As part of a month-long tour of Asia, the Saudi monarch, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, was due to visit the small Indian Ocean archipelago of Maldives in the third week of March, accompanied by an entourage of more than 1,000, including 25 princes and 10 ministers.
In this first-ever visit by a Saudi King, Riyadh was to announce investments of $US10 billion, three times the Maldives’ gross domestic product (GDP), underscoring the importance Riyadh places on its ties with Male.
The trip was cancelled on 17 Mar (2017) saying there is an outbreak of influenza in the island nation. The decision, however, reflects deep divisions in the ruling elite in the Maldives and mounting geo-political tensions in the region.
According to reports, which are not confirmed, the Saudi government plans to buy one of Maldives’ atolls, Faafu—a collection of 19 low-lying islands, 120 kilometres south of Malé and home to 4,000 people. Since a constitutional amendment in July 2015, foreigners can buy Maldivian land, rather than lease it for up to 99 years, if the investment is at least $1 billion. Yameen has denied selling an entire atoll to the Saudis, but no details of the negotiations have been released.
With US imports of oil from Saudi Arabia declining by 40 percent during past 15 years, Riyadh is keen to boost its sales of oil and gas to China and other East Asian countries, and increase the security of the trade route. Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and China were also part of the king’s Asian tour.
Riyadh plans to develop a Special Economic Zone in Faafu, to help reduce its dependence on oil revenues. The projects reportedly include a sea port, airports, state-of-the-art facilities, sophisticated medical infrastructure, educational institutions and tourism-related centres to attract thousands of tourists from the Gulf States.
With these investments, Yameen is trying to strengthen his hand against his political rivals, including his half-brother and long-time Maldives ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Nasheed. Though they were bitter enemies a few years back, Gayoom and Nasheed joined hands last September against Yameen.
Nasheed has criticised the Faafu deal, saying it was “disturbing.” Saudi Arabia wanted “a base” in the Maldives, he said, to safeguard its trade routes and locate “strategic installations.”
Having been ousted in 2012, Nasheed is trying to stage a comeback. In 2015, he was sentenced to 13 years in jail for arresting a criminal court judge while in office. He was released in January last year under pressure from the US and Britain. After travelling to London, supposedly for medical treatment, Nasheed took asylum and launched a campaign against Yameen, mainly denouncing his links to China.
Still in exile, Nasheed plans to contest the 2018 presidential elections. In an interview with the Times of India on February 19, he said: “We believe that India has a moral obligation to facilitate inclusive, free and fair elections in the Maldives.”
Though New Delhi is concerned about the increased Chinese presence in the region. On a visit to Maldives on February 22, Minister of State M. J. Akbar voiced his appreciation for the Yameen government’s “India First” policy.
A report by Fristpost.com analyst Shantanu Mukharji on March 6 noted: “Saudi-Maldives collaboration leads to suspicion that Islamic forces may see a visible reinforcement or there may be a renewed radicalisation within the Maldives.”
It went on to say: “Nasheed is the only pro-India leader who can scuttle such deals and keep Indian interests paramount, but chances of his coming back to the political arena look remote.” And added: “Perhaps a time has come for Maldives to accept one who can oversee the issues and whose advice comes handy to address matters of security,” as in Mauritius.
Relations between India and Maldives were strained when in 2012 Male cancelled a $271 million contract granted to Indian company GMR group to develop and operate the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, saying it compromised national security and sovereignty. The contract was granted by Nasheed’s government in 2010 for 25 years, extendable for another 10 years.
While trying to maintain diplomatic ties with the US and India, Yameen’s government is more oriented toward Beijing, and depends heavily on Chinese investment and concessionary loans. Chinese firms leased the Feydhoo Finolhu Island for 50 years for $4 million to develop a tourist resort, close to Malé, with plans to increase annual tourist numbers to 1.5 million.
Chinese Exim Bank granted a $373 million loan to develop Malé airport in 2015 and build a bridge between Malé and the Hulhulé islands, to be completed in 2018. The $210 million project is being constructed by Chinese CCCC Second Harbor Engineering Company, despite protests that it could destroy waves in this popular surfing area.
Chinese ambassador Wang Fukang told a New Year news conference in Malé: “Maldives is an important partner in the Maritime Silk Route project.” He added: “Maldives supports the ‘One-China’ policy and Chinese policies regarding the South China Sea.”
Beijing sees Maldives as part of its “String of Pearls” strategy that, together with the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt,” seeks to link the Eurasian landmass, as well as Africa, both by land and sea, to counter the US strategic offensive against China.
China sees the islands as a node in its key trade and oil routes linking the Middle Kingdom to the Middle East – while for Saudi Arabia, the atolls have the added advantage of lying a straight three-hour shot from the coast of regional rival and arch-foe, Iran, as South China Morning Post pointed out recently.
The possible building of Chinese and/or Saudi military bases here would also complement the independent development of both nations’ military outposts in Djibouti, an East African nation on a key energy export route at the mouth of the Red Sea, the Hong Kong based daily said.
The principal US Indian Ocean base, Diego Garcia, lies 1,000 kilometres south of Malé, making Beijing’s growing influence a serious concern in Washington.
—By Rohantha De Silva