President George Vella’s trip to Qatar in June 2022 cost taxpayers over €100,000 in flights for a delegation of 31 people that included the Chairman and CEO of Corinthia Group.
The sum is minimal for a delegation of that size and does not include the costs of the advance trip, accommodation, transport, events and logistics – costing hundreds of thousands more for a 31-person delegation, costs that were covered by the host country.
The Office of the President also confirmed the flights’ price tag did not include any first-class tickets. This would imply the President flew to Doha in either business or economy class, which could be considered inappropriate. As such, it is not excluded that the Qatari state could have covered additional flight tickets.
In reply to questions from The Shift, the President’s Office confirmed the Qatari government covered the costs of accommodation. The delegation stayed at The Sheraton, where deluxe rooms used by members of the delegation cost around €400 per night. The price of the superior Presidential Suite is not even quoted.
Qatar seems to be full of generous hosts, as the President’s Office said the hotel also covered the total costs for a lavish event for the Maltese community in Qatar.
While it may be questionable that a private enterprise such as The Sheraton would cough up the expenses to cover such an event, it should be noted that all business in Qatar is intrinsically linked to the ruling regime in a patron-client system.
While the President’s Office said it was “standard practice during such state visits” for the host country to foot the bill, a number of experienced diplomats in different countries around the world said this was not the case.
“Other States refuse when offered because there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” one diplomat said.
The Shift already reported last week that the meetings the President held in Qatar included a visit to UCC Holding Ltd, owned by brothers Moutaz and Ramez Al-Khayyat, charged in a British court only two months earlier of financing terrorism in Syria. The President said the aim of the visit was “to attract investment to Malta”.
In addition, in what multiple experienced diplomats consulted by The Shift said was an “irregular” move, the Chairman of Corinthia Group, Alfred Pisani, and CEO Simon Naudi joined the President’s delegation. It was the second time Naudi joined a political or state visit to the country in the space of a year.
The President even visited Corinthia’s partner in its Qatar projects, effectively offering an endorsement and promotion by Malta’s Head of State.
The privilege of being Corinthia
When contacted by The Shift, the Corinthia Group CEO said the visits were due to the company’s projects in Qatar and that joining a Foreign Ministry delegation in April 2021 and another State visit by the President in June 2022 “is the norm”.
“I can confirm that I attended part of these visits as a member of the official business delegations accompanying these visits. Our chairman Mr Pisani attended part of the presidential visit too. Such delegations are the norm and not dissimilar to others joining official visits from leading European and other nations promoting their nations’ business interests worldwide,” Naudi said.
Yet there was no business delegation accompanying the President on his visit to Qatar, only Corinthia’s top brass.
Also, there appear to have been no Maltese business delegations to Qatar in 2021 or 2022.
Naudi added that “all expenses connected to our attendance on such visits are paid for by ourselves.”
Yet multiple diplomats consulted by The Shift said that whether Corinthia paid for its expenses was hardly the point.
“No, it’s not normal for company representatives to join political or state visits. They would join trade or business delegations organised by the government to drum up investment in the country – and there would be a call for others to join. When the Emir of Qatar visited Malta, did he bring any businessmen with him?” one diplomat said.
Another added: “It is a prime endorsement when you turn up with the Head of State. The only benefit here is for Corinthia. This is a private investment.”
In Qatar, Corinthia was appointed operator of a new luxury hotel and residential project under development in Doha. The Group also operates the newly inaugurated Yacht Club on Pearl Island in Doha.
“On this basis, myself and several other executives from Corinthia frequently travel to Doha,” CEO Simon Naudi told The Shift.
Yet Naudi’s trip in April 2021 was in the midst of the Covid pandemic when travel to Qatar was not possible unless it was a diplomatic visit. Naudi joining the Foreign Minister’s delegation gave the company clearance and access when everyone else was shut out.
“This is a privilege and an unfair advantage on other businesses. There are no two ways about it. It’s a worrying sign of the closeness of some businesses to the Maltese government that Corinthia could be allowed to join a State visit,” a veteran diplomat said.
Director of Corinthia Qatari partner gets Maltese passports
Abdulaziz Mohammed Hamad Al-Mana, a member of the board of directors of United Development Co (UDC), acquired Maltese passports for himself and six relatives in 2019, according to the citizenship lists published by the government.
Qataris are not permitted to hold dual citizenship.
UDC is the company with which Corinthia works on its projects in Qatar – the hotel and the yacht club.
Abdulaziz Mohammed Hamad Al-Mana is also vice-chairman of Dukhan Bank (formerly known as Barwa Bank, offering Sharia-compliant banking services).
He is also on the Board of Directors of Al Sadd Sports Club and The First Investor Q.S.C. Al-Mana was previously employed as a vice chairman by The International Bank of Qatar.
Al-Mana is also the Chief Executive Officer at Mohammed Hamad Al Mana Group of Companies. Al-Mana is one of the strongest families/tribes in Qatar.
An analysis by The Shift of the citizenship lists published since the Labour government introduced the cash-for-passports scheme shows that Abdulaziz Mohammed Hamad Al-Mana’s application for passports was followed by the chairman of the same company.
Hamad Mohammed H A Al-Mana acquired two passports for himself and a relative in 2021, official records show.
The government publishes a list of citizenship granted a year later, and always in the week between Christmas and New Year, a time when scrutiny is at its weakest. Moreover, the names of naturalised persons are mixed with those individuals purchasing citizenship, making investigations on those buying passports more difficult.
These Qatari passports follow those of the ruling Al-Thani royal family members, which acquired passports for five family members in 2018 despite rules saying dual citizenship is not permitted.
The Qatari’s willingness to play fast and loose with the rules seems to be a match made in heaven, as the Maltese government’s efforts to court the country with at least eight visits in the space of year shows.