UNESCO experts stop hoteliers’ bid to turn Fort St Elmo into laguna

‘Man from Vitals Global’ Shaukat Ali has business relationship with Indian millionaire planning St Elmo spa hotel • UNESCO says no to proposal to gut fort for laguna inside parade ground

Sohum Wellness was the only bid for a request for proposals issued by the GHRC to operate Lower St Elmo
Sohum Wellness was the only bid for a request for proposals issued by the GHRC to operate Lower St Elmo

The intervention of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre experts stopped a proposal by hoteliers to gut a part of the historic St Elmo fort in Valletta, to create an artificial laguna in the parade grounds.

The plan was presented by the company Sohum Wellness, and architect Ray Demicoli, but was immediately turned down by UNESCO experts who have now ordered a heritage impact assessment for the World Heritage fortification which in 1565 played a strategic role in the Great Siege.

Sohum Wellness had placed the sole, uncontested bid for the restoration and operation of lower St Elmo, a tender issued by the Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation on 3 November 2015. The company itself was established on 17 November, 2015.

The company is owned by Indian millionaire Sanjeev Mansotra’s Planet Core group of companies, which already enjoys a relationship with the Maltese government in a joint venture company called Core Malta Education, to provide “innovative solutions” in school and higher education.

However, a clear relationship exists between Mansotra’s company and Shaukat Ali, one of the prime movers of the Vitals Global Healthcare company that secured a concession to run three state hospitals.

It turns out that Shaukat Ali’s company Eurasia was involved in a share transfer with Mansotra’s Planetcore Malta, which is ultimately owned by the same offshore company in the British Virgin Islands that owns Sohum Wellness. The relationship is suggestive of the proximity Shaukat Ali has to a business group which, much like Vitals Global Healthcare before it, has had relatively uncomplicated passage to secure a prime Malta location to develop a business venture.

In November 2014, Mansotra personally deposited an initial €23,000 capital to set up the Malta company “Strategic Management Investments Limited”, which a month later changed its name to Planetcore Malta.

Planetcore Malta and Sohum Wellness are ultimately owned by a British Virgin Islands company called Strategic Management Investment Inc.

In May 2015, Planetcore gave notice that €20,000 of its share capital held in the name of Shaukat Ali’s consultancy firm Eurasia Limited had been transferred to Strategic Management Investment Inc, so that Planetcore becomes a single member company through its acquisition by Strategic Management Investment Inc.

Eventually, Mansotra’s Sohum Wellness became the sole, and successful bidder to take over lower St Elmo – popularly known as the location for the filming of the 1978 prison drama Midnight Express – to turn into a luxury spa hotel.

The Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation turned down a freedom of information request from MaltaToday to provide the detailed bid proposal by Sohum Wellness as well as details of the meetings carried out with the company and its architect. The GHRC however provided this newspaper with the Request for Proposals document.

The company is still in line to develop the spa hotel. However an experts mission from UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre has since taken the project back to the drawing board.

The experts, whose recommendations are legally binding, said turning the St Elmo parade ground into a laguna with a direct access through to the sea could not be allowed.

A source privy to the project said that there was “no way” that Fort St Elmo, which is part and parcel of Valletta as a World Heritage Site, could be altered in this manner. A final report was submitted by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre requesting a heritage impact assessment on the hotel proposal. “UNESCO is not against certain developments that can redefine the use of heritage sites, but it carries out necessary evaluations into whether such projects will negatively impinge on the overall universal value of the World Heritage site.”

Who is Shaukat Ali?

Shaukat Ali, a Pakistani businessman who is now a Maltese citizen, has been described by hospital owner Josie Muscat as being “well-connected to Castille” and the Labour government.

Shaukat Ali presented himself as a middleman for American doctor Irfan Iqbal in 2015 to acquire Muscat’s St James Hospital.

Shaukat Ali had then already set up a joint company with Bluestone Investments, a Malta company of investors that in 2015 would secure the public-private partnership for the running of the St Luke’s, Karin Grech and Gozo hospitals – the now defunct Vitals Global Healthcare company.

Shaukat Ali and Ram Tumuluri, the Canadian chief executive who ran Vitals before the company was sold off to Steward Healthcare in 2017, had met Muscat and during meetings boasted of being close to then health minister Konrad Mizzi, with whom he had long meetings “at Auberge de Castille and at his home”.

“Ram [Tumuluri] boasted in front of me that apart from the concession to run the public hospitals, he also wanted to manage the private sector and this is why he was interested in Capua,” Muscat says. This was at a time when the government tender was still being adjudicated.

And while the government was saying that the public hospitals concession was going to be for 30 years, Muscat insists that Tumuluri always spoke of a 99-year concession. “It did not make sense to have a concession for just 30 years, Ram used to tell me while boasting on the progress in talks between VGH and Konrad Mizzi.”

VGH sold its concession after just 21 months, having been unable to secure the capital to move forward the three hospitals’ operation, which are now in the hands of American healthcare giant Steward.