The government has denied selling off Faafu atoll to Saudi Arabia, reiterating that the proposed development is part of “a wider, multifaceted programme to finance a major, multi-billion dollar investment project”.
The president’s office said in a statement Tuesday night that it “categorically rebuts allegations that the atoll has been ‘sold off’ to a foreign entity.” But the government is working with “a range of international investors” and the development plans for Faafu will focus on “delivering positive outcomes” for the Maldives.
“All infrastructure projects strictly adhere to regulations and boundaries set out by the Maldivian constitution,” reads the English statement, which stopped short of assuring that the Saudi-funded project would not involve foreign freeholds as allowed by the constitution.
Controversial amendments brought to the constitution authorises foreign ownership of Maldivian land if an investment exceeds US$1 billion and 70 percent of the project site is reclaimed land.
President Abdulla Yameen said last week that 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, threats to sovereignty, and lack of transparency.
“Much like our friends in both the East and West, we remain an open and valued player in the global economy, and should be afforded the ability to expand our economy to propel more and more Maldivians towards middle-income status,” Yameen was quoted as saying in the statement.
The statement comes amidst growing concern over the rumoured sale of the atoll. The opposition coalition is planning to stage a mass protest in Malé on March 24 to coincide with the official visit of the Saudi monarch.
Earlier this week, Climate Home reported former President Mohamed Nasheed and foreign policy experts raising the prospect of Saudi Arabia seeking a strategic anchor in the Maldives to secure an oil route to China.
The exiled opposition leader suggested that decades of spreading Wahhabism in the Maldives through scholarships has paved the way for the “unprecedented” land grab.
Dr Theodore Karasik, senior advisor to Gulf States Analytics in Washington DC, explained that the Saudis want to “build up a network of allies that form a logistical chain from the Gulf to east Asia and back.”
The kingdom is fostering strategic partnerships with countries on the critical Indian Ocean supply chain “to ensure that freedom of navigation remains and that piracy and terrorism doesn’t occur,” he said.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia and China “signed a cooperative agreement on China’s One Belt, One Road initiative – the cumulative term for the New Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road that China has outlined as its key strategic supply lanes,” Climate Home noted.
The Maldives also agreed to become a partner in China’s maritime silk route following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s historic visit in September 2014, prompting Nasheed to warn at the time that the move would threaten Indian Ocean stability.
Cleo Paskal, associate fellow at Chatham House, told Climate Home that through the Faafu atoll deal the Saudis could “facilitate the construction of some sort of ‘resupply’ installation built by China that would likely have dual use capacity.”
In an interview with The Hindu newspaper after the freeholds amendments were passed in July 2015, former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb had dismissed fears raised about “foreign non-commercial logistical installations in the Maldives.”
Adeeb said: “We are seeing much more interest from the Middle East (West Asia), especially from royal families there. Maldives can be like Bahrain is for them.”
Local media reports suggest that the Saudis want to develop a city akin to Dubai by reclaiming the lagoon of Himithi, an uninhabited island in Faafu atoll.
Many Maldivians on social media have expressed concern about the irreversible environmental damage large-scale dredging could cause as well as the socio-economic issues that could arise from the development and possible mass relocations.
The president’s office said infrastructure projects will adhere to environmental laws that “ensures developments of any type respect the fragile ecosystem that encompasses the archipelago,” adding that “Maldivian planning laws remain some of the strictest in the world.”
The statement went on to say that the Maldives is attracting investment from North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
“To criticise the nation for reaching out to investors demonstrates troubling double standards,” it added.
It listed the expansion of the international airport, upgrades at the Malé port, and the alleged creation of 64,000 jobs in the past three years as “tangible success stories” of the Yameen administration.
“While this administration remains open to opposing views on economic matters, we hope such views will keep sight of the value of the Maldives remaining an open, dynamic and proactive player in South Asia,” it added.
“Rather than bitter and baseless partisan chastising; we strive to be celebrated for seeking to bring development to our islands and we call on the larger international community to ignore rhetoric and to celebrate further the steps being taken to meet our ambitious fiscal targets and bring meaningful change to these shores and to the Maldivian people.”