In a statement in parliament on Monday, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said that he is asking the US embassy to assist with further due diligence in relation to what has turned into a controversial economic citizenship partnership with a developer based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The firm, Sweet Homes, has been advertising that purchasers of its new homes would also be entitled to Antigua and Barbuda passports for themselves and their households. Both Browne and officials of Antigua and Barbuda citizenship by investment programme (CIP) have said this advertising is misleading. They have since called for all advertising related to the CIP to be approved in advance by the authorities.
“There is some information in the public domain to suggest that these individuals have been involved in criminal activities,” Browne said, an apparent reference to a news report in Pakistan dated April 2001 that Abdul Sattar Dero, described on Sweet Homes’ website as the company’s chairman, was convicted in Pakistan on bribery charges and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, something that Dero has reportedly denied.
This is the fourth time in recent months that the Antigua and Barbuda government has attempted to address concerns arising from the agreement with Sweet Homes. Earlier Browne had downplayed the controversy by saying that the aggressive promotion by Sweet Homes has created consternation for other suppliers operating in the UAE, who perhaps do not have the means for such large scale promotion.
“The uproar is in essence, a competition issue which will resolve itself as the other competitors find innovative and creative responses,” he said earlier this month.
However, Browne said on Monday that he is willing to cancel the arrangement if further due diligence enquiries by invited US government agencies validate the claims made against Dero.
“Should further due diligence confirm that there is anything untoward to these individuals to make them unsuitable to serve as suppliers for the NDF programme (National Development Fund) we will discontinue the arrangement. I want to make that abundantly clear,” Browne told Parliament.
Browne reminded Parliament that Sweet Homes was introduced to Antigua and Barbuda by the previous Baldwin Spencer government, which carried out due diligence procedures on Dero.
In the meantime, other issues in relation to the partnership between Antigua and Barbuda and Sweet Homes were raised last week by participants at a conference in Dubai.
According to an audio clip from the conference, the Antigua and Barbuda representative, Dr Joey John, was asked about reports that the government application fees are waived in respect of Sweet Homes purchasers who go on to apply for citizenship under the CIP. However, John was apparently unable to confirm or deny such reports.
These reports may have been prompted by promotional material appearing on the Sweet Homes website that refers to a CIP application “without Sweet Homes” and claims that the NDF donation is US$250,000 instead of the actual $200,000 and also sets out in a sidebar the various government application fees.
Prime Minister Browne in a media release last week, prior to his statement to Parliament on Monday, had made it clear that Sweet Homes is not an "agent" (the law states that only Antigua and Barbuda citizens who have been resident in the country for seven years can be agents). He stated in the release that territorial jurisdiction is limited to housing projects "domiciled in Antigua".
John confirmed that "Sweet Homes" is not an "agent", but a "supplier" who has to submit applications through an authorised Antigua agent as applies to all other suppliers.
Earlier this month, the government announced that it had instructed that all advertising for the Sweet Homes and other projects be scrutinized by its CIP unit and that, where such advertising is found to be misleading, to discontinue it immediately.
However, no timeframe was indicated for such modification or removal of any misleading advertising and other promotional materials in relation to the CIP, and the Sweet Homes website thus far appears to be unchanged in this respect.