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Sun, sand and politics: How tourism tycoons influence elections in the Maldives

Maldives tourism is politicised partly because of how it emerged.



Ibrahim ‘Full Moon Ibby’ Rasheed would often get calls from the office of Maldives president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom before elections in the nineties and noughties.

Rasheed, who worked as the general manager of resorts belonging to Universal Enterprises, Villa Group and Yacht Tours during that period, would then go up to his employees and “polish them up” as instructed by his caller.

When multi-party democracy was introduced in 2008 his employers – first Gasim Ibrahim and then MP Abdulla Jabir – wanted him to ensure his staff voted for the opposition Jumhooree Party.

He started visiting the islands of his employees to gauge and influence voter sentiment. Some of his employees and their families received TVs and video screen projectors for football screenings. For others he helped to build fitness centres and football stadiums. There was no way to check if recipients kept their word.

“But I’d be in touch with the HR and some of the employees. They would tell on their colleagues and who they wanted to vote for.”

There are over 27,837 Maldivians working in the country’s resorts, according to the 2014 census. Many are employed by Maldivian businessmen with known political affiliations.

Among them are Gasim, who is the JP leader; Ahmed ‘Sun’ Siyam, who is part of the ruling coalition; and Mohamed Umar ‘MU’ Manik and ‘Champa’ Hussain Afeef, who declared their support for President Abdulla Yameen’s economic policy last month.

These men own at least 26 resorts between them. Gasim’s Villa Group owns five; Manik’s Universal owns eight, Champa Afeef’s Crown & Champa owns nine and Siyam’s Sun Siyam Resorts owns four. They also wield a disproportionate influence on policy-making.

“We have had a history of employers pressurising their staff to vote as per their [employer’s] political affiliation,” says Mauroof Zakir, from the Tourism Employment Association of Maldives (TEAM). “There have been instances in the past where employees have been fired for voting for a different party.

“During the last presidential election, one resort had a camera in the room with a ballot box. But an employee noticed it and they were forced to change the room.”

– Politics and patronage –

The Maldives tourism industry is politicised, in part, because of how it emerged. Gasim, Siyam and the Champa brothers established their empires under Gayoom’s patronage.

In the absence of real competition (guest houses were introduced in 2009) or crucial reforms like the Tourism Goods and Services Tax (introduced in 2011) and income tax (which does not exist), many were inclined to support the strongman.

Gayoom backed Yameen’s bid for power in the 2013 presidential election and there were instances of big businesses leaning on employees to vote for the Progressive Party of the Maldives.

But most resort employees have traditionally leaned towards the Maldivian Democratic Party. Workers were sacked from Villa and Siyam resorts on suspicion of not having voted for Yameen.

Tourism contributed to 22.7 percent of the Maldives’ GDP in 2016 and up to 70 percent of its foreign exchange. Given their financial clout, tycoons often successfully lobbied for favourable legislation, like a ban on protests in resorts or criminalising social media calls for a tourism boycott.

Last year, after they scuttled rules banning resorts from selling dollars, former finance minister Ali Hashim acknowledged their outsized influence and admitted: “No government so far has told them: ‘No, we run the government as we see fit’.”

An investigation by the Organizing Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed this week that some tycoons also benefited from the island lease corruption scandal orchestrated by former vice president Ahmed Adeeb with the backing of Yameen.

During Adeeb’s tenure, Universal Enterprises received three islands via no-bid deals. Champa received five questionable leases via joint venture schemes with the government, and Siyam received two no-bid leases for a total of $500,000.

“The current government is very capitalistic,” says Mauroof. “The opposition, on the other hand, wants to introduce income tax and minimum wage. The resort owners would definitely not want this.”

Resorts owned by international chains and multinational corporations, he added, tended to stay away from politics.

– Hedging your bets –

Although tycoons play by their political affiliations ahead of elections, the trend in recent years is not to alienate any party.

“From what I hear, big businesses fund both political parties [the PPM and the Maldivian Democratic Party],” says Fuwad Thowfeek, former chair of the Elections Commission. “This is done just to keep them under their control, whoever comes to power.” Most of these are transactions are secret and none of the parties disclose them in their annual financial audit submissions to the EC, he added.

After multiple back and forths, the EC said it would place 35 ballot boxes in resort islands. It was 55 in the 2013 presidential election.

Yameen has pledged to launch a USD$6 million employment benefit scheme and reserve a quota of social housing flats for resort workers if elected. His 2013 campaign pledge of providing employees shares of the resorts they work at remains unfulfilled.

Rasheed, who now lives in exile but is closely associated with the Maldives’ tourism industry, says Yameen’s clout appears to be waning.

Shortly after the European Union announced a sanctions framework, Yameen ally and Maldives Development Alliance founder Siyam resigned from the party’s leadership, setting off speculation it would not renew its coalition agreement after the election. His Sun Media Group later suspended operations.

“I haven’t heard of instances where any of the tycoons are asking their employees to vote for any candidate,” says Rasheed.

“If they’re smart, they won’t need to ask their employees to vote for Ibu [given the MDP’s popularity among resort workers]. But if they ask them to vote for Yameen, it will be a problem.”