Nepal king to retain his business empire

May 26th, 2008 - 1:48 pm ICT by admin  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, May 26 (IANS) Though a historic assembly will officially proclaim Nepal, once the world’s only Hindu kingdom, a republic next week and strip cornered King Gyanendra of his crown, the monarch will still have his empire - of business enterprises. When his elder brother Birendra was king, Gyanendra, then a prince with no chance of ascending the throne, was a businessman with interests in a wide range of trades, from hospitality to tea gardens.

On May 28, after the newly elected constituent assembly asks him to leave the royal palace and return to his old residence as a commoner, he is expected to once again pick up the old business threads that considerably expanded during his five-year reign as king.

In five ventures in Nepal alone, the king’s shares are estimated to be worth over 1.4 billion Nepali rupees ($20.5 million).

The ventures are the upmarket Hotel Soaltee Crowne Plaza, one of the first luxury hotels in Nepal started by the king’s uncle; ITC’s joint venture Surya Nepal; Indo-Nepal JV Himalayan Goodricke; Hotel de l’Annapurna close to the palace; and Nepal Biscuits Private Ltd.

However, with most royal ventures in Nepal being undertaken in stealth, the king’s assets remain either in the name of his kin or trusted aides, making it a Herculean task to ferret the real owner out.

A sizeable investment of the king’s money has been made through Soaltee Enterprises, a major shareholder in many flourishing enterprises in Nepal.

After he ascended the throne in 2001 following his brother’s assassination, Gyanendra transferred many of his shares to his daughter Prerana.

In the past, when kings wielded supreme power, many of the first enterprises in Nepal - like the first hotel, first tourism agency and first casino - were started under the initiative of royal family members.

The growing stranglehold of the royals on business began to give rise to scandals and murmurs of discontent, forcing Birendra to announce that a commission would be formed to probe the allegation of unfair advantage taken by royal kin.

But the three-member Vedanand Jha commission’s recommendation that all private enterprises associated with the royals be made public limited companies for the sake of transparency was ignored.

“Initially, the royals were drawn to attractive businesses,” said a report published in a local weekly Sunday. “Later, they were drawn to commissions.”

According to the Nepal magazine, during the reign of Birendra and his father Mahendra, bureaucrats close to the palace dominated the finance, commerce and water resources ministries.

“(Birendra’s) Queen Aishwarya (who too perished in the palace massacre in 2001), left Gyanendra behind when it came to commissions,” the report said.

In 2005, after King Gyanendra staged an army-backed coup and seized absolute power, his son-in-law, commoner Raj Bahadur Singh, flourished in his businesses, using the royal clout.

To promote the private mobile telephone company in which Singh was chairman, the royal government shut down the services of the state-owned Nepal Telecom as well as private Indian joint venture United Telcom Ltd.

The report says that Singh also tried to coerce Indian hoteliers, the Saraf Group, to sell their five-star Yak and Yeti hotel dirt cheap but was foiled by the fall of the royal regime only 14 months later.

Though the Maoists say the king would not enjoy any special privilege as a commoner, it remains to be seen if the royals would come under the law like other citizens.

Despite coming under the tax net after the fall of the royal government in 2006, the royal family is yet to start paying income tax. Not just the palace but even relatives like the king’s brothers-in-law have mounting arrears in utility bills and unpaid bank loans.

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