A golden fleece and umbrageous passports

Now the IIP scheme has been rebranded and unceremoniously buried. The irony is that Henley & Partners, which has been a sole concessionaire since inauguration of the IIP scheme has quietly faded from the scene

Saad bin Khalid Al-Jabri
Saad bin Khalid Al-Jabri

Prime Minister Robert Abela is confident that he will address concerns raised by the European Commission after receiving notice of further action in the infringement procedures against Malta with regards to the citizenship-by-investment scheme. Cyprus has already mothballed its controversial Golden Passport program and now Malta is the only major EU country seriously trying to attract millions ostensibly charged to applicants for a Golden Passport.

Consequently, Malta has been given two months to take all measures necessary to address the Commission’s concerns. If government’s reply is unsatisfactory, the Commission could take a further step and issue a reasoned opinion on the matter. Infringement procedures against Malta were launched last October.

Quick on the draw, the Prime Minister claimed that this legal action was being instigated due to attacks by the Nationalist Party MEPs over the sale of passports, and that one could stigmatize the MEPs for failing to defend Malta at EU level.

However, a joint investigation dubbed “The Passport Papers” found that several IIP applicants under the previous scheme were not fulfilling an obligation to visit the island. A survey discovered they were spending only an average number of 16 days in Malta prior to receiving their passport. Government emphasised that the Maltese citizenship-by-investment programme employs meticulous due diligence, and that there have been cases where citizenship was revoked even after the application was accepted.

Is this a storm in a teacup since we have heard so many stories about IIP scheme that the general public is immune to such claims? Fleetingly, it reminds me of the Ancient Greek fable of Jason searching for the Golden Fleece. Be that as it may, the controversy about the scheme seem to resurrect now and again. Certainly, gifted agents have made a tidy sum and stories of patronage from Castille have evoked anger among hard working practitioners, who did not enjoy such privileges.

Only last year, the smell of corruption wafted in the air when a local newspaper gave front page prominence to a story that the Golden passport was apparently issued to Saad bin Khalid Al-Jabri. The latter, being a former high-ranking minister in the government of Saudi Arabia who is currently exiled in Canada and who claimed to be the victim of a state-sponsored assassination attempt.

Certainly, a politically exposed person (PEP) with an international pedigree who ostensibly should have been singled out under the so-called tight scrutiny of the previous IIP regime. Obviously, Saad Al-Jabri had a guardian angel in Malta protecting his claim to enter the gilded hall of naturalised Malta persons.

Surreptitiously, there is a provision in the law that allows Identity Malta (now re-coded Komunita) to reconsider any application if there are “special circumstances” which are demonstrated by his agent. In that case, the Malta Individual Investor Programme Agency, can issue a reasoned opinion on why the candidate should be considered for approval, and the application is referred to the Minister – who has the sole authority to grant the application or otherwise.

The writer is an accredited agent who recently has had a number of bona fide applications refused for hitherto talented persons - these could financially have contributed to State coffers. This at a time when the country’s debt has spiralled to finance a Covid-19 stimulus cash vouchers and wage supplements. Following such unexplained refusals, letters were sent by me to the independent regulator which alas elicited no solace to the aggrieved applicants/agents other than the usual mantra that a passport is a concession and not a privilege.

All this comes like a Damocles sword over the efforts of local agents to attract millions of euro (no surprise that the number of accredited agents under the new Komunita scheme has waned). Almost two years ago, it was MaltaToday that revealed how a top local IIP agent (armed with two licences) had been secretly recorded by a French TV news programme, brazenly boasting of his close relations with Joseph Muscat - an ex-prime minister and the then parliamentary secretary for citizenship.

A promotional video waxing the prowess of the said agent was filmed entirely under the auspices of Castille in its grand board room. Following the uproar from Opposition, the minister in charge immediately suspended the two licenses.

A swift investigation followed - activated by the regulator’s office and another inquiry instituted both by the Standards Commissioner and a magistrate. The independent regulator clinically found no basis for such accusations and gave it a clean bill of health.

Now the IIP scheme has been rebranded and unceremoniously buried. The irony is that Henley & Partners, which has been a sole concessionaire since inauguration of the IIP scheme has quietly faded from the scene. Definitely, over 180 local agents who promoted the scheme faced stiff competition from Henley & Partners, since the latter had all its global conferences exclusively addressed by Joseph Muscat. It is alleged that such patronage by Castille was a gift to the concessionaire.

Needless to say, no such patronage was on offer to the rest of the unremunerated agents who on their own steam funded similar promotional events. Magnanimously, the hon Joseph Muscat, unquestionably showered positive comments each time he addressed foreign delegates at Henley & Partners’ global events.

Concluding on the theme of the Golden Fleece, can Robert Abela succeed in persuading Brussels that as a latter-day Jason, he can divert the deadly lures of Song of the Sirens (aka Maltese MEPs) and deliver us the magical fleece?

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