Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz is due to visit the Maldives in early March during a five-nation Asian tour, the Saudi Gazette reported Monday.
The other Asian nations are Indonesia, Japan, China and Malaysia. The kingdom is keen to “expand its ties with East Asian nations in the changed global scenario,” the paper said, citing well-informed sources.
The Maldivian government has not confirmed the upcoming official visit, which will reportedly take place during the second week of March. According to local media, the king will vacation in a Maldivian resort and an advance security team has arrived in the country to make preparations.
King Salman had accepted an invitation to visit the Maldives during President Abdulla Yameen’s second official visit to Saudi Arabia in October last year.
Last month, Yameen announced that Saudi Arabia has drawn up plans for a massive integrated development project in the Maldives, fuelling speculation of plans to sell Faafu atoll to the Saudis and to relocate its 4,365 people to an urban centre under development near the capital.
Rumours of the sale began swirling when a constitutional amendment authorising foreign freeholds in the Maldives was approved in 2015.
The Saudi rulers have a special interest in Faafu Atoll, Yameen told the people of Magoodhoo in early January.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Following his official visit to the kingdom last year, Yameen had 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.
Th Saudi Fund for Development meanwhile loaned US$100 million last year to finance a new passenger terminal at the Velana International Airport, which is to be built by the Saudi Binladin group.
The government also secured US$80 million from the fund to finance infrastructure development projects in Hulhumalé.
Other development assistance from the kingdom 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 November 2015, Saudi Arabia and Maldives penned an agreement hailed as a “religious bridge” to maintain religious unity. Islamic Minister Dr Ahmed Ziyad said at the time that the Saudis will help maintain the Maldives’ 100 percent Muslim status.
The Speaker of the Shura Council had also donated US$100,000 to the Islamic University of Maldives during a visit in early 2015.
Last week, 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.
Saudi Arabia is also funding a project to build a grand mosque in Malé that can accommodate 6,000 worshippers. Described as a gift from the Saudi King, it will be the largest mosque in the country.
In addition to the two official visits, Yameen has also made three private visits to the kingdom since assuming office in November 2013.
King Salman also visited the Maldives months before he was crowned king.
The visit of then-Crown Prince Salman in February 2014 drew media attention globally after the UK’s Daily Mail reported that he had booked out Anantara’s three South Malé atoll resorts for nearly one month.