The official visit of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to the Maldives has been postponed indefinitely, Foreign Minister Dr Mohamed Asim announced Friday morning, citing a flu outbreak.
“When the visit is arranged for a later date, that date will be announced,” he told the press at the president’s office, a day before the king was due to arrive for the first visit to the Maldives by a reigning Saudi monarch.
The visit was to be part of a rare, month-long Asian tour.
Rehearsals for the red-carpet welcoming ceremony at the Republic Square in Malé took place over the past two days and the police announced the closure of roads surrounding the official jetty after 12pm on Saturday.
The official jetty has been renovated whilst security was tightened at the capital’s northern waterfront.
According to local media, Saudi military personnel have been involved in the rehearsals to prepare for the king’s arrival and two resorts were booked for the king and his entourage.
A support vessel from the Saudi royal navy with two helicopters and King Salman’s luxury yacht Al Salamah also arrived in the Maldives during the past week.
The royal visit has been mired in controversy with the opposition coalition planning to stage a protest on March 24 against alleged plans to sell Faafu atoll or parts of it to the Saudi royal family.
The government denied selling an atoll and the Saudi embassy asserted that the kingdom has no intention of investing in a mega project or buying land in the Maldives.
But on Thursday night, the opposition-aligned Raajje TV aired a leaked audio clip of Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan saying that the constitution was amended to facilitate the sale of the uninhabited island of Himithi in Faafu atoll to Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman Al Saud.
The constitution previously prohibited foreign ownership of Maldivian land, but controversial amendments were brought in July 2015 to authorise foreign freeholds if an investment exceeds US$1 billion and 70 percent of the project site is reclaimed land.
Described as the man who wields power behind his father’s throne, the 31-year-old deputy crown prince is also defence minister and head of the council of economic and development affairs.
The Maldivian Democratic Party has meanwhile welcomed the postponement of the king’s visit.
The party’s meeting hall in Malé was raided for a third time on Thursday amidst a police crackdown against any attempts to carry out “demeaning” activities during upcoming official visits. The police confiscated banners made for the protest against the Faafu atoll deal.
“With growing public outrage and strong opposition to President [Abdulla] Yameen’s attempts to sell-off Faafu atoll to the Saudi royal family, the MDP feels that the time is not right for the royal visit, especially after an audio recording was leaked on Thursday night in which ruling party parliamentary group leader Ahmed Nihan MP discusses hitherto secret details of the Faafu project,” the main opposition party said in a statement.
The MDP also reiterated calls for the Saudi royal family “to completely pull out of the Faafu atoll project,” which it said poses “a fundamental threat to Maldivian sovereignty and independence.”
“The MDP further believes the project, which has been shrouded in secrecy, could be another attempt by President Yameen to engage in money laundering and corruption and further reiterates its previous statements that the party considers contracts on Faafu deal void ab initio and such contracts would be reversed,” the party warned.
“The MDP notes that public notice has been amply and indisputably given of the citizens’ objection to such a sale.”
The forthcoming investment “from the Saudi government or leading figures in Saudi” was first announced by President Yameen in late January.
On March 1, Yameen said the Saudi-funded US$10 billion project will be similar to “mixed development projects in the French Riviera” with “residential high-class development, many tourist resorts, many airports”.
Details will be revealed when the negotiations are over, he said, dismissing concerns over corruption, scarcity of land, threats to sovereignty, and lack of public consultation and transparency.
Following the Saudi embassy statement, Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee – co-chair of the cabinet’s economic council – told local media that there were no plans to sign agreements about the Faafu atoll project during the Saudi king’s official visit.
But negotiations are ongoing with investors from Saudi Arabia, rather than the Saudi government, he said.