President Abdulla Yameen has dismissed concerns over rumoured plans to sell Faafu atoll to the Saudi royal family, revealing that negotiations are ongoing for an unprecedented US$10 billion project.
“What’s being talked about the most today is, what will be the benefit to the Maldives from King Salman’s visit, is Faafu atoll being sold. No, no place is being sold,” Yameen said, addressing concerns over the deal for the first time at a ceremony held Wednesday to welcome more than 1,000 new members to the ruling party.
“What is about to happen is not at all something that would be unacceptable to us. What is about to happen to Faafu atoll – if its result is positive – is something that would feature the Maldives on the world chart more boldly than anything else,” he said.
The Faafu project would be similar to “mixed development projects in French Riviera” – the Mediterranean coastline of France that includes the microstate of Monaco – and would involve “international sea sports, mixed development, residential high-class development, many tourist resorts, many airports” and other industries.
He suggested that the project would be awarded through the special economic zones policy, which offers regulatory and tax incentives for large-scale investments. Alternately, the parliament could pass a new law to authorise a Saudi-owned freehold if the investment exceeds US$1 billion and 70 percent of the project site is reclaimed land.
On the growing clamour to disclose information about the Saudi-funded project, Yameen said details will be revealed when the negotiations are complete and the deal is signed.
“No one has to be concerned over not getting details of these projects, especially senior statesmen,” he said.
Yameen said negotiations are ongoing about the revenue the government would collect at the outset.
“The reason we haven’t been answerable to date is because this is such an important project, we don’t want to the investor to lose interest due to the quarrel between [the government and opposition],” he said.
Rumours of the Faafu atoll deal began swirling in mid-2015 after the passage of controversial constitutional amendments authorising foreign freeholds in the Maldives. The rumours were revived in January when Yameen announced that Saudi Arabia has drawn up plans for a township or integrated development project in the south-central atoll.
On Wednesday night, the Maldivian Democratic Party’s national council approved a resolution vowing to reclaim land sold foreign party through “deals made in the dark”, which could cause “irreparable damage”.
The Maldives’ biggest corruption scandal, which involved the theft of nearly US$80 million, occurred under Yameen’s watch, MDP officials said at last night’s meeting, urging the party to do everything possible to stop the deal.
The main opposition party is also planning to submit a bill to repeal the constitutional amendments that allow foreign ownership of Maldivian land.
Yameen meanwhile mocked the opposition’s criticism today. “This is surely not a project that I will pack in a suitcase and take home when I leave office. The infrastructure developments will remain in Faafu atoll,” he said.
He said the Faafu atoll project is essential for reaching the government’s goal of transforming the economy.
“No doubt the direct beneficiaries will be the people of Faafu atoll. Faafu atoll will be developed to an unimaginable extent,” he said.
“And based on the Faafu atoll project, and also to accommodate other such projects, we made the laws needed for a special economic zone.”
Stressing that Maldivian sovereignty will extend to the project sites, he said the projects will be undertaken in accordance with the laws.
Yameen said questions over sovereignty and the possibility of anti-Islamic practices are being raised because former presidents – who now lead the opposition – failed when they had the opportunity to develop the Maldives.
If the project takes off, the Maldives will change from a tourist destination, he said.
Unlike the lease of the airport to Indian developer GMR, which an asset created by Maldivians, Yameen said his administration is “forming new capital for the benefit of all Maldivian people.”
He went on to appeal for cooperation from critics. “If there is corruption or illegality in this, then highlight that. That is what working on behalf of the people is,” he said.