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Island attraction: UAE’s $150M ties with Seychelles

Island attraction: UAE’s $150M ties with Seychelles

No doubt about it, the UAE has a growing affection for Seychelles. But are the Seychellois really welcoming these intentions for progress with open arms, asks Precious de Leon

November 13, 2011 3:55 by



There’s something about Seychelles that’s got Abu Dhabi all flustered and excited. Just these past six months, the emirate has been fawning over the granite-based island nation like a suitor trying to woo his beloved.

Don’t believe us? Let’s talk numbers. According to the Emirates News Agency WAM, the UAE has given Seychelles $150 million in assistance since 2007. Even just the last two months have seen so match action that you can cut the happy, fluffy ‘cordial exchanges’ with a knife, a visit from Seychelles President James Michel this month is just icing on the cake.

Here’s a timeline:

  • October 18: The Abu Dhabi Fund for Development and Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council are carrying out “a strategic project” to re-plan Victoria, capital of the Seychelles, to alleviate the problems of traffic, housing, clean water, electricity and public services. It’ll be a great feat to extend this helping hand and we assume these agencies will be working closely together with local departments in Seychelles to better understand the culture and the local residents’ needs on the ground.
  • November 2: Etihad launches flights to Seychelles, potentially cutting into a sizeable chunk of Emirates’ near-monopoly there
  • November 12: WAM reports that Dick Patrick Esparon, Ambassador of Seychelles to the UAE said the Government of Seychelles and Abu Dhabi’s Masdar will inaugurate the first wind farm before the end of this year. It will be near the port of the capital Victoria to generate electricity from wind and to overcome the energy shortfall in the Seychelles.
  • November 12: The Abu Dhabi Government is funding the construction of a $15 million Seychelles Coast Guard Headquarters, as well as supplying five gun boats to strengthen defense against pirate activities and protecting country’s coast.
  • Ongoing: Seychelles Chamber of Commerce and Industry is working on signing trade cooperation agreements with chambers of commerce in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah in the coming period to stimulate economic activities.

And to think this may very well have started in 2006 when a bilateral Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement was signed between Seychelles and the UAE.

Now while President Michel and UAE President and Ruler of Abu Dhabi HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan may consider themselves more than acquaintances, it may be a different story for some of the residents on Mahé, one of the main islands.

The year 2010 saw La Misere, a village on Mahé, demanding millions in damages over pollution caused by the construction of a palace for the UAE president, which when finished would be the tallest edifice in the country. Residents complained that the construction waste has not been property disposed, contaminating the nearby rivers and wells—a source for drinking water and livelihood.

When calls for better construction waste management went unanswered, the protests escalated to riots, which the Seychelles government described as  “unreasonable since the leak was quickly stopped and clean water has since been trucked to the area’s 360 affected homes.”

According to the Telegraph, the Abu Dhabi ruler bought the ex-US tracking station for a little over $514,000 in 2005. It also reports that the emirate has offered to pay for the replacement of the entire piping system on the affected mountainside.

LUKEWARM HOSPITALITY

I’ve been fortunate to visit Seychelles a couple of years ago. It’s a great holiday destination, suited for those hoping to get away from the stresses of the concrete jungle. An airline ticket to these granite-based islands could cost you a pretty penny but with just enough ingenuity and patience, you’ll find an abundance of affordable beach inns and tasty market food that will compensate for the airfare.

Coming back to Mahé from visiting one of the smaller islands, I spoke to the skipper about the construction site at the very top of the island, expecting him to say it was some rich resident’s claim to fame or maybe the president’s palatial office. But, with an unexpectedly impassioned tone, he informs me that this is the Abu Dhabi ruler’s house looking over the whole of Mahé Island.

Abu Dhabi ruler's property on Mahe Island's highest point. It will be the tallest structure in Seychelles when finished. (photo from Seychellesweekly.com)

And before I knew it, he started talking about the protests due to the the project’s construction waste mismanagement; and that while he is grateful for the million-dollar donations, he is concerned about the real cost of these gifts to his beloved hometown.

There were a number of people I met into on the islands who had strong and opposing opinions on the subject. One tourist guide told me he was pleased to see that a financially abundant country such as the UAE has taken an interest to help build Seychelles’ public infrastructure like hospitals and schools while a hotel driver says most of those benefiting from the new infrastructure are foreigners who have bought houses in gated communities in the country—houses that he says an average Seychellois would not be able to afford in his lifetime.

In a country that has only two sets of traffic lights, others are welcoming these financial injections, however the lukewarm reception from some residents may come from valid worries that all this will compromise island life as they know it, as well as question whether or not this is a real benefit for the whole nation or for a privileged few.

So where can you spend $150 million in a tiny set of islands? Here are some of the projects that have come out of the funding:

  • $15 million in funding for the country’s budget following economic reforms in 2008
  • a grant of $30 million for the government’s housing plans
  • $11 million to build the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Diagnostic Centre, built at the Seychelles Hospital
  • $15 million to build generation plants as well as funds to build 3 desalination plants on the archipelago to fend off drought.

That’s a total of about $71 million plus some other funds for bridges, generators, and the more recent Coast Guard base and the wind farm, among others.

So what is it about Seychelles? Perhaps, you’ll have to visit it to find out its appeal. We’re waiting to see how the relationship between Abu Dhabi and Seychelles will evolve; and whether any of these projects will not only be done ‘for’ the people but ‘with’ the people as well. Will the Seychellois have a say what is happening to their own country? Or is this massive funding a case of merely making sure that last year’s demonstrations won’t happen again?



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