In 1965, Britain recognised a group of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean – once a British Protectorate – as a completely sovereign and independent state. The Maldives became independent on 26 July 1965; in September that year, it became a member of the UN and in 1982, it joined the Commonwealth family of nations.
Throughout its recorded history, the Maldives had remained largely independent, except for a brief spell of Portuguese occupation in the mid-16th century. As a British Protectorate from 1887 to 1965, it retained full responsibility for its domestic affairs. Since 1965, the country has witnessed many changes: in governance and leaders; in economic development and the growth of its today flourishing tourist industry; in its relationship to the rest of the international community.
The Maldives’ relationship with the UK has been one of respect and mutual co-operation. After the Second World War Britain was given permission by the Maldivian government to re-establish its wartime airfield on Gan Island in the southernmost atoll of the country, Addu. In 1956 the Royal Air Force began developing the base, employing hundreds of Maldivians. The British were informally granted a 100-year lease of Gan that required them to pay £2000 a year; this agreement was later revised in favour of the Maldives until Britain ceased to use Gan in 1976. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Male’ and Gan in March 1972 – a special visit that lives on in the memories of many Maldivians.
A relationship founded on an agreement of protected independence in the past has developed into a relationship today that is wide-ranging and contemporary. Our two countries’ bilateral relationship encompasses several areas. One of the most important of these is education. There are hundreds of Maldivian students studying in the UK at different levels at any given time. Every year, approximately a hundred student visas are issued to Maldivians. With this in mind, we operate a temporary UK visa application centre in Male’ every August, to make the process more convenient for Maldivian students. This will be happening again next month, on Wednesday, 26 August, for the third consecutive year.
Our strong ties in the area of education are further supported by the Chevening Scholarship programme – the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)’s prestigious scheme for post-graduate studies – which have been awarded in the Maldives since the 1980s. Notable Chevening scholars from the Maldives include Minister for Health Iruthisham Adam, Attorney-General Mohamed Anil, former Deputy Prosecutor-General Hussain Shameem and members of the Maldives Monetary Authority.
The people-to-people links between the Maldives and the UK are also strong. Tens of thousands of British tourists visit the myriad islands of the Maldives each year, travelling to enjoy the holiday of their dreams: relaxing on the Maldives’ famed white sandy beaches, snorkelling and diving to see amazing and beautiful marine life in the reefs, or simply enjoying being in a world different to their own.
Bilateral relations are also promoted and strengthened by the British High Commission in Colombo and the FCO. Several British ministers – among them the current Minister of State for the Commonwealth, Hugo Swire – have visited the Maldives on official tours. Even though we do not have a physical presence in Male’, we visit the Maldives very frequently. I moved from London to Colombo in April and in May I visited the Maldives for the first time. I had the honour of presenting my credentials as Britain’s High Commissioner to President Yameen. I was struck by how much life Male’ squeezes into one small island: so many scooters; students pouring out of the university; shoppers in the fish and fruit markets;
fishing boats getting ready for the next voyage; people strolling by the seaside. I am looking forward to getting to know the people and the islands of the Maldives better.
The UK and the Maldives share other interests too. For example, as two island nations we share a wish for an ambitious outcome from the international climate change negotiations in Paris later this year. Just as the Maldives would be threatened by rising sea levels, so too would low lying parts of the United Kingdom. We support the steps being taken by small island developing states – of which the Maldives is one – towards a blue-green economy transition: a carbon neutral strategy that targets resource efficiency, clean technology and building communities’ resilience to the impacts of climate change. Intolerant, sometimes violent, religious extremism is a worry in both our countries. As friends of the Maldives from a country with a firm and long-held belief in the importance of democracy, we share the Maldivian people’s desire for democracy to flourish. As joint members of the Commonwealth we attach shared importance to the rule of law and freedom of expression, two of the principles enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter. Our governments have had several frank exchanges about values we share and we look forward to supporting efforts to strengthen them.
As the Maldives celebrates this fiftieth anniversary, I wish all Maldivians every success in the years to come.
James Dauris is the British High Commissioner to the Maldives.