Saudis seek action over 'Arab chamber'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am

Envoy warns controversial trade group's existence threatens HK-Middle East ties

Saudi Arabia's consul general has called on the government to cancel the business registration of the Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Alaudeen Alaskary, the Saudi consul general, said the existence of the chamber, established by Lebanese businessman Edwin Hitti in November 2006, had the potential to damage relations between the Middle East and Hong Kong - just as they were forging closer economic and cultural ties.

The consul general wants the government to force Mr Hitti's chamber to change its name or be deregistered. He said it did not represent the interests of Arabs in Hong Kong.

'The next step has to be taken by the Hong Kong government,' he said. 'If they want better relations with our area, then they better clear the confusion.'

Mr Alaskary said it was within Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's power to ask any company to change its name.

A government spokeswoman said it would respond to the issue this week.

Mr Hitti said he had no comment. Last week he claimed that the consul general of the United Arab Emirates had said the chamber 'is not a legitimate organisation and that it is swindling people'. In response, a spokesman for the consul general, Saeed Hamad Ali al-Junaibi, said the consulate did not endorse the chamber.

Mr Hitti, who claims to be a lord, said he would sue the UAE consul general for defamation. He claims the diplomat had alleged Mr Hitti was not a Muslim and did not have a Muslim name.

Mr Hitti, who said he had established a Sharia Advisory Council to check whether companies complied with Islamic law, said he would begin the legal action in Hong Kong after the launch of his sharia-compliant stock index tomorrow.

Mr Hitti said the UAE had targeted his organisation because in the Arab world chambers were extensions of government, and they could not accept his group was independent.

The growing dispute over the legitimacy of the Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry comes months after Mr Tsang announced plans to develop an Islamic bond market based on sharia-compliant products. The government also hopes the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which manages an estimated US$650 billion of state investments, will establish a presence in the city.

Mr Alaskary said the significance of the ties between Hong Kong and the region could be seen in the warm reception the chief executive received on his Mideast tour in January.

He said Mr Hitti was a 'good friend' who approached him about setting up the chamber. Mr Alaskary told him he must first seek approval from Arab governments, but Mr Hitti ignored the advice.

'All he is doing is a lot of media propaganda and putting a lot of false information on his website, which is causing a lot of confusion to us and other companies. If there is going to be a body here, it has to be organised, and it has to represent us. This one does not do that.

'If this chamber takes money from businesses, promises them things and then does not deliver, they are not going to say 'this guy cannot deliver', they are going to say 'Arab countries did not deliver'.'

Egypt's consulate also weighed in on the row, saying it had no 'relationship or link' with the chamber.

'The chamber did not follow any of the legal procedures necessary to be acknowledged by the Egyptian authorities,' a spokesman said.