Letter from the Maldives

Maldives fights rumours of island sales to Saudi Arabia with a clampdown on the media, critics

Reporters visiting Faafu atoll – which is looking at a $10-billion Saudi investment – face threats, police action.

In the island state of the Maldives, which consists of 20 island clusters or atolls, Faafu is often called the 21st atoll. In other words, at the very bottom of the government’s priority.

Hassan Moosa, a journalist with the news website Maldives Independent, sensed this bitterness in his maiden visit to the atoll last month. Faafu’s five inhabited islands housed less than 5,000 people, its residents admitted, but does a lack of electorate mean they be last in the queue for the most basic of amenities – schools, banks, roads, hospitals?

That’s why they had welcomed President Abdulla Yameen’s announcement of a mega project in their atoll. Saudi Arabia’s royal family had plans to invest over $10 billion for a French Riviera-style mixed-development in Faafu, replete with “residential high-class development, many tourist resorts and airports”. If successful, it was touted to be the next Dubai.

But what about the rumours of the president’s plan to sell those islands to the Saudi government? Would the residents of Faafu be prepared to leave their homes and relocate for the sake of the project? “Some of them didn’t like the questions,” Hassan recalled. “They said we [from the capital Malé and the more prosperous northern atolls] were jealous.” Some clicked his photographs and uploaded it on a residents’ group Facebook page. One threatened to throw engine oil on Hassan’s colleague who had accompanied him on the trip.

That night, around 12 men surrounded the guesthouse Hassan and his colleague were at, demanding that they get off the island. A few frantic phone calls later, the two were escorted to the police station. But instead of acting against their intimidation, the police took away the journalists’ phones and later, combed through their notes and photographs. They were accused of “spreading hatred” on the island.

“We had thought they were taking us in protective custody,” said Hassan. “But soon we were being treated as suspects.”

Saudi interests

Both Saudi Arabia and the Maldives government have categorically denied rumours of the island sales. But for the president’s critics, the veil of secrecy around the deals and the allegations of corruption and financial misappropriation against Yameen that date back over a decade are cause for concern. They cite a constitutional amendment in 2015 to allow for foreign countries to own land in the Maldives – as long as they are willing to invest more than $1 billion and reclaim at least 70% of such land.

The sheer scale of the project puts Saudi Arabia in a sound position to secure sovereign territory of the Maldives. In a leaked audio clip aired by a television channel this month, Ahmed Nihan, an MP of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives and the parliamentary majority leader, revealed that the Constitution was amended in 2015 at the Saudi royal family’s behest, to allow them to get a foothold in the country. Commenting on the Saudi interest in the Maldives, foreign policy experts have cited the oil-rich country’s intention to secure oil trade routes to East Asia.

But while introducing his subjects to the project, Yameen pitched the deal for all of its immediate benefits: more money, more jobs, a better standard of living, a source of national pride. There was an emphasis on Saudi Arabia being an Islamic republic, just like the Maldives. His ministers dismissed concerns of such infrastructure projects causing irreversible environmental damage, like the entire country going underwater by 2100, as climate change specialists fear.

“It is not going to happen next year,” said Shihab Adam, director of the government’s Marine Research Centre. “We have immediate needs. Development must go on… We have the same aspirations as people in the US or Europe.”

Clampdown on critics

Soon after the announcement, King Salman of Saudi Arabia announced his intention to visit the Maldives in March. Although the conservative Islamic country has given donations to build mosques and granted scholarships to Maldivians wanting to pursue Quranic courses, it was to be his first official visit to the country. With the stakes as high, it was important to control the narrative.

Azmoon Ahmed, a journalist with the news channel Raajje TV, recalled being physically blocked while trying to film a protest taking place in the Faafu atoll in February. “We ended up sharing a smoke and the policemen told me that it was nothing personal. They were only following orders,” said Azmoon. On returning to Malé, he was told that unidentified people had called the office and issued death threats for the coverage of the protests.

Yameen’s government has shown scant regard for free speech and impartial journalism, as numerous reports from Amnesty International and the Maldives’ free-fall by 61 places in the press freedom rankings suggest. Over the next few days, the police warned that they would take legal action against anyone carrying out demeaning activities against the visitors and raided the office of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party twice, pre-empting protests. Two social media activists found tweeting on the popular tag #SaveFaafu were arrested and had their phones confiscated.

For all its authoritarian tendencies, the government still seems keen to strive for democratic legitimacy. “Reports of threats and intimidation are taken with the utmost seriousness,” the president’s office said in an email. “Internal investigations are currently underway to assess the validity of such reports. Appropriate action will be taken once the facts have been ascertained.”

The Saudi king eventually cancelled his visit to the Maldives after multiple swine flu reports started doing the rounds in the media. “That day, the government had held a press conference in the morning saying everything was fine,” said Azmoon. “But as the Saudi government announced that it wasn’t going to visit, it held another press conference in the evening, saying that we are now at threat level 3.”

Political fallout

For nearly a year, Mohamed Nasheed, leader of the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, has been lobbying for domestic and international influence with the aim of ousting Yameen. As the Faafu controversy picked up steam, he took the unprecedented move of joining hands with his former rivals.

Nasheed signed a pact with Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, former head of the ruling party, and Gasim Ibrahim, the president’s former alliance partner. In recent years, both Gayoom and Ibrahim have fallen out with the president. Given their ideological differences, it was apparent that the tie-up was for reasons of a bigger political footprint.

Earlier this month, the Opposition tabled a no-confidence motion against the parliamentary speaker, Abdulla Maseeh, a Yameen loyalist, in a bid to get more teeth in administrative matters. Under Maseeh, the government had successfully criminalised defamation, curtailed freedom of assembly and refused to allow motions calling for an investigation into the president’s involvement in a corruption scandal that surfaced last year – an Al Jazeera documentary had accused Yameen and his ministers and aides of money-laundering, bribery, embezzlement and theft to the tune of $1.5 billion. The Parliament, the Opposition said, was but a rubber stamp for the president’s politics.

On Monday, in a twist reminiscent of paperback thrillers, the deputy speaker dismissed most of the Opposition MPs from the Parliament before the vote. The remaining voted 48/85 for the speaker to stay, further consolidating Yameen’s position in the Parliament. Meanwhile, the renegades were punished. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was thrown out of the ruling party. And a high court order allowed the government to take over an island managed by the Villa Group of Gasim Ibrahim, a billionaire tourism tycoon.

Intimidation, impunity

Hassan Moosa, the journalist, returned to Faafu atoll earlier this month, this time to a different island. The residents he encountered this time around were friendlier. But soon, the policemen swooped in and accused him of “spreading negative sentiments”. He was trying to convince people that the island would be sold, the police said. Hassan protested, saying he was only asking questions. His captors had a ready riposte: “The way you ask questions can convince people.”

“They wanted me to sign a statement that I wouldn’t interview anyone else,” said Hassan. “I was alone. I signed it for my own safety.”

As he made his way back to Malé, Hassan wondered if there was a genuine chance of him rubbing people the wrong way. To them, he was still an elite from the capital city with far better prospects than they ever had. Even if fraught with risks, here was Faafu’s one chance to embrace modernity. Is that an easy choice to make?

“Then I remembered the saying we have in the Maldives,” said Hassan. “‘Collect water when it rains’.”

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