Antigua and Barbuda Special Economic Zone (ABSEZ)in the NEMMA undergoing sale to new investor

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Attorney General Steadroy ‘Cutie’ Benjamin
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The Antigua and Barbuda Special Economic Zone (ABSEZ) in the North East Marine Managment Area. (NEMMA) is in the process of being sold to another investor, nine years after Yida Zhang signed an agreement with the government to develop the two-billion-dollar economic project.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne confirmed rumours on Thursday that a group is in talks with the Chinese investor to buy-out all, or a majority of the lands that make up the zone. 

“My understanding is that there is a group that is currently partnering with YIDA with the hope to acquire the zone, 100% of it eventually. The full details we don’t have. That’s a private initiative between YIDA and this new group.” Browne explained.

The group will operate under the same rules as Yida, guided by the Special Economic Zone Act of 2015 which offers major concessions, CIP passports for residents, and a permanent tax-free zone among many other things.

The Yida project, as it is informally called, has been riddled with issues and setbacks since 2015. For years, Yida was and still is, wrapped up in legal battles concerning the ownership of the lands at Crabbs Peninsula.

Browne himself has admitted that the investor has not made good on his promise to deliver the magnitude of investment that he’d promised.

But he said ’with or without Yida’, the infrastructure is already in place to facilitate the establishment of the zone.

“It is not YIDA that owns [that] administrative infrastructure. What would have happened, you would have had a licence to operate within that infrastructure as established by the government.”

Prime Minister Browne went on to list the infrastructure that had been put in place and their importance in cases such as YIDA.

“The countries legal and administrative infrastructure has been developed to the extent that we have these incentives to attract foreign direct investments governing a number of different term laws; the Investment Authority, which was passed by the United Progressive Party (UPP), the Special Economic Zone Act, which was passed under our administration, and you have the Manufacturers Incentive Act. They are important from the standpoint of legitimising the concessions that are offered to investors, and at the same time, whenever the government engages with any investor, we have different regimes that we can make available, based on the type of investment.” Browne explained.

The information was revealed on Thursday when the government tabled the first, second and third readings of an amendment to the SEZ Act to improve oversight of its operations, by changing the number of members on its Advisory Board.

If passed, the zone’s Board will consist of eleven advisory members instead of seven as indicated in the original Act. The changes mean that eleven, and not seven, people will have to decide on whether they approve of any changes that the new operator of the zone may want to implement as part of the transfer or sale.

Attorney General and MP Sir Steadroy Benjamin said the government was strengthening the enforcement arm of the zone to prevent it from becoming ‘a State within a State’.

“If any offences are committed within the zone, the police have to go inside there and deal with persons who commit offences. The thing is, the people in the zone can have their own security forces, meaning take care to inspect, to make sure that things go well. But once the laws of the State [of Antigua and Barbuda] are breached, the central police will get involved, and where necessary, can effect arrests, bring charges and prosecute.”

The changes will affect all existing and future zones established within Antigua and Barbuda.

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