ZIMBABWE is hunting for alternative markets for its diamonds amid indications government may dump Antwerp World Diamond Centre in Belgium in favour of the Dubai Diamond Exchange in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), or the Shanghai Diamond Exchange in China.
President Robert Mugabe -- whose wife Grace was recently barred by the European Union from travelling to the EU-African summit in Belgium -- has taken a personal interest in the matter.
Mugabe has been in Dubai since last week where he is touring the Dubai Diamond Exchange Centre as well as setting up an embassy in the UAE. Insiders say the embassy will have no major diplomatic task other than overseeing the sale of the country's diamonds.
Mugabe's trip has raised eyebrows, particularly because he left the country without reporters although he normally travels with state media journalists when on official government business. This fuelled speculation Mugabe -- accompanied by his wife, his daughter Bona and her husband Simba, Mbada Diamonds chairman Dr Robert Mhlanga, Abu-Ali Imad of Diamond Mining Company and Foreign Affairs secretary Joey Bimha -- was also conducting personal deals, hence the decision to leave behind scribes.
However, Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, told Zimbabwe Independent yesterday that the president had visited the Arab country to seek a "personal understanding" of the dynamics of the diamond industry. He said the visit followed a cabinet decision to try different diamond markets to establish where the country's gems would fetch greater value.
"We are gaining experience in respect of an area which is very murky and complex," he said.
Charamba said the president had gone through an educational process of the diamond industry from production, processing and the marketing.
He justified the exclusion of journalists, saying the trip was essentially a learning visit.
"We wanted an environment to optimise on learning," he said. "We met with the owners of the Diamond Exchange Centre, we met the administrators of the auction system and thirdly we met buyers. The idea was to meet all the players and get a complete understanding."
Charamba said it was important for the president to get first hand information of the industry so that he is capacitated with knowledge to help him when he gets briefings from officials. He said the background would also assist in interactions with producers and the market.
Charamba said Mugabe's visit to Dubai had nothing to do with the disagreements with the EU. He said the visit was arranged before the First Lady was denied a visa adding the president would have passed through Dubai on his way to Belgium, if he had attended the EU-Africa summit last week.
He however said the president did talk about his row with the EU officials in a light-hearted manner, suggesting that the Europeans were just after Zimbabwe's diamonds but did not care about the relationship they had with the country's leaders.
"The president asked, 'You who fought so successfully for our diamonds to come to Belgium, why didn't you fight for Mugabe to go there too'," said Charamba.
Mugabe's visited is however being viewed with suspicion both at home and abroad, particularly in Antwerp. There has always been speculation that most of the revenue from diamonds mined at Chiadzwa has not been finding its way to Treasury but instead to the pockets of few top officials who have benefitted the most.
Diamond industry players believe Harare could have been attracted to Dubai because it is possible to market diamonds there in the murky underworld. EU's head of delegation in Zimbabwe, Ambassador Aldo Dell'Ariccia also suggested that Dubai would allow Zimbabwean officials "opacity in the transactions" which will not be obtained from Antwerp, although he expressed hope that the country would still continue selling its diamonds in Europe.
"In the two auction sales of diamonds that took place in Antwerp, there was full information about the quality and quantity of the stones, the price fetched and therefore the amount of funds that will go to Zimbabwean coffers," Dell'Ariccia said.
"The auction in Dubai took place last week and at this stage I still do not know how much was sold and how much will go to the Zimbabwean fiscus. Dubai is a fiscal paradise; there is certain opacity in the transactions. It is possible the auction can be transparent but it is also possible that it may not be."
Charamba said the average prices fetched in Dubai were higher than those at Antwerp.
He said Mugabe would use his visit to explore the possibility of increasing interaction between Zimbabwe and UAE. A visa regime exists between the two countries, but Mugabe wants travel requirements eased to allow for easier movement of people between the two countries given that Emirates Airways is making six trips between Harare and Dubai per week.