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Heads up – Embassy 17 – May 2009

In the driving seat

Joseph Zammit Tabona, Malta’s new High Commissioner to London, has always lived life in the fast lane and the Jaguar-loving, fast-talking business magnate is wasting no time settling in.

“It’s an honour to be appointed, and a challenge, so I am going to make the most of it. I am going to run not walk because the years will go by very quickly,” he says.

This can-do attitude is reflected throughout Zammit Tabona’s career in business: after arriving in the City of London in 1971 as a young articled clerk to an accountancy firm, he put his foot down and raced up the career ladder, becoming a partner before the age of 30 and later one of Malta’s most successful businessmen, serving twice as President of the Malta Federation of Industry (1990-92; 2000-03).

His considerable networking skills also enabled him, as a member of a small country, to rise to the top of the Round Table, eventually becoming the President of the World Council of Young Men’s Service Clubs (1983-84).

Upon retiring in 2000, he entered public service, where he chaired the Malta Accountancy Board and headed Malta’s three trade and investment agencies, which, with the forensic eye of an auditor, he merged into a single entity, Malta Enterprise.

Then in 2006 he turned his attentions to galvanising the Malta Stock Exchange after which he was appointed chairman of Viset Malta plc, which operates the cruise liner terminal in Valletta (2007-09) attracting 540,000 visitors annually; and FinanceMalta (2007-09), a public-private enterprise to promote Malta’s financial sector.

Now in London, the High Commissioner means business: “The purpose of my stay here is to try to attract more business to Malta,” he says, in particular Malta’s financial services industry. “Despite the credit crisis Malta is still attracting new business in this sector,” he says.

With skilled, English speaking workers, Malta is a natural location for outsourcing, and generic pharmaceuticals, thanks to a patenting loophole, since few pharmaceutical companies registered patents on Malta because of its small size, he explains.

The tourism industry is ripe for expansion too. Malta attracts about 1.2 million tourists a year, 45% of them from the UK, and while the depreciation of the pound has affected visitor numbers to the island, the High Commissioner wants to tap into a more affluent British market.

“We need to go beyond sun and sea and attract people with our culture,” he says. And Malta is not short on culture. St Paul was shipwrecked on the island in AD60, but not all newcomers came by accident. As a strategic stepping stone in the Mediterranean, between Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, the island has been prized by just about every regional power, each leaving their mark, from the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the Sicilians, until it was handed over the Knights of St John who repelled the Ottomans in 1565. Napoleon took a fancy to it, until he was defeated, after which the island came under the protection of the British. During the World War II, there were some 11 admirals on the Island (including Lord Mountbatten who was a tenant of the High Commissioner’s grandfather). The island took a pounding by the Germans but the Maltese refused to surrender, an act of courage that earned the entire nation a George Cross.

However, since joining the EU, the latest wave of newcomers to land on Malta’s shores are illegal immigrants. As the smallest EU nation, proportionally Malta has the highest number of immigrants. “It is a national problem,” admits the High Commissioner. “It has only arisen since we became members of the EU as we are seen as the gateway to the EU.”

Illegal immigration was the single-most important issue in the European elections in Malta. “The government is seeking help, particularly from the EU but also Libya, with whom we have good relations.”

Other issues filling up the in-tray include working with the Commonwealth, where Malta as a small nation but a member of the EU can act as a good honest broker. With Malta being one of the largest shipping registers in the world, he will also be keeping a close eye developments at the IMO.

That doesn’t leave much time for leisure, but as an aficionado of Jags (he owns 10 vintage and current models) and a founding member of the Malta Jaguar Enthusiasts Club, he’s found a way to combine work and pleasure. He is the first chairman of the Valletta Grand Prix Foundation, which plans to organise an annual Valletta Grand Prix – a classic car race circumnavigating Valletta, a UNESCO world heritage site, which is bound to attract vintage car enthusiasts from the UK.

It seems that with High Commissioner Zammit Tabona behind the wheel, the Maltese High Commission is gearing up for an exhilarating ride.
HE Mr Joseph Zammit Tabona

“The purpose of my stay here in London is to try to attract more business to Malta”

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