The embassy of Saudi Arabia in Malé has spoken out in defence of the first lady of the Maldives, who has been accused of corruption when it emerged that an NGO she founded was distributing dates gifted by the kingdom in its name.
In a statement today, the embassy said it was “saddened” to see the controversy over the dates, and said it was “proud” to see the dates being distributed by Fathimath Ibrahim’s NGO, the Sadagat Foundation.
The kingdom donates some 50 tonnes of dates to the people of the Maldives every Ramadan.
Local media report that the president’s residence had asked the finance ministry for 500 boxes or ten tonnes of dates, which was then handed over to a campaign office run by the first lady.
The dates are now being handed out at breakfasts organized by the Sadaqat Foundation. The move has sparked outrage, with opposition supporters labeling the first lady “the date thief.”
President Abdulla Yameen and his wife are also under fire over a historic corruption scandal involving the theft of some US$80million from state coffers.
The Saudi embassy said: “We are proud to see that these gifted dates are being distributed by an NGO affiliated with First Lady. First Lady have been selfless in her work to help the poor, needy and disable people in the society.
“Therefore, we find it appropriate and in fact, we are thankful to First Lady that she has taken initiative to distribute the dates to the people of Maldives.”
— MFA-Maldives (@MDVForeign) June 15, 2016
The government, however, has vehemently denied handing over some of the dates to the NGO, despite photos and confirmation by people who have received the two-kilograms of dates.
The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has expressed concern over the Saudi statement, slamming the first lady’s the actions as “an affront to the years of generosity by Saudi Arabia.”
The Saudis defence of Fathimath could “taint the high regard” the Maldivian people have for the kingdom, the MDP said.
“This reeks of misuse of power and privilege. Saudi government should be outraged rather than trying to cover up these shameful actions. Corruption, whether it is siphoning of state funds for personal use, money laundering, or seemingly as petty as stealing thefts, should not be condoned,” said Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, a spokesman for the party.
Economic and cultural ties with Saudi Arabia have increased since Yameen assumed power. The kingdom is financing key development projects, including an airport development venture, and has pledged US$50million for a housing project for the military.
The Maldives recently severed ties with Iran in a move the opposition claims demonstrated growing Saudi influence here. But the foreign minister has dismissed the allegation.