Saudi royal family is set to buy Faafu atoll of Maldive. But what is the grand plan behind this?
As rumours abound that Maldive’s president Abdulla Yameen has been negotiating to sell an entire atoll with 19 coral islands and dozens of reefs and lagoons to the Saudi royal family for $10bn, his ministers outlined plans to geo-engineer artificial islands, relocate populations and attract millions more tourists by creating 50 more resorts.
In a sign of the new times, Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz is expected to sign a deal to buy or lease Faafu atoll in the north of the archipelago when he arrives in the Maldives next week with an entourage of 1,000 people. Yameen denied he was planning to sell the islands but praised the development deal. “What is about to happen [to Faafu atoll] is something that would feature the Maldives on the world chart more boldly than anything else,” he said.
Plans for the barely touched paradise could mean Faafu becomes a Riviera-style super-resort with sea sports, six star hotels, high-end housing and several new airports.
But what happens there may be only the start of the Maldives’ transformation from an Indian ocean backwater with green political ideals to what politicians hope will be a “smart” country with a new capital city, high-tech centres, economic free zones and foreign universities to attract the global elite.
Meanwhile, the main opposition Maldavian Democratic Party (MDP) is sceptical of the move and warned that the deal “would effectively cede control of an entire atoll to a foreign government.” It further went on to term it as “creeping coloniaslism by the Saudi government”.
Ahead of Saudi King’s visit, opposition supporters on social media have been expressing concern over the proposed Saudi development in Faafu and heavily criticising the kingdom on issues ranging from extravagant expenses to the war in Yemen.
In response, ruling party lawmakers and government supporters have been changing their profile pictures to photos of Yameen with the king and tweeting messages of support in Arabic.
MP Abdul Raheem Abdulla, deputy leader of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives, told the press on last Thursday that the opposition is “trying to create discord and spread rumours” about the king’s visit.
“Think carefully. Those who are passing disrespectful comments towards leader of Muslim world, King Salman are trying to weaken Islamic values,” Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee tweeted on Friday.
Shainee and MP Dr Abdulla Khaleel, who represents a constituency in Faafu atoll, previously sought to assure the public that neither the atoll nor any part of it would be sold.
Shainee told state media last month that the atoll’s five inhabited islands will not be depopulated. Maldivians from elsewhere in the country will flock to Faafu for the new jobs created by the Saudi development, he said.
But The Guardian reported on Friday plans outlined by ministers to “geo-engineer artificial islands” and “relocate populations”.
“Relocated families will be offered free houses on larger islands,” Housing Minister Dr Mohamed Muiz was quoted as saying.
“Some islands have just a few hundred people. It is not feasible to keep them there. A lot of small islands face erosion and ground water contamination. They need sewerage networks and new harbours. The priority will be the capitals of atolls,” he said.
On the Faafu deal, Muiz insisted that the government “is not selling sovereignty.”
“We hope it is a big investment. We don’t want to move slowly. We want to bring better living conditions to the whole country over a small period of time,” he said.
Dismissing concerns over corruption and sovereignty, Yameen said Wednesday that details will be disclosed when the negotiations are complete and the deal is signed.
Local media reports suggest that the Saudis want to develop a city akin to Dubai by reclaiming the lagoon of Himithi, an uninhabited island in Faafu atoll.
Many Maldivians on social media have expressed concern about the irreversible environmental damage large-scale dredging could cause as well as the socio-economic issues that could arise from the development.
Rumours of the Faafu atoll deal began swirling after the passage of constitutional amendments authorising foreign freeholds in the Maldives if an investment exceeds US$1 billion and 70 percent of the project site is reclaimed land.
In an interview with The Hindu newspaper after the freeholds amendments were passed, former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb had dismissed fears raised by the MDP about “foreign non-commercial logistical installations in the Maldives.”
Adeeb said: “We are seeing much more interest from the Middle East (West Asia), especially from royal families there. Maldives can be like Bahrain is for them.”
The controversial amendments were passed in July 2015 with the votes of 10 MDP MPs.
The MDP had issued a free whip on the vote as part of a deal to secure the release of former President Mohamed Nasheed and other jailed politicians.