Government tight-lipped amid growing clamour to reveal Saudi project for Faafu atoll

Government tight-lipped amid growing clamour to reveal Saudi project for Faafu atoll
February 23 19:05 2017

The government remains tight-lipped about an alleged plan to depopulate and sell Faafu atoll to the Saudi royal family, despite a growing clamour for information to be made public.

In recent days, the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party and the Adhaalath Party strongly objected to foreign ownership of Maldivian land whilst members of the Faafu atoll council, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and anti-corruption NGO Transparency Maldives called on the government to break its silence.

Rumours of the sale that first began swirling after the passage of constitutional amendments authorising foreign freeholds were revived last month with President Abdulla Yameen’s announcement of a massive Saudi-funded project in Faafu atoll.

Yameen did not offer details of the “township or integrated development project” and the government has yet to make any official announcements.

Speculation intensified this week when the media learned of the Saudi King’s upcoming official visit to the Maldives, prompting debate among Maldivians as many raised concerns on social media over the scope for corruption and threats to sovereignty.

The president’s office spokesman and Economic Development Minister Mohamed Saeed did not respond despite multiple calls. Saeed chairs the Special Economic Zones board, which grants permits for large-scale investments that qualify for tax and regulatory exemptions.

Asked about the alleged plans at a press briefing on Wednesday, Defence Minister Adam Shareef Umar said that the public should trust that the president will act for their benefit in accordance with the constitution and laws.

Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee became the first top official to directly address the allegations when he told Sun Online last night that the government has no plans to sell an atoll. He accused the opposition of spreading false rumours to undermine Yameen’s public support ahead of April’s local council elections.

Dr Abdulla Khaleel, a ruling party lawmaker who represents the Nilandhoo constituency in Faafu atoll, also said yesterday that the “massive multi-billion dollar project” does not involve the sale of either an island or any part of the atoll.

Faafu atoll will remain sovereign Maldivian land subject to Maldivian law, he wrote on Facebook, adding that the atoll’s 4,119 inhabitants “can live happily and contentedly in Faafu atoll.”

Contacted by the Maldives Independent today, however, Khaleel declined to comment.

“In the future, no one will come to Malé. Everyone in the Maldives will go to Faafu for healthcare, education, and jobs,” MP Ahmed Mubeen from the ruling party tweeted today, appealing against “obstruction” of the government’s development plans.

Mubeen, who represents the Faafu Bilehdhoo constituency, questioned the opposition to the forthcoming “investment” as 99-year resort leases did not elicit similar objections.

But Abdul Hameed Mohamed, president of the Faafu atoll council and a ruling party member, told the Maldives Independent that the council has been getting “conflicting” information about the deal.

Hameed said councillors were previously informed of plans by the Saudis to develop the uninhabited island of Himithi and a nearby lagoon for tourism.

“But now we are getting information from the media that Faafu atoll is going to be sold,” he said.

“If there is an investment, it will be beneficial to each and every person of this atoll. However, if Faafu is going to be sold, I will not agree to that decision. That is my personal opinion.

“If we sell something then we lose ownership over it. But the Maldives constitution allows it now and we have to respect that.”

Ibrahim Naeem, an MDP member on the Faafu atoll council, said most of the atoll’s people are against selling land with the exception of some ruling party supporters.

“We are living very peacefully here, as life is in most islands. We are a calm loving people. If we sell our land we’d have to move to the stressful, congested Greater Malé area,” he told the Maldives Independent.

Naeem said he saw Khaleel’s assurance. “But how will that work? Will we be able to fish freely in this atoll? Can we go to any island we want? That would be like imprisoning us,” he said.

“There is so much fear surrounding this. The Saudis are bad people. We have seen how they come to our resorts and live. We have seen what they do in the name of Islam. If Faafu is sold it will become a land of sin. They will sell alcohol here. They will hold liquor parties here.”

The MDP’s parliamentary group meanwhile decided on Wednesday to submit a bill to repeal the constitutional amendments on freeholds, which would require a three-quarters majority of parliament.

The ruling Progressive Party of Maldives controls a comfortable majority in the 85-member house.

The controversial amendments were passed in July 2015 with the votes of 10 MDP MPs. Only 14 lawmakers voted against the proposed changes, including 10 from the MDP and two from the Jumhooree Party as well as Adhaalath Party MP Anara Naeem and Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof.

Despite former President Gayoom’s calls for a public referendum on foreign freeholds, his son MP Faris Maumoon also voted in favour along with all ruling coalition lawmakers.

Faris said today that he will vote to repeal. He previously suggested that the secrecy surrounding the project indicates “undesirable elements”.

PPM MP Mohamed Musthafa, who has sided with Gayoom’s faction of the ruling party, alleged on Tuesday that 58 lawmakers were “threatened” and forced to vote in favour of freeholds.

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. The party later accused the government of reneging on its commitments and the opposition leader was taken back to jail after eight weeks under house arrest.

Amid mounting pressure in the wake of a UN rights panel ruling that his jailing was arbitrary and politically motivated, Nasheed was later authorised to seek medical treatment in the UK, where he has since been granted political asylum.