Rowley defends foreign travel against opposition critics

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley speaks at a media conference at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s, Port of Spain, on Monday. – ROGER JACOB

THE Prime Minister said on Monday that TT could collaborate with Saudi Arabia over energy, airline transport, tourism investment, and visas for Hajj pilgrims, in a briefing at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s since his return over the weekend. He asked the public to dismiss the concerns of opposition MPs about his per diem travel allowance, but instead consider the diplomatic and economic benefits of his various overseas trips.

Dr Rowley urged the public to focus on what was real and sensible, not on those individuals whose job it was to mislead and undermine the national effort.

Saying Caricom had functioned like “a well-oiled machine” during the Caricom-Saudi Arabia Summit, he said he was pleased with relationships within the group.

He hailed the regional efforts of Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon, Minister of Foreign and Caricom Affairs Dr Amery Brown and Energy Minister Stuart Young.

Rowley recalled that in 2015, he saw TT having a grave future unless it could find additional natural gas supplies, TT’s life blood.

He asked what would be TT’s position if the gas dried up, asking who would fund public servants, free education and free medicine in public hospitals.

“Who will pay the bills?” Rowley recalled once making five speeches in a day to hostile gatherings overseas seeking investment.

“Support the efforts of the Government to make sure there is blood in our veins.”

He accused the Opposition of rejoicing when his Government met obstacles.

Saying Saudi Arabia had indicated its willingness to work with Caricom, the PM said,”Our positions are so close, one wonders how come this did not happen before.”

Saying sentiment at the upcoming Conference of Parties (COP) climate conference would be to curb the use of oil and gas, he said natural gas was a clean fuel on which TT would continue to live for some significant time.

Rowley noted an 11-day difference in the dates of the Saudi-Caricom meeting and the COP event and said if he had stayed in that area in the interim, it would have cost $250,000. He said he had put himself through personal stress to reach and return from Saudi Arabia including flights respectively of 13 and 14 hours.

Planning Minister Penelope Beckles will lead TT’s delegation to COP, he added.

Rowley related how he had improved the public earnings from Atlantic LNG by an ongoing restructuring of the ownership of trains 1-4 and better pricing, by exporting to Asian and European markets. These moves, he said, had “brought in billions.”

Rowley said Caricom was mulling access to international finance via Saudi Arabia which seemed to be a willing partner for developmental projects in many Caribbean places.

Airline transport was another collaboration idea discussed, he added.

He hoped people would see the government’s efforts to improve TT’s Muslims access to Saudi Arabia visas in TT without needing to go to Venezuela and then travel through Turkiye on religious pilgrimages to Mecca.

Rowley expected TT to embrace an offer to set up a mission within a proposed “Caricom House” in Riyadh.

He said the Government had improved the public ownership of Atlantic LNG to include stakes in trains two and three, on top of ten and 11 per cent respectively in train one (down) and train four.

Regarding TT’s energy mix, Rowley said TT’s position was that LNG was a clean fuel, rather than shutting down its hydrocarbon business.

He said TT was a country being affected by climate change, but was being offered help to access solar power by the Saudis.

The PM hoped to tap in on Saudi Arabia’s tourism thrust including its interest in developmental financing for tourism in the Caribbean.

“Can we persuade local entrepreneurs?”

He said if the Saudis had provided two jets and accommodation to all Caricom summit delegates, openly and with transparency, their position was not compromised.

The PM said likewise the Government paid accommodation for all Caricom members visiting TT.

Hitting back at critics, he said he had not otherwise been accused of stealing public money.

“The same per diem was paid when ‘Puss in Boots’ was running all around the world,” seemingly referring to Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

Replying to questions, he said Young was now travelling to Caracas to continue talks on the Dragon gas field deal.

“These are very complicated issues. It’s not like buying a hops bread. Let’s keep hope alive.”

Rowley also admitted, when asked, that Petrotrin’s Pointe-a-Pierre refinery was a topic of discussion at the Saudi Arabia summit. He gave no further details.

Government has been seeking a buyer for the refinery, so far without success, since it was shut down in November 2018.

Persad-Bissessar, in a later statement, alleged, “After returning from another taxpayer funded trip abroad which has again earned no results for the people of our country, Keith Rowley spent his press conference sidestepping critical issues. Instead he defended his enjoyment of taxpayer funds on these lavish trips.”