Italy endorses China’s Belt and Road plan in first for a G7 nation

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella address a joint press conference following their meeting on March 22, 2019 at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome, as part of Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Italy. (AFP)
Updated 24 March 2019

Italy endorses China’s Belt and Road plan in first for a G7 nation

ROME: Italy endorsed China’s ambitious “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan on Saturday, becoming the first major Western power to back the initiative to help revive the struggling Italian economy.
Saturday’s signing ceremony was the highlight of a three-day trip to Italy by Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the two nations boosting their ties at a time when the United States is locked in a trade war with China.
The rapprochement has angered Washington and alarmed some European Union allies, who fear it could see Beijing gain access to sensitive technologies and critical transport hubs.
Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio played down such concerns, telling reporters that although Rome remained fully committed to its Western partners, it had to put Italy first when it came to commercial ties.
“This is a very important day for us, a day when Made-in-Italy has won, Italy has won and Italian companies have won,” said Di Maio, who signed the memorandum of understanding on behalf of the Italian government in a Renaissance villa.
Taking advantage of Xi’s visit, Italian firms inked deals with Chinese counterparts worth an initial 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion). Di Maio said these contracts had a potential, future value of 20 billion euros.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) lies at the heart of China’s foreign policy strategy and was incorporated into the ruling Communist Party constitution in 2017, reflecting Xi’s desire for his country to take a global leadership role.
The United States worries that it is designed to strengthen China’s military influence and could be used to spread technologies capable of spying on Western interests.
WARM WELCOME
Italy’s populist government, anxious to lift the economy out of its third recession in a decade, dismissed calls from Washington to shun the BRI and gave Xi the sort of red-carpet welcome normally reserved for its closest allies.
Some EU leaders also cautioned Italy this week against rushing into the arms of China, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying on Friday that relations with Beijing must not be based primarily on trade.
There was not even universal backing for the BRI agreement within Italy’s ruling coalition, with Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the far-right League, warning against the risk of China “colonialising” Italian markets.
Salvini did not meet Xi and declined to attend a state dinner held in honor of the visiting leader on Friday.
Di Maio, who leads the 5-Star Movement, says Italy is merely playing catch up, pointing to the fact that it exports significantly less to China than either Germany or France.
Italy registered a trade deficit with China of 17.6 billion euros last year and Di Maio said the aim was to eliminate the deficit as soon as possible.
After talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Di Maio in the morning, Xi flew to the Sicilian city Palermo for a private visit on Saturday afternoon.
He is due to head to Monte Carlo on Sunday before finishing his brief tour of Europe in France, where he is due to hold talks with Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


Morocco’s ‘$65 million’ real-estate swindle

Updated 03 April 2020

Morocco’s ‘$65 million’ real-estate swindle

  • Biggest-ever property scam sparks widespread anger at sector described as ‘hotbed of corruption’

CASABLANCA: “Give us our money,” demands a group of home buyers, standing on land that should by now be finished condos — one of many fictitious projects that together comprise what is described as Morocco’s biggest-ever property scam.

Adverts on state television had promised dream homes at three for the price of two, while brochures boasted of ornately carved wood finishings and copious marble.

But it was all a fantasy — more than 600 million dirhams ($65 million) allegedly disappeared, leaving more than 1,000 buyers out-of-pocket, according to one of the lawyers representing them.

In a country where corruption is endemic, the unprecedented scale of the alleged fraud has generated political waves.

Called upon by deputies to address the issue in Parliament, Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani said the government was absolved of any blame, provoking indignation among defrauded investors who have appealed to King Mohammed VI.

The man accused of being at the forefront of the scheme has been charged and is in detention awaiting trial.

But the vast scam has prompted major questions about alleged negligence and complicity of some Moroccan institutions. 

Mohammed El Ouardi, as head of the Bab Darna group, allegedly received advances for apartments that never made it beyond the drawing board.

BACKGROUND

Sales based solely on paper plans frequently give rise to scandal in Morocco, ranging from apartments that do not match brochures’ promises to major delays in construction.

“The swimming pool would have been just over there,” says would-be apartment owner Soufiane, aged in his 40s, as he points across a building site in the commercial capital Casablanca.

Bab Darna consists of a group of firms that cashed advances from “at least 1,000 victims” who invested in around 15 fictitious real-estate projects in and around Casablanca over a decade, Mourad El Ajouti, one of the lawyers for the investors, said.

The money was allegedly embezzled by cashing “advances ranging from 20 percent” to the full cost of the apartment, he added.

Houria, 49, who works in e-commerce, said “highly persuasive sales agents” proffered a golden opportunity and swayed her into advancing 400,000 dirhams;
20 percent of the cost of a villa.

But the vendor “had neither the title deed nor construction permit,” El Ajouti said; basic requirements lacking in all contracts signed by the investors. Such practices did not prevent Bab Darna from exhibiting with great fanfare at real-estate shows in Casablanca, Paris and Brussels.

“The authorities were not aware (of El Ouardi’s activities)?” asked Houria, dumbfounded.

“Who protected him?“

She, like other victims that AFP spoke to, did not want their full names published.

El Ouardi, 59, is described as a smooth salesman who carved a path through the real-estate jungle.

But in November, with nothing to show for their investments, angry customers went to his home. When cheques for reimbursements that they say he penned personally bounced, their patience finally ran out and they hauled him to the
police station.

He is now awaiting trial with six alleged accomplices, including his finance manager, the notary and sales agents.

A trial date has not yet been set, but the suspects face between 10 and 20 years in prison for fraud or complicity in fraud.

Many of the victims come from Morocco’s diaspora, who number several million and often invest in property back home.

“I left Morocco to escape corruption and nepotism, but these things have entrapped me once more,” lamented another victim Youssef, 36, who lives in Japan and is self-employed.

Sifeddine, an entrepreneur living in Argentina, reserved an apartment thanks to a brochure promoting modern buildings covered in ivy, alongside elegant palm trees shading a turquoise pool.

The TV adverts, broadcast during primetime hours and using famous actors, reassured him.

“El Ouardi received me at his villa and was very persuasive, in front of a notary and agent,” he said. “It was 10 p.m., the sub-municipality’s office was opened specially at his request to sign the contract; he must have greased a lot of palms,” Sifeddine alleged.

Jalal, a salesman in his 40s of dual French-Moroccan nationality, took the plunge in 2018 when he visited a Moroccan real-estate show in Paris.

Bab Darna “had one of the best stands” at the show, known as Smap Immo, he said. He came back to Morocco to sign the deal, and took the presence of a notary and registration of the contract at a sub-municipality office as guarantees of legitimacy.

El Ajouti views the scandal as a collective failure.

“Authorities within the planning ministry, the town council, the urban agency” should all shoulder shares of the blame, he said.

He also criticized officials from the real-estate show, who, he said, should have scrutinized exhibitors’ credibility.

Smap Immo, which rejects it is in any way responsible for the scandal, has also filed a complaint against Bab Darna for fraud and harming the exhibition’s reputation.

Real estate is among the sectors most affected by corruption in Morocco, according to the head of Transparency Maroc, a local anti-graft advocacy group.

The sector is “a hotbed of corruption, conflicts of interest and insider trading between landowners, local authorities and urban agencies,” Ahmed Bernoussi said.