Saudi eyes on Maldivian atoll

Letter from New Delhi

Saudi Arabia’s reigning monarch Salman Salman bin Abdul Aziz is scheduled to visit Indian Ocean tiny island Maldives next month amid strong rumours that he will sign an important agreement wherein Maldives is expected to lease out its Faafu atoll for up to 99 years to develop a Special Economic Zone.

Initial reaction amongst the security and geopolitical experts on this move was an uncomfortable one as any Saudi-Maldives collaboration leads to suspicion that there may be a renewed radicalisation within Maldives. As it is, according to intelligence sources, hundreds of radicalised Maldivians had reached Syria to join the ISIS rank and file in their pursuit of ‘jehad’. Such a reaction is not surprising.

On its part, Saudi Arabia has assured Maldives that the atoll under consideration will be developed into a world class city with state of the art facilities including sophisticated medical infrastructure, educational institutions and tourism-related centres. In addition to this, in case the project fructifies, it will in all likelihood draw thousands of tourists from the Gulf thus boosting its tourism potential. Crucially, the anti-graft organisation Transparency has called upon the government to explicitly divulge its plan for the deal on Faafu atoll. Such casting of doubt by Transparency on the upcoming project indicates that thee may be a political angle to it.

Quickly going over recent history, we gather that President Maumoon Gayyoom had set up a Maldives’ Embassy in Riyadh in May 2014 — the first Maldivian diplomatic mission in the Middle East. His brother President Yamin had allowed the reopening of Saudi Embassy in 2015. Analysts perceive that President Yamin is anti-Indian in the sense that he continues to pinprick India by warming up to Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan to signal that Maldives too is not isolated and has affluent and powerful well-wishers to fall back upon. Saudi-Gayyoom ties have always been strong and by cementing this upcoming deal, they would be reinforced further. Maldives watchers also reckon that ex-President Nasheed is the only pro-India leader who can scuttle such deals keeping Indian interests paramount but chances of his coming back to the political arena look remote. And till such time, political rigmarole of this kind appears to continue with hiccups causing irritants to India.

To underscore the political content in such atoll related issues, it would be germane to highlight that pre-2008 a hype was created amid propaganda that Marao Island was being handed over to the Chinese for a military base. This move was apparently intended to needle India but the hype soon evaporated after Nasheed came back to power.

I happened to be in the island nation in 2009-2010 and it coincided with the much publicised visit by Dr Zakir Naik who mesmerised the audience with his magical oration which cast a theocratic spell on the Maldivians. With Saudi presence in the ‘to be acquired’ atoll, there will be opportunities for Wahhabis’ occasional presence on the island not confining to touristic activities alone. That perhaps calls for a caution and no wonder that according to news reports, India looks naturally worried lest the Maldives-Saudi nexus abets the breeding of terrorists. It could seem farfetched now but with ISIS shutting down, its cadres are likely to return to their respective countries and activate their sleeping cadres.

Indian mission is Maldives has representatives from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and others from Government of India agencies. They are expected to closely watch the developments, reading them with security concerns. There is an Indian Cultural Centre (ICC) too, which can play a meaningful role in calming passions and designs detrimental to India’s security interests. It does not look that they quite have their hands at it. Insiders disclose in anonymity that not the best lot of the foreign or other services are posted in Maldives. Perhaps posting policy merits a review. The best lot manipulate for postings in the West and as a consequence Maldives is compromised. making the island more vulnerable.

Mauritius, another Indian Ocean country, has an Indian National Security Adviser with an intelligence background. Perhaps a time has come for Maldives to accept one who can oversee the issues and his advice would come in handy to address matters of security. Specifically, the atoll issue makes such a case stronger.

One should not forget the geo-strategic importance of Maldives and its proximity to India. It never escaped the notice of the Muslim scholars and explorers. The most important was the Moroccan traveller, scholar and explorer Ibn Batuta (1304-1368). He visited Maldives in the fourteenth century and had chronicled his impressions comprehensibly, touching upon its polity, society, religion, trade, commerce and people. It remains an interesting island, worth exploring even almost seven hundred years after Ibn Batuta paid a visit. If the exploration of the island is of academic and ecological interest, that’s alright but any hidden agenda must come to light and deserves exposure.

Shantanu Mukharji is a retired IPS officer and security analyst. He is also a Senior Fellow with the India Police Foundation. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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