x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Bahraini public lands sold and rented to private investors

MPs call for justice after report by parliamentary committee estimates a Dh146 billion loss to the national treasury.

MANAMA // A report by a parliamentary committee that found major irregularities in the government's management and leasing of state-owned properties has caused one of the biggest rifts between the government and the legislature since parliament was restored eight years ago.

The report, which was carried out over a period of 29 months and was described by some MPs as the most important since parliamentary life resumed in 2002, said public lands covering an area of 65 square kilometres had been sold or rented to private investors in recent years at an estimated loss of 15 billion dinars (Dh146bn) to the national treasury. The head of the inquiry commission, Abduljaleel Khalil, presented the 1,214-page report to the 40-member lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives, on Tuesday.

Mr Khalil also said lands covering an area of 100 sq km were not included in the final report because they could not determine the conditions under which they changed ownership from public to private hands, citing a lack of co-operation from the government. Mr Khalil, an MP for the Islamic Shiite opposition bloc Al Wefaq, said the commission had compared the records of three different government bodies and found many discrepancies. These included the registration of 395 lots in the ministry of finance that are not registered with the land registration department, and 209 lots that are registered with the department but are not registered with the ministry.

"We could not come up with a single figure indicating the total number of properties falling under the public ownership, and we suspect that this chaos is intentional to facilitate the manipulation of state property," Mr Khalil said while presenting the report. He also made references to private properties valued at millions of dinars that are standing on public land that private investors rent for few hundred dinars a year, and other projects that had been sold to private investors after they were completed at grossly underestimated costs.

According to Jameel Khadhim, another Al Wefaq MP, the majority of the lands were transferred to private investors who used them for private commercial investments. According to Mr Khadhim, 94 per cent of the lands reclaimed from the sea - which, he said, was illegal since sea-covered areas cannot be privately owned under Bahraini law - went to private investors without proper land documentation and without any financial benefit to the public.

The findings prompted MPs to call for the prosecution of those responsible for the irregularities, alleging that there was deliberate mismanagement and fraud. Government representatives fired back, accusing the MPs of trying to politicise the issue, stir up the public against the government and, for election purposes, misrepresent government efforts to encourage investment. Elections are scheduled for November.

At Tuesday's session, following the delivery of the report's findings, the justice and Islamic affairs minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa, and the finance minister, Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, delivered counter-claims and challenged the legality of the commission. Both ministers insisted the claims put forward were unfounded and that the commission, which was supposed to operate for only four months but took 29 months, surpassed its legal time frame and mandate, rendering the report inadmissible.

In a prepared joint statement, the two indicated that they took part in the session to discredit the allegations and because they wanted to clarify the government's position to the public. They said they left the session after proving the report legally invalid, making any further discussion into it irrelevant. Indeed they had angered the majority of MPs in attendance - from both the Islamic Shiite opposition and the loyalist Islamic Sunni blocs - by walking out of the session.

Adding to the tension was the fact that Tuesday's session, which is typically aired live on public radio, was not broadcast, leading MPs to claim it was further proof of the government's guilt. MPs burst into laughter when the speaker of the House of Representatives, Khalifa al Dhahrani, told them technical problems had prevented the coverage. The report documented cases where land had been allocated or reclaimed from the sea for such public projects as schools and public housing that were later sold at a loss to the private sector.

The government claimed that some of these projects and transactions occurred before the 2002 parliament convened and thus the parliamentary committee had no authority to assess them. Sheikh Ali Salman, who heads the 17-member Al Wefaq bloc, the largest of the parliamentary blocs, and Sheikh Abdullatif al Sheikh, who heads the seven-member bloc of the Sunni Al Menbar Islamic Society, both called for legal action to be taken against those allegedly involved in the mismanagement of the lands and funds, a call that was repeated by almost all the MPs who requested to comment on the report.

Sheikh Salman, who described the findings as a "scandal" and the misuse of the land as "the biggest heist of public property in the island's history", said the 65 sq km could have accommodated 200,000 housing projects, which would have been enough to solve the country's public housing shortage for generations to come. "The ownership of these lands should be returned to the public treasury without having to pay any compensations [to businesses]," he said, adding that "official greed had gotten the better of civic responsibility."

The MPs are expected to present to parliament suggestions based on the report to address the issue next Tuesday after the remaining members get a chance to comment on it on the floor, as 38 out the 40 MPs had requested floor time. Ordinary Bahrainis are sceptical as to whether there will be any repercussions for those involved in the irregularities. Isa Salman, 35, a resident of Sanabis village - one of the reclaimed areas that was meant to have three schools built on it but which was sold cheaply to private investors - said he does not believe anything will change because parliament appeared powerless and the government is not interested in addressing the issue.

"If anything our situation has gotten worse and - they are planning to reclaim more land, repeating the same scenario with other villages," he said. @Email:mmahdi@thenational.ae