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

Morocco’s ‘$65 million’ real-estate swindle
A man wearing a vest showing the slogan, ‘Long live the king, down with the real estate mafia,’ joins a protest against a real estate group linked to the scandal. (AFP)
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Updated 03 April 2020

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

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.


ArcelorMittal takes over TAQA’s JESCO

ArcelorMittal takes over TAQA’s JESCO
Updated 01 August 2021

ArcelorMittal takes over TAQA’s JESCO

ArcelorMittal takes over TAQA’s JESCO
  • With the deal, JESCO’s 100 percent ownership has been transferred to AMTPJ

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Industrialization and Energy Service Co. (TAQA) on Sunday sold all its shares in Jubail Energy Services Co. (JESCO) to ArcelorMittal Tubular Products Jubail (AMTPJ).
With the deal, JESCO’s 100 percent ownership has been transferred to AMTPJ, TAQA said in an emailed statement, without disclosing the value of the deal.
Commenting on the sale of stocks, TAQA Chairman Ahmed Al-Zahrani said: “The divestiture of JESCO is in line with TAQA’s 2021 strategy to become a major player in Vision 2030 realization by maximizing the value of local investment and creating a more diverse and sustainable economy. The transaction will result in a much stronger industry in the steel sector serving not only the Kingdom but also the rest of the world.”
The company’s mandate is to lead the way in localizing industries in the Kingdom, supplying specialized equipment, and development of oil and gas resources in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
TAQA CEO Khalid Nouh said: “The divestiture of non-core businesses such as JESCO allows TAQA to expand its portfolio through acquisitions of additional services and technologies.” 


Bitcoin tops $41,000 as cryptocurrencies rally after weeks-long downtrend

Bitcoin tops $41,000 as cryptocurrencies rally after weeks-long downtrend
Updated 01 August 2021

Bitcoin tops $41,000 as cryptocurrencies rally after weeks-long downtrend

Bitcoin tops $41,000 as cryptocurrencies rally after weeks-long downtrend
  • Bitcoin is currently trading above $41,000 and up more than 15 percent over the past week

RIYADH: Bitcoin, the leading cryptocurrency in trading internationally, traded higher on Sunday, rising by 0.02 percent to $41,447.73 at 4:41 p.m Riyadh time.

Ether, the second most traded cryptocurrency, traded at $2,580.98.76, up 5.33 percent, according to data from Coindesk.

Here is a rundown of major crypto news:

Bitcoin is currently trading above $41,000 and up more than 15 percent over the past week. The uptrend continues after the massive sell-off in May and two months of consolidation above the $30K support level, according to CoinDesk.

Germany plans to allow some institutional funds to invest billions of dollars in crypto assets for the first time, Bloomberg has reported.

A law effective Monday will allow so-called Spezialfonds with fixed investment rules to put up to 20 percent of their holdings in Bitcoin and other crypto assets. The funds, which can only be accessed by institutional investors, currently manage about $2.1 trillion.

“Most funds will initially stay well below the 20%,” said Tim Kreutzmann, an expert on crypto assets at BVI, Germany’s fund industry body.

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky has signed the Law on Payment Services adopted by the Verkhovna Rada on June 30, the President's administration announced this week.

The new legislation aims to “modernize and further develop” the payment services market, and encourage innovation in the financial sector, according to a press statement.

The National Bank of Ukraine has also given the power to issue its own digital currency.

In an interview with Bloomberg on Thursday, Henri Arslanian, crypto leader at accounting and financial services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), explained that crypto firms have high valuations due to the entry of major investors.

He mentioned investment firms and family offices are backed by major venture capitalists, private equity funds, and even some pension funds, and noted smaller venture capital firms are not satisfied with the trend.

Over to the US, Lael Brainard, a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, highlighted the urgent need to develop a digital dollar, speaking to the Aspen Institute’s Economic Strategies Group on Friday.

He cited several reasons for creating a digital version of the US dollar, while the central bank agreed that it will have both international and domestic applications.


Saudi Arabia’s real estate price index rises by 0.4% in Q2

Saudi Arabia’s real estate price index rises by 0.4% in Q2
Updated 01 August 2021

Saudi Arabia’s real estate price index rises by 0.4% in Q2

Saudi Arabia’s real estate price index rises by 0.4% in Q2
  • The report said a 1 percent hike in the prices of residential plots jacked up the prices of residential properties

RIYADH: The real estate price index in Saudi Arabia rose by 0.4 percent in the second quarter of 2021 compared to the same period of the previous year, official data showed on Sunday.
The statistics issued by the General Authority for Statistics showed a 0.8 percent increase in the residential real estate prices in the second quarter while prices of commercial and agriculture properties declined by 0.5 percent and 0.2 percent respectively.
The report said a 1 percent hike in the prices of residential plots jacked up the prices of residential properties.
Meanwhile, the Wafi program, which regulates off-plan property activity in the Kingdom, issued a report highlighting its performance during the first half of the year.
Wafi issued 55 licenses for off-plan sales projects providing 24,328 housing units during the first half of 2021.
Off-plan property sales represent a growing sector of the Saudi real estate market, but some consumers are still wary of developers’ abilities to deliver quality homes on time.
The sector has been steadily increasing its share of total residential sales and data from the Wafi program.
According to real estate consultancy company, Knight Frank, off-plan units represent around 9 percent of total existing housing stock, but a massive 60 percent of total future supply in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s real estate sector is a key and effective economic driver for the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and is connected to at least 120 industries.
Mortgage lending in Saudi Arabia increased 27 percent this year through May, as interest rates decreased to between 1 percent and 4.9 percent, compared to about 6 percent early last year.
Residential real estate financing contracts offered to individuals by local banks reached 133,006 through May, with a value of SR69.5 billion ($18.5 billion), according to data from the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA).
Real estate financing grew by 50 percent compared with the same period in 2020 when SR46.6 billion was lent via 104,000 contracts.


Saudi net foreign assets jump in June, central bank data shows

Saudi net foreign assets jump in June, central bank data shows
Updated 01 August 2021

Saudi net foreign assets jump in June, central bank data shows

Saudi net foreign assets jump in June, central bank data shows
  • Data from the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) showed the assets rising by 34 billion riyals ($9.1 billion)

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s net foreign assets rose over 2 percent in June, as the global oil industry gradually recovers from the impact of COVID-19.

Data from the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) showed the assets rising by 34 billion riyals ($9.1 billion) to 1.65 trillion riyals in June from the month before.

Total assets increased by 16.18 billion riyals to 1.842 trillion riyals, the central bank said.


Saudi Arabia’s economy likely to grow in 2021 and 2022, says report

Saudi Arabia’s economy likely to grow in 2021 and 2022, says report
Updated 01 August 2021

Saudi Arabia’s economy likely to grow in 2021 and 2022, says report

Saudi Arabia’s economy likely to grow in 2021 and 2022, says report
  • Capital Economics' forecast a further evidence that the Saudi economic recovery has taken off in 2021

RIYADHH Saudi Arabia’s economy is poised to grow from 2.2 percent to 4.8 percent in 2021 and from 4.1 percent to 6.3 percent in 2022, said a Capital Economics report.

The new forecasts are further evidence that the Saudi economic recovery has taken off in 2021.

At the start of the year, the Kingdom’s Ministry of Finance said that it expected 3.2 percent growth this year — reversing the pandemic-driven downturn of 2020. The International Monetary Fund forecast just 2.1 percent growth two months ago.

The Saudi economy is expected to maintain growth in the second half of the year. The expansion is also backed by higher oil output amid an OPEC+ agreement.

The Kingdom’s finance, insurance, real estate, and business sectors are likely to expand by 9 percent annually and their relative share to overall economic activity will grow by 12.7 percent.

Meanwhile, the services sector is also likely to grow about 10 percent annually on average, implying that its relative gross domestic product (GDP) share will climb to almost 40 percent in 2030.