.
The focus on Qatar
While the Labour Party in government was busy slinging mud at European Parliament President Roberta Metsola in an attempt to link the Qatargate scandal to her EP leadership, Maltese government ministers were courting Qatari cash.
This first look by The Shift into how it is being done shows they went ahead full throttle irrespective of the corruption allegations the country was facing or its track record in the funding of terrorism and human rights abuses.
Maltese ministers and top officials visited Qatar at least eight times between January 2021 and December 2022, and the Finance Minister visited the Gulf State on three occasions – twice in the month of June alone.
Ian Borg went to Qatar twice in one year, once as Transport Minister and another as Foreign Affairs Minister.
In addition to the President of Malta, Qatar also had visits from Ministers Miriam Dalli, Clifton Grima, and former Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar, as chairman of Heritage Malta.
That flurry of ministerial activity follows several earlier visits and negotiations between Qatar and disgraced former minister Konrad Mizzi on energy and aviation.
The Al-Khayyat brothers and Malta’s President
Two months before President George Vella was tasked to meet Moutaz and Ramez Al-Khayyat, the two billionaire brothers were being sued at the High Court in London by eight Syrians who say they lost homes and businesses and allegedly suffered physical and mental harm because of Al-Nusra’s activities.
Those activities, they say, were being funded by the two Al-Khayyat brothers who own UCC Holding and which Finance Minister Clyde Caruana and President George Vella targeted for investment in Malta.
The claimants say funds were sent through the bank to accounts in Turkey and Lebanon, where cash was withdrawn and taken across the Syrian border to the militants.
Qatar’s Doha Bank said the claims were “groundless and without merit”, but Britain’s High Court threw out a request from the bank to strike out the damages claim. The case is ongoing.
The Al-Khayyat brothers also run Power International Holding, one of Qatar’s largest conglomerates listed in Forbes’ Top 100 Arab Family Businesses. The company has interests in construction, property and dairy farming.
The brothers are Syrians and are not part of the tribes that lead Qatar. Their dairy farming business was crucial for their acceptance in Qatar, as it helped the country during the Saudi-led coalition’s boycott of Qatar between 2017 and 2021 for its alleged support of terrorism and the harbouring of its financiers.
Clyde Caruana’s pitch
While the government has not stated the type of investment it aims to attract from Qatar, the meetings held in the stream of visits to the country ranged from construction to energy to heritage.
When Energy Minister Miriam Dalli visited Doha in May, she met the Minister of State for Energy Affairs, HE Eng. Saad Sherida Al-Kaabi.
The last time the Labour government gave so much attention to one country, Malta entered into an energy deal with Azerbaijan’s state-owned company SOCAR, which remains tainted with accusations of corruption.
In the same month as her visit to Qatar, Dalli told a Chamber of Commerce debate that Malta will generate a minimum of 50 megawatts of power from offshore wind farms or 65 MW from offshore solar plants by 2030. This limited capacity may, however, appear insignificant to justify an investment from Qatar.
Yet the government has identified a 900 square kilometre zone of shallow water around Hurd’s Bank, and a 6,500 square kilometre belt around the islands as two areas where it intends to issue concessions for “internationally recognised companies” for the production of renewable energy, the production and storage of hydrogen, fish farms and the creation of “artificial islands”.
The government is also committed to fast-track planning permits for such projects with a maximum three-month duration from the submission of the required documentation.
The proximity of the land to Libya may be a selling point for the Qataris. UCC Holding has, in fact, reportedly already expressed interest in building power plants in Libya.
Qatar is also in the midst of plans to consolidate its position as the world’s top liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter and meet the surging fuel demand in Europe.
Even the former Head of the Civil Service, Mario Cutajar, joined the President’s delegation in June. Cutajar and Heritage Malta CEO Noel Zammit met the General Manager of Katara, H.E Prof. Khalid bin Ibrahim Al-Sulaiti to “enhance cultural ties”.
The General Manager of #Katara, H.E Prof. Khalid bin Ibrahim Al-Sulaiti, met the President of the Malta Museums Agency – Malta Heritage , Mr. Mario Cutajar, to enhance the Cultural ties@HeritageMalta #Covid19#Qatar #Roadto2022#your_saftey_is_our_safety pic.twitter.com/d3X7QmaKsg
— كتارا | Katara (@kataraqatar) June 28, 2022
Foreign Affairs Minister Ian Borg then turned up in December, effectively endorsing Qatar’s organisation of the World Cup in the midst of a raging corruption scandal. He also met Sheikh Faisal, the majority shareholder of Banif Bank, and Qatar Airways CEO Al Baker.
Hats off to Qatar. A small country hosting an amazing World Cup – the largest sport event. Whilst in Doha, I experienced the cultural bridges that football builds. I took the opportunity to meet counterparts & stakeholders to underline our longstanding friendship Malta 🇲🇹Qatar 🇶🇦 pic.twitter.com/Cs2WJwudE9
— Ian Borg (@MinisterIanBorg) December 5, 2022
Borg also met Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, at the United Nations General Assembly in September, when they “discussed the various areas of opportunities that exist between the two countries”.
In the margins of #UNGA, I had the opportunity to meet with FM HH Sheikh @MBA_AlThani_ of #Qatar. We discussed the various areas of opportunities that exist between the 2 countries. Moreover we spoke about the #UNSC seat Malta will take up in January 23’. pic.twitter.com/qkBgxEBvZ9
— Ian Borg (@MinisterIanBorg) September 22, 2022
When President George Vella was in the country last June, he included a visit to Al-Bayt Stadium, which hosted the World Cup’s opening match. Qatar has drawn widespread criticism for the thousands of workers who lost their lives building its World Cup stadiums.
Malta’s strange defence of Qatargate
When the Qatargate World Cup scandal hit the European Parliament, Malta’s government, specifically Prime Minister Robert Abela, leapt to Qatar’s defence.
In the same week that Greek Socialist EP Vice President Eva Kaili was removed from her position by a landslide vote of 625 to one of her fellow MEPs, they also suspended work on all legislative files related to Qatar, particularly those concerning visa liberalisation, the EU-Qatar aviation agreement and all planned visits.
But Abela accused the EP’s leadership – in other words, Maltese EP President Roberta Metsola – of having moved “too quickly”.
Speaking to state broadcaster TVM from the EU-ASEAN Summit, Abela insisted that links between Qatar and Europe – particularly in terms of energy supply – should not be tainted by the allegations.
The ongoing scandal has seen politicians, political staffers, lobbyists, civil servants and their families accused of corruption, money laundering and organised crime related to the purchasing of Qatari influence at the European Parliament.
Metsola, who described the scandal as an attack on European democracy and the EP’s pluralistic values, said she had turned down an invitation to attend the World Cup as well as a Qatari request to address the EP because of her “concerns” about the country.
Following Abela’s statement on Qatar, independent political candidate Arnold Cassola questioned whether Malta was selling itself to Qatari money.
Cassola also stressed how even President George Vella has officially promoted Qatar as a “stable and safe partner to work with” when addressing a reception on 12 December to mark Qatar’s national day.
Cassola observed how the President’s speeches on such official occasions are usually written by the government of the day.
“Why is it that, despite worldwide condemnation of Qatargate, Robert Abela is acting as if it were business as usual, notwithstanding the scandal?” he asked. “Have you, in Joseph Muscat style, sold Malta’s democratic values in exchange for Qatari baksheesh?
Additional reporting by David Lindsay.