A public endorsement of President Abdulla Yameen’s economic policy from the country’s richest men provoked a fierce reaction last week.
Ahead of the September 23 presidential election, the unprecedented support from the ageing tourism pioneers – who rarely speak to the media or wade into partisan politics – came during a much-publicised panel discussion organised by state television.
On social media, government supporters shared video clips and celebrated the backing of Yameen’s development agenda by the tycoons, even as opposition supporters and leftist youth castigated them over worker’s rights and the vast concentration of wealth at the top.
Aired over two parts on Monday and Tuesday night with several re-runs, the ‘My Nation – My Future’ panel featured Mohamed Umar ‘MU’ Manik, chairman of Universal Enterprises, ‘Champa’ Hussain Afeef, chairman of Crown Company, Ahmed Nazeer, director of Crown Company, construction magnate Mohamed Ali Janah, and Ismail Asif, vice president of the Maldives Chamber of Commerce.
Manik, Afeef and Nazeer sit on the board of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry, a powerful lobbying group that wields an outsized influence on policy-making.
Filmed in front of an audience of university and school students, the main topic was the expansion of the Velana International Airport, a flagship project of the current administration.
– ‘Absolutely necessary’ –
The panellists dismissed concerns over the US$1 billion debt owed mainly to China for the airport expansion, stressing the necessity of improving facilities and capacity to cater to seven million passengers.
“This airport has expired its guarantee. There are impacts of tsunami as well. The fact that a [new] runway is built is our salvation. Otherwise, we wouldn’t survive,” said Manik, who is also chairman of the state-owned Maldives Airport Company Ltd.
Studies by consultants showed that the expansion was “absolutely necessary considering the growth” of the country.
“It is worth the money we spend on this. In no way is this foolish. This project will pay for itself,” he said.
Nazeer, a MACL board director, said the investment could be recovered in less than 15 years “from the earnings of our [airport] operations”.
He claimed the government faced losses due to the 2010 concession agreement with Indian firm GMR, which was paid US$270 million as compensation for the arbitrary cancellation of the airport development deal in 2012.
“Since the government took over the airport under MACL, we have got 450 million as profit in the past five years,” he said.
The panellists were adamant that the airport should remain under the state-owned company.
“Airport should never be let go to a foreign company. It is of strategic, vital interest to the nation,” Manik said.
Afeef said: “That is the door to our country. What will happen if we give our door to someone else? Anyone may come in.”
Contrary to Nazeer’s claim, the government earned MVR1.3 billion (US$84 million) from the airport in 2010, followed by MVR687 million in 2011, far higher than before privatisation. In 2012, concession revenue plummeted fourfold as a result of a Civil Court judgment won by the opposition to block the levy of an Airport Development Charge.
– ‘Pillars of the country’ –
In contrast to the elder trio, Janah and Asif were full-throated in their praise of the Yameen administration.
“We are seeing the results of the policies of the government. Contrary to that, we could have a policy saying democracy is everything and everyone go out into the streets. But the policy now is business, the policy now is development,” said Asif.
Janah heaped praise on the tourism pioneers, who developed the first resorts in the country in the early 1970s.
“These are the people who made the Maldives. Their work inspired people like us,” he said. “These are the pillars of this country. Anyone who insults them are traitors to this country.”
The businessmen on the panel “have higher risks than the debt from all the projects of the government combined,” he claimed.
“In comparison, these investments for the future of our country is very small. The net worth of every single person here is higher than a mere one billion dollars,” he said, adding that they would “stand up to protect this country” in the event of an unlikely debt crisis.
Asked about the controversial Tree Top Hospital developed by a partnership of resort businesses, Afeef said: “I am not in the business of tourism, I am invested in the business of Maldives, to make Maldives better.
“I am trying to make Addu airport better. You may ask, why is someone in tourism trying to make an airport bigger. We are not in one thing. We want to take Maldives to the next level.”
The reaction on social media was unsympathetic.
On the island of Naifaru, opposition supporters opened a fund box to help the tycoons who have “fallen on hard times”.
15 resorts in #Maldives – how do they manage to make a profit?
40 yrs of exploitation of public resources with #impunity.
Anti employment law.
Anti labour rights.
Imagine t quality of love they have for nation! https://t.co/FTrneImg56
— Humay (@HumayAG) August 6, 2018
prime time TV for billionaire men because surely their struggles need the spotlight. poor little rich men.
— 🍞🌹 (@kopitaaaa) August 6, 2018
Student struggling with loans, mother in debt caring for sick child, young man with 2 jobs to pay rent, family indebted to housing contractor for 25yrs..
How does putting billionaires on TV appeal to any of them, to anyone? How does it convince anyone to vote Yameen? #OwnGoal
— Eva Abdulla 🎈❓ (@evattey) August 7, 2018
A short trailer but it's extremely revealing. It's all about how much they as resort owners lost when the airport was operated by GMR and how much they've made under YAG. Nothing about the average citizen.
— Naanu (@narrnu) August 5, 2018
These people pay income tax to countries all over the world but obstruct introducing it in Maldives https://t.co/805BjuuOYo
— Fake Ph.d 03 Nov.1988 (@03November1988) August 7, 2018
Decades of preferential policies have benefited these few greedy tycoons on the backs of underpaid resort workers and their struggling families back in the islands.
All the while never bothered abt gross rights abuses, discrimination, misogyny… subjected to them.
— #MaldivesNews 🎈 (@GaumuGaumu) August 7, 2018
Maldivian business tycoons must learn from the CEO of AirAsia who aggressively backed former Prime Minister Najib Razak. I'm sorry," he said. "I buckled at a crucial moment in our history." @FuadZahir @MateyZakir @MTradeUnion @sim_mohamed #IbuFaisal2018 https://t.co/4QNimmIf0p
— Falak Saeed (@falaksaeeed) August 6, 2018