Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, who has been drawing intense flak from the opposition and the Western powers for allegedly flouting democratic norms and fostering Islamic radicalism, is hoping to win the September 2018 Presidential election on the basis of his achievements in the field of economic development. But considering the fact that the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) led by his arch rival Mohamed Nasheed has the tacit or open backing of the US, the Western powers and India, Yameen is holding an olive branch to them to neutralize them ahead of the polls, writes P.K.Balachandran in South Asian Monitor.
The Western powers and India are wary about Yameen’s lurch towards China in the context of China’s determined thrust to implant itself as the dominant power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Yameen fears that a hostile West could help the MDP trounce him in the 2018 polls.
Some of the big-ticket projects like the modernization of the Male airport, the construction of a massive housing and commercial colony in Huluhumale and the bridge linking Male with Huluhumale are likely to be completed three months before the elections to effectively showcase the President’s developmental agenda.
Yameen’s line is expected to be: “While the Nasheed regime (between 2008 and 2012) was marked by turmoil and instability, I have given stability and diversified development under peaceful conditions.”
In fact, Yameen is now planning to turn the Maldives into the “Dubai of South Asia”, an ideal place for entrepreneurs from the region and beyond to network and strike deals in a uniquely pleasant and relaxed atmosphere which only the Maldives can provide, says Imjad Jaleel, Chief Communications Strategist at the Maldivian President’s Office.
“Being on the international East-West shipping route, the Maldivescould well be developed as an international maritime and trading hub,” he adds.
“As per President Yameen’s transformational development perspective, even tourism, the country’s main breadwinner apart from fish, cannot be sustained and promoted unless it is backed by world class infrastructure and support services,” Jaleel explains.
The Maldives will eventually fill the “hub gap” that now exists between Dubai in the West and Singapore in the East he said.
The Maldives’ achievements, thus far, assure that the ambitious goal can be reached. The Maldiviantourist resort sector is booming, attracting all the top international brands, including Hard Rock International.China and Thailand have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure projects.
To help the local fishing industry and also to get machinery and services for rapid infrastructural development, the Maldives has entered into a Free Trade Agreement with China.
Additionally, the Yameen government has struck up a good relationship with Malaysia, an engine of growth in South East Asia. Prime Minister Najib Razak, who visited the Maldives recently, pledged Malaysian investments, Jaleel points out.
The Maldives had lot to trumpet at the December 2017 International Invest Forum. The country’s per capita GDP has almost doubled to US$ 12,000 in a span of four years from US $6,000 in 2013. In 2017, the Maldives became one of the world’s smallest nations to receive credit ratings from Moody’s and Fitch. Both prestigious agencies commended the country on its deficit reduction, economic growth, infrastructure investment and political stability, rating the country with a “stable outlook.”
Finance Minister Ahmed Munawar said that there are no capital controls, long leases are available on properties and there are special incentives for investors who are able to reclaim land.
Sea as good as land
Communications Strategist Jaleel cautioned against dismissing theMaldives as a “small” country. “Maldives may have a small land area, but it has a vast stretch of the ocean to itself which can be used profitably, not just for fishing and developing fish related products, but for setting up boat building, water sports equipment manufacturing, and so on. A variety of support services to keep these sectors ticking will be needed and these would require investment,” he said.
In an interview to Gulf NewsEconomic Development Minister Mohammad Saeed said that the Maldives has taken several measures to attract FDI. These include high return on investments in tourism, allowing 100 per cent foreign ownerships, avoidance of red tape and regulations that block people from doing effective business. The size of the portfolios that have been given registration in the last four years for a span of five years is estimated at US$14 billion.
The government itself is implementing a number of projects to facilitate foreign investments pooling. These include theUS$1 billion international airport upgrading project envisaging a second runway capable of receiving the giant A380 aircraft. There is a huge youth township coming up near Male with a bridge to connect it to Male funded by China. The government has implemented two state-of-the-art submarine cables, with 100 per cent coverage. Every island is now capable of using phones and internet, Saeed said.
And Maldives has an educated and “eager to work” young population. 99% of its 410,000 people are literate, English literacy is high, and youngsters are given incentives to study abroad, Jaleel adds.
Maldives currently receives 1.2 million tourists a year. But it has plans to raise it to seven million arrivals in another 5 to 7 years. So far, Chinese tourists constitute highest, for the seventh consecutive year, but arrivals from the West have not fallen.
Asked about the effects of the scare created by the Western powers about political violence, terrorism and Islamic radicalism, Communications Strategist Jaleel said that going by the growth in investments and the steady increase in tourist arrivals from the Western countries, false propaganda about dangers lurking in the Maldives has had no effect. In fact, Singapore is the single largest investor in the country.
Reaching out to India and US
Reaching out to India after the controversial meeting which Indian Ambassador Akhilesh Mishra had with three MDP members of a local council in an atoll, Yameen appealed to Maldivians, especially the media, not to air “negative views” about India, which he described as the Maldives’ “closest friend and ally.”
Yameen also stated that his government would never entertain negative sentiments towards India. He highlighted Indian assistance which he said, is “an invaluable contribution to the Maldives.” Yameen further said that the government is currently working towards a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the Maldives and India to address India’s concerns over the controversial FTA with China.
The President castigated a “small group” in the opposition and the local and international media who, he said, are trying to create a rift between the two countries.
Thanks US for aid
Later, inaugurating a drinking water treatment plant in one of the Atolls on Monday (25 December), Yameen held out an olive branch to the US also. Hethanked USAID and the US government, appreciating and celebrating their contributions towards “making the lives and livelihoods of Maldivians better.”
Yameen described the US-aided water treatment plant as a “shining example” of continued US assistance to the Maldives. The President highlighted the history of US aid to the Maldives and said that his own education in the US was facilitated by such aid. As such, he owes a “special thanks” to the US, he said.