Saudi Arabia has drawn up plans for a “massive project” in the Maldives, President Abdulla Yameen has said.
The announcement made last week on the island of Magoodhoo in Faafu Atoll has added fuel to the long-standing speculation that the Maldives plans to sell the entire atoll to the Islamic kingdom.
The president described the project as a township or an integrated development project involving various industries and open to travellers from all over the world.
The Saudi rulers have a special interest in Faafu Atoll, he said.
The government had hopes that the project would begin last year, but the Saudis had stalled it because of political instability in the Maldives, he said Tuesday.
The president’s office declined to reveal additional details.
Faafu, located to the south west of the capital, Malé, is among the least populous in the country. It has 19 islands, of which five are inhabited and one is a tourist resort. Some 4,365 people are spread across the inhabited islands.
The Maldives United Opposition has called on Yameen to be more transparent.
Elected representatives for the atoll were meanwhile divided on the rumoured plans for the atoll, which included speculation that the entire population of the atoll may be relocated to Hulhumalé, a planned city near Malé.
Rumours of the project first began swirling soon when a constitutional amendment authorising foreign freeholds in the Maldives was approved in 2015.
Saudi-Maldives relations have seen a boost since Yameen assumed power in 2013.
The president said: “Faafu Atoll may be the smallest atoll in terms of population, but by the grace of Allah, if things go well, Faafu atoll is a happy and lucky atoll.
“I am certain you would have heard what I am about to say from your MPs previously. The Saudi government or rather those who rule Saudi Arabia take a very special interest in Faafu Atoll. They have planned a huge project for Faafu Atoll. All the charts and drawings have been completed.”
The “massive project” will transform Faafu into the most prosperous atoll and create hundreds of jobs, he promised, and added: “This is not a project that our government has the capacity to implement.
“This will be opened up to the entire world, people from all areas from over the world, travellers and the like will be able to come and use it, a very exemplary project. There are only three or four such townships, or integrated development that brings together various industries, like this in the entire world. The development project they have in mind for Faafu Atoll is modelled on such a project.”
The project was put on hold because of political instability, he said, referring to a prolonged period of chaos in the country following the jailing of his political opponents and an explosion on the presidential speedboat.
He said: “Last year or the year before, I paid a visit to Saudi Arabia. Everything was on hold then. They said that they are waiting because of the political turmoil in the Maldives. They had it on hold then, because of the instability, and the kind of things being said about the Maldives. The whole of last year passed like that.
“So, we are the architects of the blessings we receive and we are the architects of the damnation that befalls us. So why must we let things be like this?”
Declining to comment, Ibrahim Muaz Ali, the president’s spokesman, said the government will “continue to disclose information about its policies and initiatives as it sees fit.”
A former minister in Yameen’s economic and youth council said the president first spoke of plans for Faafu Atoll when the ruling-party dominated parliament approved a law authorising tax-free Special Economic Zones in 2014.
Mohamed Maleeh Jamal, a former youth minister who is now a shadow minister for the opposition, said the Maldives and Saudi Arabia had signed a memorandum of understanding, but that ministers were not given details.
The government, in the state budget for the past three years, had included US$150million as estimated revenue from SEZs in the hopes of the Faafu deal, he said.
“The public needs to be made aware of what the deal is. Are we selling Faafu, are we leasing it, is it for resort development? The people have a right to know.”
The government is yet to realise revenue from the proposed SEZs.
Two of the five members of the atoll council said they too did not know details of the project.
Abdul Hameed Mohamed, the president of the council, said a mega project would improve standard of living on the atoll. If people had to move for the project, they would choose to do so, he said.
“The truth is, people will move, even if the government has a population consolidation policy or not. People here have different opinions as well. Some wants to go somewhere there is land. But I think most people would not mind moving to Hulhumalé or Malé.”
His colleague on the atoll council disagreed.
“I welcome development projects, but uprooting the people of the entire atoll is not a good idea,” Ibrahim Naeem said.
“People here will not agree to move to a congested and crowded place… We’ve heard rumours too, that Himithi is the island that is going to be given to the Saudi king and that Maavashu Lagoon is going to be reclaimed and be used as a base.”
An Egyptian court rejected on January 17 a controversial government plan to transfer two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.
Correction: January 30, 2017
A previous version of this article misstated the number of atoll council members for Faafu Atoll. The council has five members, not two.