Government’s role in private deal between Banif and new shareholders remains unclear
● PM thanks Keith Schembri for ‘getting things done’ ● No information yet about the actual ‘investment’ being made by Qatari group
The government’s role in a deal that saw a Qatari investment group acquire the majority shareholding in Banif Malta remains unclear, as does the so-called investment the group will be making in Malta.
Curiously, the announcement that Al Faisal International Trade and Investment had acquired a 78.64% stake in the Maltese branch of the Portuguese bank was made yesterday morning during a press conference held at the Auberge de Castille. While it is usual practice for private companies to change their majority shareholders, it is quite unusual for such developments to be announced by governments, more so in the Office of the Prime Minster.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat yesterday partly justified this by saying that the government had discussed the deal with Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani during a recent trip to Qatar but the fact that the government became involved in private business dealings has raised questions.
The Sheikh, who is a member of the Qatari royal family, did not disclose what the value of the shareholding acquired by his company was and continuously referred to the deal as an ‘investment.’ He went on about how Malta was an ideal place to invest in and said that the group would increase the bank’s capital, allowing it to start offering new banking services, but did not say what the investment would amount to, and if the bank would be increasing jobs in Malta.
On his own part, Dr Muscat said the agreement had great strategic importance for Malta. “Banif Malta, the third largest player in Malta’s commercial banking sector, needed new input. I am sure that, through this
investment deal, the bank will take on a much more proactive role when it comes to businesses and when it comes to its outlook on our economy.”
The PM said he was sure that the Al Faisal group would invest in Malta again. He also drew a parallel to recent foreign investments, including the recent announcement that US firm Crane Currency would open a currency printing factory in Malta. But unlike that press conference, no figures were mentioned yesterday - neither when it came to the stake acquisition nor the investment.
Dr Muscat thanked the Chamber of Commerce and Economy Minister Chris Cardona for facilitating the deal.
He also made sure to thank his Chief of Staff, Keith Schembri, for “always getting things moving on time.”
Pressed for an explanation as to Mr Schembri’s, and indeed the government’s involvement in what seems to be strictly a private deal, a spokesman for Dr Muscat said: “As explained during today’s announcement, Al Faisal expressed interest in investing in Malta following a meeting between the Prime Minister and Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani in Doha 2015. This meeting was facilitated by the Chamber of Commerce and was followed up by a delegation from Al Faisal to Malta, which identified Banif as a business opportunity. When on business trips such as the one in Qatar, the Prime Minister and the government representatives, without fail, promote Malta and facilitate investment.”
The spokesperson continued: “Keith Schembri’s role is to keep attracting investment to Malta and making sure things get done. And they get done.”
Contacted by this newspaper, the Malta Chamber of Commerce said it had had “no role in the negotiations of this investment and therefore any questions on the specifics of the investment should be addressed at the involved parties.”
A spokesman added: “However the Malta Chamber takes credit for promoting Malta as an ideal investment destination in Qatar. The investment referred to in the question is the result of a long standing business relationship that exists between Malta and Qatar in which the Malta Chamber has long held a leading role. The Malta Chamber together with the Middle East Business Council and Malta Enterprise participated in a number of Business Delegations to Qatar in the recent past.
“In June of last year, the Malta Chamber welcomed a visiting delegation from Al Faisal International for Investment Co. at the Malta Chamber which provided the initial steps towards potential investment in Malta.
“The Malta Chamber is interested in the future possibilities that this investment will open, such as improved financial links to Qatar and the possibility of Islamic Banking.”
Questions sent to Banif Bank Malta and the Al Faisal group remained unanswered by the time of going to print.
This newspaper has asked for the value of the share acquisition and the total amount that Al Faisal will be ‘investing’ in Banif.
We also asked whether the agreement would impact the bank’s 150-strong workforce and whether the bank would retain its name or be rebranded.
Questions had to be sent by email since journalists were not allowed to ask anything after yesterday’s press conference.
The PM’s press officers told journalists that questions had to be asked directly to the ‘investors,’ despite the fact that the press conference was called by the government, held at the Auberge de Castille and presided over by Dr Muscat.
In a statement, Banif Malta CEO Joaquim Francisco Da Silva Pinto said that “in the short term it would be business as usual for our customers as we consolidate and expedite our current growth strategy, with the backing of such a major, global investor we look forward to leveraging new resources and expertise to further develop and enhance the bank’s services and relationships with all our stakeholders.”
Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani addressing yesterday’s press conference