The international community is concerned as the situation in the island state escalates, but one of the country’s close allies, the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is surprisingly quiet.
BY FANNIE AGERSCHOU-MADSEN
In the last couple of months, news have been flooded with updates on the intensifying rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East and their many regional proxy conflicts that hold the populations in Yemen, Syria and several other countries as hostages. For Saudi Arabia, its expansionist project does not stop at the borders of the Middle East region. The wealthy kingdom has been courting the 820 km long chain of islands that form the Maldives. But now, the internal political situation on the island state is evolving into a headache for the Saudi leaders.
The Maldivian constitutional chaos began when its Supreme Court ordered the release of nine imprisoned opposition politicians. The court argued that their trials were politically motivated and flawed. The government, led since 2013 by President Abdulla Yameen, refused to follow the Supreme Court and called it a “plot” and a “coup”. Yameen ordered a state of emergency, suspended any Supreme Court activity and arrested two of the four Supreme Court justices.
These events led to a wave of protests in the Maldivian capital Malé with clashes between the police and demonstrators. 23-year-old Maldivian Aimon Latheef explained to The Maldives Independent the frustration of the population: “What I want is judicial accountability, followed by the release of political prisoners, followed by free and fair elections, but that isn’t happening.”
This Tuesday, the president extended the state of emergency with additional 30 days.
But why are the Saudis so interested in the small fairy-tale islands, mostly known as a tourist destination for the extremely rich with a national population of less than 400,000 people? As so often before, the answer lies in the crossroads of oil, money and religion.
The Saudi engagement in the Maldives can be traced several decades back and is a part of the kingdom’s strategy of expansion through soft power. Soft power can be characterised as a way of imposing interests through other means than military power. In this case, Saudi Arabia interferes in the country on several levels through affecting both ideology and the economy.
Saudi religious influence
Wahhabism, the ultraconservative interpretation of Sunni Islam, is gaining still more influence in the Maldives. Gaining influence through a religious alliance is not a new phenomenon, but in the Maldives it has been intensified with the 2015 agreement with the Saudi state on a religious co-operation. This includes the construction of ten Saudi-financed “world class” mosques, scholarships for students to study in Medina and Mecca and recently Saudi religious scholars promised a grant of $100,000 for Islamic education.
It is therefore not surprising that the Maldives is among the top of the list of countries with the highest number of so-called Islamic foreign fighters per capita to join ISIS. This of course is not only due to the Wahhabi influence; an overwhelmingly high level of poverty, accusations of corruption in the state administration, high crime rates and a lack of future prospects all influence the minds of the young population.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia established a diplomatic mission in the Maldives – meanwhile, that same year, it became legal for foreigners to own land on the paradise islands. The relationship between the governments in Malé and Riyadh has tightened the last couple of years with Saudi investments in the troubled Maldivian economy being welcomed by president Yameen. The islands are a huge tourist destination for the wealthy Saudi elite.
As late as in spring 2017, Saudi Arabia was reported to have purchased a Maldivian atoll to develope it into a tourist project for millionaires. In spite of the Maldivian government’s denial, the news was followed by local protests caused by the fear of forced relocation of some 4,000 people currently living there.
Saudi investment in the Maldivian tourist industry is not just an attempt from the oil-rich monarchy to diversify the oil-dependent Saudi economy. The location of the islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean is of dire importance to the future Saudi export strategy.
When the young Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman published in 2016 the development plan Vision 2030, its primary goal was to diversify the Saudi economy and reduce its dependency on oil revenues. The aim was to present a detailed plan for Saudi investments and developments that would make the economy sustainable.
An important part of that plan was to increase the export to Asian countries, the Chinese market in particular, and that’s where the Maldives play a pivotal role.
Internal critique of the alliance
The Saudi-Maldivian alliance has become a part of the internal political struggle in the Maldives. The exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed, who lost power in 2012 after protests over the nation’s poor economy, is an overt critic of the Saudi presence on the islands, and the opposition party, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), calls it “colonialism”. An accusation that gained clout as Maldivian media in February 2017 published a story on how the Saudi embassy had handed out envelopes with cash to Maldivian journalists.
Furthermore, Nasheed criticises current president Yamenn’s emphasis on economic growth over environmental concerns – a crucial issue in the Maldives as the future of the country is threatened by the rising sea level. The opposition accuses Yameen of paying greater attention to his own private economy than that of the Maldivian. The government rejects the critique from the opposition, stressing that without growth there is no resilience or possibilities for action.
Maldivian ambassador in Riyadh, Abdullah Hameed, tried also, in an interview with Arab News, to convince both the Saudi government and the Saudi public that there was “nothing to worry about”: “Unfortunately, as usual, almost all reports [about the situation] are not factual and no one seems to be checking the reality on the ground.”
The Saudi government has not made any public announcements about the situation in the Maldives and together with the lack of covering in the Saudi news media it seems as the government is holding its breath and hopes to weather the storm.
Alliance also a part of geopolitical rivalry
As if the alliance was not complex and multifaceted enough, the geopolitical powerplay between Saudi Arabia and Iran adds another layer to it and forces the Maldives to choose sides between the two – with a leaning towards the former.
The Maldives is a part of Saudi Arabia’s so-called Islamic Military Alliance, launched in 2016 to unite Muslim-majority countries in a fight to combat ISIS, and in 2016, the island state cut off all diplomatic ties with Iran. Later in June 2017, the Maldivian government followed the Saudi-led coalition cutting off diplomatic ties with Qatar – also a part of the regional power struggle.
This all together reveals the extent of the relationship between the two states and the Saudi involvement in maintaining Yameen in power. For the Saudi government, the conflict is of importance. If the opposition seizes power again, it can jeopardize the whole Saudi investment plan and economic strategy. It draws the contours of a possible Saudi involvement in the internal political crisis of the island state in the middle of the Indian Ocean.