Saudi Arabian Airlines, the kingdom’s flagship national carrier, is planning to increase weekly flights to the Maldives from two to four, Arab News has reported, citing the Maldivian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Ambassador Abdulla Hameed told the paper that the two additional flights from Jeddah to Malé would increase the number of Saudi tourists to the Maldives, which rose from 15,749 in 2015 to 21,944 last year.
Despite the 39 percent annual growth, Saudi tourists accounted for a market share of just 1.5 percent in 2016. Total arrivals from the Middle East accounted for a four percent market share with 51,330 tourists, up 22.3 percent from the previous year.
The announcement comes ahead of the official visit of King Salman bin Abdulaziz to the Maldives in mid-March and a forthcoming multi-billion investment by the kingdom in Faafu atoll.
President Abdulla Yameen said last week that the US$10 billion mega project will be similar to “mixed development projects in the French Riviera” with high-end resorts and multiple airports.
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.
Following his second official visit to Saudi Arabia last year, Yameen declared that the Maldives and Saudi Arabia are “currently at the peak of diplomatic relations”.
During the visit, the Saudi government pledged to lend US$150 million to help repay loans taken for an unprecedented infrastructure scale-up.
Saudi Arabia is also funding a grand mosque in Malé that can accommodate 6,000 worshippers.
Last week, the housing ministry awarded the US$24 million project to Alke-Turmaks, which submitted the winning bid. The Turkish company is also constructing the Tree Top Hospital in Hulhumalé.
According to Housing Minister Dr Mohamed Muiz, the King Salman Mosque will be the largest in the country. Its marble flooring courtyard can accommodate a further 4,000 worshippers, he said.
The mosque will also have a multi-purpose hall, an auditorium, seminar halls, classrooms, and a world-class library, Muiz told the press.
The grand mosque on the eastern waterfront of the capital is expected to be completed in August 2018.
Other development assistance from Saudi Arabia includes US$50 million pledged for a military housing project, a US$20 million grant for budget support in May 2015, and US$1 million as grant aid to finance the feasibility study for a transhipment port in the Maldives’ northernmost atoll.
In May last year, the Maldives severed ties with Iran after protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The Maldives is also among 34 countries that joined a Saudi-led Islamic military alliance formed to combat terrorist organisations.
In addition to grant aid and several loans, an agreement hailed as a “religious bridge” to maintain religious unity here was signed in November 2015.
The Speaker of the Shura Council had also donated US$100,000 to the Islamic University of Maldives during a visit in early 2015.
In early February, the Saudi embassy donated 17,500 Arabic language textbooks to Maldivian schools to help teach students from grades one to five. The kingdom has also sent 17 language teachers and plans to set up an Arabic language centre in the Maldives.