Hysteria over Maldives' foreign investment push reveals worrying double standard

by Ahmed Mubeen

In recent weeks, international attention was focused on the Maldives as the Government announced the beginning of discussions with international investors over a major new foreign investment drive. The project on Faafu Atoll would involve the biggest investment ever on the Indian Ocean archipelago – some $10 billion – and lead to mixed development and several tourist resorts and airports. Despite the project being only in the discussion stage, reaction abroad to its announcement led to a series of half-truths, contradictions and conjecture.

In fact, what our government is trying to achieve is nothing out of the ordinary. Developing economies throughout Asia have reached out to foreign investors to help build infrastructure or grow the wider economy. Part of the concern seemed rooted in the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the deal – a deal that, despite media reports to the contrary, was only ever in the early discussion stages.

It is imperative that we develop an economy that for too long has relied on high end resorts to pay the bills. A Chinese funded bridge creating a vital artery between the capital city Male and Velana international airport is almost complete; a funding package for the expansion of that same airport is now signed off; and a major land reclamation project to alleviate the chronic housing shortage in Male is now in full throw. Add to that an economy growing at 4%, with 67,000 new jobs added, and the Maldives reaching MDG+ status, you can see that our country has clear ambitions not to rely on a monolithic tourist income.

The two elements of a major new venture and a Middle Eastern investor created a wave of critical hyperbole that revealed a shocking hypocrisy. A brief glance at Middle eastern investment across the globe sees some of the world’s most iconic hotels, buildings and infrastructure funded by or wholly owned by Saudis or other Middle Eastern investors. Foreign observers seemed aghast at the possible role of the very same investors in the Maldives, despite they themselves reaping the benefits of Middle Eastern money in growing their own nation’s economy. And Saudi investment in the islands is a tiny fraction of the total foreign money invested, with a much larger majority coming from Europe, North America and the Far East.

The reaction that met the Faafu announcement is rooted in a patronising righteousness but not in fact. Firstly, the Maldives was accused of ‘selling off’ an entire atoll, when that was never the case. The development was limited to just a few islands. Secondly, it was a done deal, when in fact only preliminary discussion have taken place, with no firm plans signed off. Thirdly, the government was accused of a veil of secrecy surrounding the plans. Yet how can the government go public with information on a project in only the most preliminary of stages, with no formal agreement in place?

Checks and balances are in place. The Maldivian constitution means a development for this nature would have to be approved by parliament, in line with planning, laws passed by both the ruling party and the opposition. That same opposition’s vocal rejection of the Faafu development took an even more extraordinary turn recently when their former leader and de facto international spokesman, Mohammed Nasheed, spoke to the international media and, in no uncertain terms, slammed Saudi influence on the islands.

“[The Saudis] have had a good run of propagating their worldview to the people of the Maldives”, Nasheed said, “and they’ve done that for the last three decades. They’ve now, I think, come to view that they have enough sympathy for them to get a foothold.” That Nasheed awarded Prince Al Waleed the highest award in the Maldives – the Order of Distinguished Rule of Izzudeen – and posted photographs of the ceremony on his Presidential social media page demonstrates a hypocrisy and political opportunism of the highest order.

But beyond the double standards shown by foreign observers and a former President, there is the wider question of the right of young, developing countries to grow their economy and propel people into middle income status. These goals of course need to be matched with protecting this archipelagos’ uniquely fragile marine ecosystem. But the Maldives already has the strictest planning laws of any nation on the continent. Resorts are legally required to create their own marine protection zones. 70 % of islands must be left undeveloped. And no building must be higher than the tallest coconut tree. There is not a piece of evidence that these regulations are being eroded. There is a spotless record on responsible development. Why would that suddenly change when it is in the interest of the country to do so?

The President was right this week when he rounded on those critics on the Faafu plans. ‘Foreign investment is not out of the ordinary, or for that matter anywhere else… 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.’ His argument drives to the very crux of matter. Behind the iconic picture postcard images of azure seas and coral reefs lies a real country, are a people that share ambitions and dreams of a better life like anywhere else. It seems the round of criticism at the Maldivian government’s economic plans is based on the most cynical of premises: ‘development is great, just not where I go on holiday.’

Editor's Note: Ahmed Mubeen is Member of the People’s Majlis (PPM) for the Faafu atoll Bilehdhoo Constituency