The Saudi Arabian government has no intention of investing in a mega project or buying an island or atoll in the Maldives, the Saudi embassy has declared.
Following the opposition’s announcement of a mass protest on March 24 to coincide with the official visit of King Salman, the Saudi embassy in Malé put out a press statement Thursday night dismissing the “widely circulated baseless and unfounded allegations”.
“[T]he Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia neither invest in such project nor has an intention doing so or buying a land/island or an atoll, in the Republic of Maldives,” it asserted.
A forthcoming investment “from the Saudi government, or rather leading figures in Saudi” was first announced by President Abdulla Yameen in January.
“A huge massive project is planned for Faafu atoll. All charts and drawings have been completed,” he said, describing it as “a township or integrated development project”.
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.
Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee told Miadhu on Friday that negotiations are ongoing with investors from Saudi Arabia, stressing that discussions have not taken place between the Maldivian and Saudi Arabian governments about the Faafu atoll mega project.
Shainee said there have never been any plans to sign agreements about the Faafu atoll project during the Saudi king’s official visit.
Last week, the government also released a statement denying that Faafu atoll has been sold. 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, the president’s office said.
On Wednesday, MPs of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives told the press that opposition lawmakers submitted a no-confidence motion against the parliament’s speaker to divert attention from the upcoming multi-billion dollar investment from Saudi Arabia.
Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan said the opposition knows that the Saudi monarch’s official visit would lead to unprecedented development.
“They did this because of their fear about the visit during the third week [of March],” MP Ali Arif, the PPM’s spokesman, said during the press conference called in response to the no-confidence motion.
On the same day, the Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industry accused the opposition and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of obstructing foreign investment to serve political ends.
Rumours of the Faafu atoll deal began swirling after the passage of constitutional amendments authorising foreign freeholds in the Maldives if an investment exceeds US$1 billion and 70 percent of the project site is reclaimed land.
In an interview with The Hindu newspaper after the freeholds amendments were passed in July 2015, former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb had dismissed fears 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.
But 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.”
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.
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.