The Maldives is preparing for the official visit of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on Saturday afternoon with rehearsals for the red-carpet welcoming ceremony at the Republic Square in Malé.
Rehearsals took place at 2pm on Wednesday and Thursday with roads around the square and the official jetty closed to traffic.
— Ahmed Nihan (@ahmed_nihan) March 15, 2017
The police have also announced that roads surrounding Malé’s northern waterfront will be closed to both traffic and pedestrians from 12pm on Saturday until the welcoming ceremony ends.
According to newspaper Mihaaru, official talks will take place at the president’s office on Saturday, after which agreements will be signed to provide assistance to the Maldives in various fields, including the health and education sectors.
After the official talks, the king will leave for a five-day holiday at a high-end resort.
Online paper VFP reported today that the king will stay at the One and Only Reethi Rah in North Malé atoll. He will reportedly go to the resort from the airport and come to Malé via helicopter.
Saudi military personnel have been involved in the rehearsals to prepare for the king’s arrival, sources told VFP, which also reported that other members of the king’s delegation will stay at the Anantara Kihavah Villas in Baa atoll.
The advance security personnel and some Saudi government officials have been staying at the Sheraton Maldives resort in North Malé atoll.
Both the official jetty and the outer ring road of the capital are meanwhile undergoing repairs and renovation ahead of the visit.
On Tuesday, King Salman’s luxury yacht Al Salamah arrived in the Maldives and is presently docked off the coast of Malé. The eight-storey mega yacht is equipped with a gym, cinema, an onboard hospital, offices, lounges, and a spa.
Last week, the Boraida support vessel from the Saudi royal navy also arrived in the Maldives with two helicopters. The replenishment ship has a helicopter deck aft and hangars for two helicopters.
An advance team of Saudi army personnel arrived earlier to make security arrangements.
Neither government has confirmed the official visit but state media reported earlier this week that the Saudi monarch is due to arrive on March 18.
Asked about the itinerary, the foreign ministry’s media official directed the Maldives Independent to the president’s office, whose spokesman was not responding.
The official visit – the first to the Maldives by a reigning Saudi monarch – is part of a month-long Asian tour that included Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan and China.
The tour is reportedly aimed at advancing economic cooperation in line with the objectives of an ambitious long-term plan to reduce dependence on oil revenues.
King Salman’s visit to Indonesia earlier this month meanwhile made headlines globally over the size of his luggage and entourage.
The 81-year-old reportedly travelled with 1,500 people – including 25 princes, 10 ministers, and 100 security personnel – and 459 metric tonnes of luggage, which included two Mercedes-Benz S600 limousines and two electric elevators.
Salman previously visited the Maldives months before he was crowned king.
The visit of then-Crown Prince Salman in February 2014 also drew media attention after the UK’s Daily Mail reported that he had booked out Anantara’s three South Malé atoll resorts for nearly one month.
The news of the king’s official visit had meanwhile stirred controversy over rumoured plans to sell Faafu atoll or parts of it to the Saudi royal family. However, the Saudi embassy has since asserted that the kingdom has no intention of investing in a mega project or buying land in the Maldives.
But the forthcoming investment “from the Saudi government or leading figures in Saudi” was first announced by President Abdulla Yameen in late January, reviving rumours that began circulating after the constitution was amended in July 2015 to authorise foreign ownership of Maldivian land.
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.
King Salman had accepted an invitation to visit the Maldives during Yameen’s second official visit to Saudi Arabia in October last year.
Following his official visit to the kingdom last year, Yameen had declared that the Maldives and Saudi Arabia are “currently at the peak of diplomatic relations”.
During the visit, the Saudi government pledged to lend US$150 million to help repay loans taken for an unprecedented infrastructure scale-up.
Other development assistance from Saudi Arabia includes US$50 million pledged for a military housing project, a US$20 million grant for budget support in May 2015, and US$1 million as grant aid to finance the feasibility study for a transhipment port in the Maldives’ northernmost atoll.
In May last year, the Maldives severed ties with Iran after protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The Maldives is also among 34 countries that joined a Saudi-led Islamic military alliance formed to combat terrorist organisations.
In addition to grant aid and several loans, an agreement hailed as a “religious bridge” to maintain religious unity here was signed in November 2015.
Saudi Arabia is also funding a grand mosque in Malé that can accommodate 6,000 worshippers. In February, the Saudi embassy donated 17,500 Arabic language textbooks to Maldivian schools to help teach students from grades one to five. The kingdom has also sent 17 language teachers and plans to set up an Arabic language centre in the Maldives.