, Swaziland, Sept 11 – Swaziland is poor in resources, so King Mswati III is courting investors with his kingdom’s vast cultural traditions as he tries to lift the nation out of an economic crisis.
Every year the nation’s international trade fair coincides with the famous reed dance, a massive showcase of local culture in which tens of thousands of young women swarm across the kingdom to dance bare-breasted in beaded mini-skirts and colourful pompoms for the king at his royal palace.
“Since independence (in 1968), the trade fair and reed dance take place at the same time, so when businessmen are coming, they can also refresh by watching this explosive colourful cultural cocktail,” one observer noted.
This year was no exception, with culture mixed into business and politics as is the custom in Swaziland, one of the only African countries whose royal family predates English colonisation.
Founded in 1750, the continent’s last absolute monarchy prides itself on its preservation of customs.
“It’s definitely an advantage because people admire that we use our culture to market ourselves,” trade minister Jabulile Mashwama explained to AFP.
Swaziland was a strategic island of peace until 1990, when investors preferred the tiny mountain kingdom to war-torn Mozambique and the apartheid system in South Africa.
Lately though it has become harder to keep investors on board, while a 60 percent loss of revenues from a regional customs union in 2011 put a big dent in the economy.
Mswati enjoys a 25 percent shareholding in major business deals in his kingdom’s economy through numerous royal development trusts, a scheme originally aimed at developing the country.
But media across the border in neighbouring powerhouse South Africa criticise the initiative as a conduit for the king to access wealth for his personal use.
“Without investors the desired development will not be achieved,” the king said repeatedly in his opening speech at the event — part business expo, fun-fair — which closed on Monday.
Noted for his expensive taste in Western consumer items while many of his subjects wallow in poverty, the king nevertheless doesn’t hesitate to play the tradition card.
The British-educated monarch spoke in Swazi, with translation for the foreign guests.
As an appetizer to business talks meanwhile, the 140 exhibitors were again treated to exquisite local dances, with a finale of frenetic eulogies in Swazi by traditional praise singers decked in Angora goat skin vests and leggings.
And the king himself arrived not in suit and tie, but traditional regalia: a customary print fabric tied at the shoulder and another wrapped around his waist, and a crown of three feathers.
These red plumes, symbols of royalty, feature in a brand new logo to promote Swaziland in foreign countries.
Organisers were pleased with nine foreign exhibitors, especially the number of prospective Asian investors. First-timer Sri Lanka considered agriculture projects, much like Taiwan.
Investors can now also start a company over the Internet and the application process for work visas has been streamlined.
Historically the king is present in all official business through two trusts started at independence by his father, late king Sobhuza II.
These trusts hold shares in all of the country’s sugar and mining resources, real estate and services sectors.
The young monarch is one of the richest royals in the world, with a personal fortune of around $100 million (78 million euros), according to Forbes magazine.
Critics say the royal house is dragging down the country, and accuse the 44-year-old Mswati of treating the country’s economy as a private piggy bank.