Category: Executive

The abyss stares back

The Abyss Stares Back

Azra Naseem

The Taliban conquered all of Afghanistan on Sunday. Twenty years of US presence to democratise Afghanistan failed to achieve anything. The millions of lives lost as a consequence of the war have amounted to nothing. The 20 billion spent on training the Afghan military and police ultimately only enriched the defence contractors. Most are baffled by the failure of the US to see this coming. But then again, maybe the US did see it coming, they just didn’t care. 

US ‘failure to see’ they were achieving nothing in Afghanistan is not a surprise for an observer of the situation in Maldives where conservative Islam has annihilated traditional Islamic practices, replacing them all with various strands of Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies. The revolution in Maldivian religious beliefs has taken place in full view of the world, including the United States. It has done nothing—has it failed to see what was happening in front of their eyes? Or did they just not care?

When George W Bush invaded Afghanistan to destroy “Islamic terrorism” and “smoke them [“Islamic terrorists”] out” of their holes in Afghanistan, the ultra-conservative Islam of the Taliban was alien to Maldivians. In the twenty years since the world has become a place where the toxic fumes of the Islamist ideology that Bush’s “armies of the willing” stoked in their mission to smoke out the terrorists is now stifling the entire world. From Muslim communities in western Europe to central Asia and small villages in Indonesia to cities and tribes in remote parts of Africa, conservative Islamic ideologies—and their more militant interpretations—have wreaked havoc on societies. Everyone working in the name of making the world a better place.

The Maldives is an important example of how damaging the invasion of Afghanistan has been to countries near and far. In the late 1990s, when a handful of Wahabbis and Salafi clerics began to appear and proselytise in Male’, the capital of Maldives, society saw them as abnormal. They were seen as an extremist sect of Islam, that interpreted Islamic teachings differently to the understandings Maldivians learned and maintained over eight hundred years of being an Islamic state. But the Maldivian mindset changed over the next twenty years. The change became more dramatic as the increasing number of Maldivians who began travelling to Pakistan and Afghaistan for religious education returned home, and when they began to receive more funding from conservative and militant Islamic sources that were pitching themselves against the US in the War of “Us” and “Them”. The narrative of a War Against Muslims led by America—which, as any good narrative contains within it kernels of truth—made it possible for once abnormal practices to become normalised within a very short space of time. It allowed Salafi activists to operate uninterrupted in the Maldives, it provided the motive for many young disaffected listless people to be recruited to the cause, to become “Soldiers of Allah”. The newly “democratic” forces in the name of freedom of speech failed to even monitor the spread of such conservative religious ideology in the Maldives. Politics and religion, instead distancing themselves from each other as can be expected in a democracy instead fell into each other’s arms as corrupt politicians and businessmen made pacts with conservative Islamists for their own gain, letting the people’s minds be saturated with such teachings from morning till night, from every media outlet, on every public platform in the country. 

What was once abnormal in the Maldives twenty years ago is now normal, what was once extreme is now customary. That is why several MPs and every democratically elected president bar one continues to maintain there is no Islamist extremism in the Maldives. Extreme is normal. This revolution in Maldives is almost forgotten by the international community now although it is still in the making. For the last 20 years the United States has dealt with the Maldives as if it has always been a society that adhered to such religious conservatism. Context has never been a strength of US foreign policy. Until the War on Terror, US interest in the Maldives was negligible. Funding was on average just around the US$100,000 mark annually. Once the “endless” war began, for the US the only value Maldives had was whatever minuscule strategic value it could offer as the tiniest of cogs in its war against “Islamic terrorism”.

The US focus on how the Maldives could contribute to winning the war against terrorism meant the US focus on Maldives was entirely as an “Islamic country”, ruling out any other way of seeing it. This narrow focus failed to see the Maldives also as a country trying to rid itself of authoritarianism and become a more tolerant and liberal democracy. This struggle, which once brought together the Maldivian people to rise up as one against inhumanity, was lost to the greater movement to make Maldives a part of a conservative network of Islamic emirates in Asia. Liberal voices who wanted the human rights enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights to be part of the Maldivian transition in the early 2000s were side lined in the rush to appease the clerics. As the Bush and the rest of the international community put conservative Islam on the top of their security agendas, the importance of such ideologies and their leaders grew in the politics of small countries like the Maldives. (And, as we see now, in large countries like Afghanistan, directly under the nose of their army and strategists.) The fight for a tolerant liberal democracy that could gleam as a beacon on the ocean for modern Islam across the world wasn’t even allowed to begin before it was killed by the conservative ideologies that want to take Maldives in the opposite direction. Conservative Islam was allowed so much space in the new Maldives, it stifled any other thought, any other idea and muzzled any other expression. Like the frog that will quickly jump out of the water if it is hot at first touch but sits in slowly boiling water unconcerned while it kills him, Maldivians slowly embraced as normal what they once abhorred as abnormal. Today it is normal not to be outraged if a person is killed for not being Muslim enough. Today it is normal to fight for the right to hate in the name of religion. Today it is normal to promote the “circumcision” of young girls. Today it is normal to call for the beheading of anyone who is not a cis-gendered heterosexual. Today it is normal to believe it is perfectly alright—if not a religious duty—to kill any Maldivian who is not a Muslim or is not Muslim enough. Today it is normal to try and blow up a former president because his leadership was not religious enough. Today it is normal to hunt down and smoke out any Maldivian for having thoughts the clerics find offensive or kufr. Today it is normal to think that first thing you should do when you buy a parrot is to teach it the Qur’an. Today it is normal to kill in the name of God and to punish by death those who do not believe what is right, as decided by the clerics.

It seems as if the US has not seen any of this, or maybe it does, but simply does not care. Once it was the US’ focus on the War on Terror, funnily enough, that kept the US from seeing the Maldives as anything but an ultra-conservative Muslim society like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan from the very beginning. It failed to support or care about strengthening democracy in the Maldives, instead focusing on strengthening the military and law enforcement capability in identifying terrorists. The US is/was aware that the Maldivian civil society fighting for democratic rights is under threat from both the government and the religious community. Yet, it has chosen to work with the conservative religious authorities to sideline the few remaining liberal voices in Maldivian civil society, turning its back on the opportunity to stand up for human rights. How to call for a more tolerant society while in cahoots with those whose very reason for existence is to stifle–or forever silence–such voices? The US doesn’t pause to ask such questions. It continues to proudly train Maldivian police and military, failing to acknowledge the fact that neither have been effective in either preventing terrorism or stopping recruitment to Jihad. It fails to see that, just as in Afghanistan, the efforts to ‘infiltrate, ‘turn’, ‘invite to true Islam’, whatever you want to call it, have been successfully continuing at all levels of Maldivian government and state for the last ten years and more.

More recently there has been a new shift in policy. The Maldives is now of interest to the US as not just another Islamic country in its fight against terrorism, but as a strategic partner in its upcoming confrontation with China. This is obvious in the sudden rush to the Maldives by then-Secretary of State George Pompeo just before the end of Trump’s presidency, and the surprise declaration that Male’ will have an American Embassy. It was about the new classified defence agreement between the Maldives and the US, no doubt allowing a strong India-US defence presence in the Maldives to counter China’s influence. The “Islamic Terrorist” that George W Bush described as an Evildoer he was hunting in Afghanistan is now passé in the eyes of the US. Its new enemy—defined by its interests (as its friends are)—is now the Communist Party of China. 

Before this shift in its security thinking, the US didn’t care about the human rights of Maldivians because its foreign policy assumed the Maldives was the homogenous “100 percent Muslim country” its conservative politicians parroted. Now it doesn’t care about the human rights of the Maldivians because Islamic Terrorism is no longer the biggest enemy of the United States. Dealing with conservative Islamic ideologies is now a “Muslim problem”. Just as it did not see the truth of what was happening in Afghanistan – the infiltration of the Taliban into all levels of government and state – it does not see (and neither is it interested) that the same wheels are in motion in the Maldives.

Ultra-conservative Muslims, especially of the Salafi and Wahhabi persuasions, are part and parcel of the current government and state. Such ideology is rife at the intellectual level where liberal Islamic thought has been completely obliterated. It is rife in universities where lecturers and heads of school are free to describe FGM as an Islamic duty, or that marital rape is non-existent. It is rife in the death of a culture which once tolerated different forms of gender and sexual orientations, which once allowed freedom of thought, if not expression. It is rife in schools where children are taught to hate the non-Muslim Other. It is rife in government which is occupied by Salafi-backed politicians. It is rife in parliament where members cannot pass a bill against spreading hate in the name of religion. It is rife in families where women are increasingly kept home, increasingly covered up, and increasingly accepting of themselves as “Slaves of Allah” and no more. It is rife in the future as increasingly girls are being taught to be humble and modest before the man, and before the government. It is rife in the increasing acceptance of child brides, of stigmatisation and hatred of any woman who does not conform. It is rife in the absence of people power that can revolt against injustices because to do so is increasingly accepted as rising up against the Divine.

It is rife in the possibility that the Islamic Emirate of the Maldives is just as likely to be real as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is today. Both projects have been in the making for years, right in front of our eyes. But the Islamic Emirate of the Maldives will still “surprise” most, including the US.

The Silk Road to Addu

by Azra Naseem

On a rainy afternoon at the end of October 2020, the Secretary of State of the United States, Michael Pompeo, visited the Maldives to announce plans to open an American Embassy in Male’, the capital of the Maldives. Less than a month before, on 10 September the Maldives and the U.S. signed a defence agreement to “deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean. The terms of the agreement have not been publicly disclosed but both sides committed to “a free and open Indo-Pacific that promotes the security and prosperity of all nations in the region”. Days after, Pompeo was in Male’ pledging U.S. aid to help Maldivians meet the challenges of climate change, promising scholarships for Maldivian students in the U.S., hinting at future U.S. business investments in the Maldives, and excited at cooperating with the Maldives in the “good work that democracies do together.”

Pompeo’s rushed visit to the Maldives came just six days before the U.S. Presidential Elections in which a continuation of the Trump Administration was far from assured. The Maldives is a developing nation, making itself a likely name on Trump’s list of ‘shithole countries’. The Maldives also identifies itself as a ‘100 per cent Muslim’ country. In early 2017 Trump signed an Executive Order so clearly aimed at restricting Muslims travelling to the U.S. that it became known as the Muslim Ban. Trump also described terrorism as an ‘Islamic threat’, and has pointed to mosques as breeding grounds for hatred. Conservative Islamic beliefs are widespread in modern Maldives and, at the height of the conflict in Syria and the ISIS in Iraq, the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in the region came from the Maldives.  Pompeo also made another pledge: to assist the Maldives in meeting the challenges of climate change. Trump has been vocal on his doubts about climate science, and has described climate change as ‘mythical’, ‘non-existent’ and a ‘hoax’. Pompeo views it as a business opportunity. In an interview with a Maldivian TV station he described the Paris Agreement, from which he withdrew the United States, as ‘a joke’. If the sea-levels rise as most scientists predict, the Maldives would be one of the first countries in the world to sink, making environmental refugees of its entire population. Yet here were the foreign ministers of the two countries, avowing cooperation across vast ideological divides. 

Why?

The question was not put to Secretary Pompeo who was welcomed with open arms by the Maldives government and a somewhat fawning press. No one asked why the US would want an embassy in the Maldives. It has never really been interested in Maldivian affairs—the U.S. rarely has friends, it has interests. And this tiny little island archipelago in the Indian Ocean with little to offer in terms of material wealth or geostrategic advantages held little interest for the U.S. It has happily managed to conduct all its relations with the Maldives through the US Embassy in Sri Lanka with a tiny budget—often a few hundred thousand dollars a year in total—and one Maldivian Policy Officer. Most of the budget allocated to the Maldives goes back to the US anyway, paid in grants to American democracy think-tanks and NGOs that occupy Maldivian civil society space often at the expense of local ones.

Pompeo’s rushed visit didn’t allow questions to be asked, even if a journalist were so inclined. As usual, the Maldivian government was happy to hide the answers. Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid joked with Pompeo about how the rushed visit left him deprived of a visit to the Maldives’ luxury tourist islands. The real Maldives, he must have surely been told. Now that is a good joke.

Six months later, everyone is ‘shocked’ by a decision made by Modi’s cabinet in India to open a consulate in Addu, the second largest city in the Maldives.

Why does the consulate shock when there is the Police Training Academy in Addu, also funded by the Indian government? What need was there for this enormous facility in the Maldives built at the expense of the absolutely breathtaking, and extremely fragile, environment?

Photo: Twitter

The building can accommodate 320 officers at a time for training, and is capable of hosting 800 people at a time. It also has a football field, a tennis court, a basket ball court, and a football field. All this fenced and gated, and given to the very lovely Maldives Police Service who would , says the Commissioner of Police, allow some government and school people to use the facilities from time to time. Thank you so very kindly, Sir. The people of Addu, meanwhile, wait for social housing or go on a waiting list for a flat in one of the many high-rise apartments being built for locals on the beautifully artificial island of Hulhumale’.

That marvellous facility in Addu, however, is not enough for ‘capacity building’ for the MPS, always in service of the people. According to Foreign Minister Shahid, there is yet another police academy being constructed on the island of Vaanee in Dhaalu Atoll. Commissioner Hameed showed off the facilities, and himself, recently over in Dhaalu Atoll. The people of Dhaalu must be delighted development has finally arrived at their doors, even if via a police academy.

In September last year, Foreign Minister Shahid was launching second phase of construction at the Vaanee academy, and talked about how training police here would ‘help the community’. India had generously given MVR 8 million for the centre. Compared to the budget of MVR42 million it had given for the Addu Police Academy–‘the largest in the world’–Vaanee cost India very little. But, said Mr Shahid, the MVR42 million is only a minuscule amount of the total MVR106 million the Maldives had so generously received from India recently. It is not clear which particular grant Mr Shahid was referring to when he was speaking here for there have been many grants and agreements and MOUs and IOUs between India and Maldives in the last few years.

In June 2019, for example, when Maldives welcomed Narendra Modi (of Gujarat fame) with open arms, just as it had welcomed Pompeo, the two countries signed six agreements, vowing mutual cooperation on a range of issues from military information sharing to terrorism and even civil service training. “Today I want to emphasise that every Indian is with you for the strengthening of democracy in the Maldives,” he said. Just as he has strengthened Indian democracy, no doubt. The visit also included lots of pledges of money, the most valued political commodity in the Maldives of today. A Line of Credit agreement worth US$800 million was part of the deal.

Almost two years later, a few months after Pompeo’s visit and the new defence agreement between Maldives and the US, there was another flurry of agreements between the Maldives and India, and the extension of yet another Line of Credit, this time in Defence, worth US$50 million. This new agreement, signed by Defence Minister Mariya Didi and India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar allows India to build and maintain a coast guard harbour and dockyard on Uthuru Thila Falhu. The Uthuru Thila Falhu story goes back to the Yameen government and Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, and their active courting of Indian interest in the project looking for–as always–investment money. Indian journalist at The Wire, Devirupa Mitra explains the saga here in excellent detail.

Problem was, by the time India got interested, Yameen had moved on to courting China, which had more open and deeper pockets and cared less about the smokescreen of democracy.

In Yameen’s time, he actively courted Chinese involvement in The Maldives. China’s infrastructure projects boomed in The Maldives, especially the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, Chinese-stye high-rise housing structures on artificial islands; Chinese resort islands. By the time Yameen lost the election in 2018, he had put Maldives in debt to China to the tune of a few billion dollars. Yameen’s various decisions that favoured China over India in terms of finding a domestic foothold in the Maldives angered India so much that Modi left Maldives out of his tour of Indian Ocean island nations in 2015. The Maldivian government’s decision to cancel the agreement with Indian company GMR soured India-Maldives relations to such a level that a top government official was refused entry to India while angry Maldivians marched on the streets shouting “India Out, India Out!”. With his foot firmly on the Chinese side, the Yameen government hummed and hawed and stalled over allowing India to develop the port facility. It suited Yameen’s political goals better to remain with China.

India and Maldivian domestic politics

Things have changed again in the Ibrahim Solih government. Apart from the loudness with which the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge screams Maldives’ indebtedness to China, bilateral relations between the two countries have grown quiet. The uncharacteristically outspoken Chinese Ambassador who regularly engaged with the Maldivian public through his Twitter account, packed his bags and left in April this year, and there has been no replacement since.

Chinese Ambassador Mr Zhang Lizhong leaving at the end of his tenure this April. Photo: Chinese Embassy, Male’

The proposition to open a consulate in Addu, meanwhile, has returned India-Maldives relations to the forefront of public debate. Some are gearing up for another #IndiaOut campaign, angry at what seems to be a slow encroachment on Maldivian sovereignty by India. Others are gearing up to defend the decision as one that would eventually lead to a modern Addu, probably with a green Embassy belt with well-to-do diplomats riding around in tinted Mercedes. What prestige. Yet others accuse the Ibrahim Mohamed Solih government of incompetence, or of selling out. 

The steady friendship between India and the Maldives, where each kept out of the other’s internal political affairs, changed with multiparty elections in the Maldives when individual parties began to lobby for India’s help to bolster their place as the leading power in the newly democratic Maldives. India and the Indian High Commission played an unusually involved role in the early breakdown of Nasheed’s government, and it was the first to accept the transfer of power on 7 February 2012 as legitimate, setting the stage for the CoNI inquiry, and lending the coup d’état an air of respectability and acceptability which it would not otherwise have received.

Maldives-India bilateral relations have been an integral part of Maldivian domestic politics ever since. Nasheed’s decision to award the contract for developing the Male’ International Airport to Indian company GMR became a key factor in the opposition’s drive to mobilise public support against Nasheed. Accused of “selling Maldivian sovereignty to India”, the opposition organised protests against Nasheed throughout his short presidency, and during his subsequent bids to return to power. Nasheed held-off the keenest of Chinese interests in the Maldives through his close ties with India but once Abdulla Yameen came to power, India realised it was dealing with a different sort of statesman altogether. Yameen’s hand on Maldivian foreign policy was tight, and it was dictated not by friendship or cultural ties but greed. He steered Maldives clearly towards where there were most dollars to be made: China, Saudi Arabia and other sources willing to become close friends and buddies of the corrupt Bro Economy. India-Maldives relations also took a hit when Dhivehi Sitee leaked the draft of a planned Status of Force (SOFA) agreement between the United States and the Maldives in April 2013. Relations between India and the US has always been tense, given the role the U.S. has played throughout history in the militarisation of Pakistan.

At the time when the Waheed government was getting ready to sign the SOFA, India was unhappy with the idea of the United States playing a more powerful role in the Indian Ocean, especially The Maldives, which it regards as being in ‘our backyard’. Indian media has speculated that Delhi was behind the scuppering of the agreement, causing it to be leaked to much public outrage.

Today, in India’s Modi, the story is different, and so is the role India sees the United States playing in the Indian Ocean. Having come to share Trump’s–and now Biden’s–view of the Chinese Communist Party as the largest threat to global and U.S. security, Modi’s India is more than comfortable allowing The Maldives to sign defence agreements with the United States to allow a more powerful role for the United States in the security of the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, Yameen drew Maldives deep into the gambit of China’s ambitions to revive its power and influence across the world along the ancient Silk Route. Under the Yameen-Xi friendship plan, The Maldives became a fully-fledged signatory of China’s Belt and Road Initiative–the very thing which the US and China are gearing up to challenge. It is China’s ambition to extend its influence–via major infrastructure projects—along the countries and states that now situated along the ancient Silk Route. The Maldives is one such location, sitting as it does along a route that could choke all trade traffic on its way to and from China. China’s inroads into various geostrategic Maldivian locations were made deep into the country during Yameen’s regime.

But, just as the islands that have been ‘lost’ in the MMPRC corruption can no longer be got back, those agreements that we signed with China to join their various expansion projects in the Indian Ocean remain as valid and real as the enormous bridge that now dominates the Male’ skyline, a constant reminder of the soaring debts we now owe to China.

In the grand scheme of things

The road to an Indian Consulate in Addu is thus paved with the ambitions of global superpowers who seek to dominate not us but each other. We are but collateral. The answers were there, when Pompeo visited. It is in the agreements we have signed with China, with India, and with the US. It is in our willingness to be okay with not having a foreign policy that is geared towards protecting our interests. It is in the letting of our foreign policy be decided by political parties and politicians, and by diplomats with global ambitions instead of letting it be motivated by our collective good.

The United States has, throughout its history, needed an enemy against which to define itself, and its Exceptionalism. “Islamic Terrorism”, which has driven U.S. foreign policy decisions since 2001, has lost its central location, and the new enemy is “The Chinese Communist Party”. The next global confrontation, the U.S. reckons, will take place between the U.S. and its allies and China. And the great theatre of this new war would be? The Indian Ocean.

All this enhanced cooperation, this “standing shoulder to shoulder” against terrorism, the vaccine diplomacy, the rush to open embassies and consulates and coast guard stations and observatories and cricket stadiums, and installing Maldivians in top diplomatic positions, it is all about this: the geographically strategic location that we occupy in what is to be the new global order where ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ will be recast as China versus the rest.

The road to an Indian consulate in Addu is also paved with the discord among us Maldivians. We spend hours, days and weeks discussing the seeming pros and cons for Maldivians in having an Indian Consulate in Addu. And, as we take sides and double down on our opinions, the rafts of agreements that we have bilaterally signed with each of the three large powers in an upcoming global conflict continue to be implemented. Top diplomat Shahid, with one eye on the presidential seat at the UN General Assembly and another on the presidential seat in 2023, continues to fly here there and everywhere, speaking of another ‘eagerly anticipated’ police academy, another bag of money in aid from India, a truckload of vaccines from the U.S., more military expenditure from both to ‘combat terrorism’ (to great success, as we have seen). As we take the China side, the US side or the Indian side, we forget to take our side. We forget that that these arguments serve no purpose other than to shore up support or ensure defeat for local politicians.

In a way the Maldives has come full-circle in its foreign relations. It is along the ancient Silk Route that Maldives began its first foreign encounters in written history, and it is China’s attempts to reconstruct the ancient Route—which it once dominated—that is once again making Maldivian foreign relations relevant to the world. Unlike yester years, though, the present Maldives on the modern Silk Route has let itself be nothing but a pawn in the power play between and among global and regional super powers vying for world domination.

Unless we look at the whole picture, all these protests to get India Out–which focus only on the politically useful part of a much larger whole—remain nothing but political naatak.


Luxury for tourists, lockdown for locals

by Mushfiq Mohamed

The number of COVID-19 related deaths in the Maldives have surpassed the number of Maldivian fatalities from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Yet the Maldivian government efforts to generate tourism revenue equivalent to pre-COVID19 levels are lending to the spread of the new variant of the lethal coronavirus in the island country. On Thursday it recorded a coronavirus related case of black fungus or Mucormycosis. This petrifying case, and the surge in COVID19 fatalities, coincide with increasing coronavirus cases in India and the rest of South Asia. The country is bracing itself for yet another national lockdown. 

Leaked images show that the Maldives has been offering stranded tourists “quarantine packages” to kill time in the islands before moving to their destination. Bollywood actors and athletes have also chosen the country as their site of reprieve from the pandemic, as if Maldives were immune to the unfolding global health crisis. 

Although the country’s famous tourist resorts are on private islands, most of its staff are local. In a sense, held captive in substandard accommodation without the ability to freely travel to their families on local islands, a fact further exacerbated by the COVID-19 restrictions. Social media posts showed photos of squalid staff quarters in world-renowned five-star hotels. Nevertheless, the mainstream media continually centres on the ‘plight’ of stranded Western tourists, never highlighting the unacceptable situation of the unobtrusive local workers who manpower the luxe-tourism industry. 

The Maldives’ tourism market represents the ether of high-end indulgence. The tourist resorts look like elysian spaceships that have beamed down on desert islands scattered in the Arabian Sea, divinely assembled for its visitors. Underwater wine cellars and restaurants that boast Michelin-star chefs. Overwater villas with rooftop waterslides that vortex you into the turquoise sea underneath. 

The ownership and enjoyment of the Maldives’ natural beauty are swiftly slipping away from the hands of ordinary Maldivians. 

It took us Maldivians a long time to realise that there existed an apartheid system between the flourishing elite in Male’, and the people from the outer atolls that were historically deprived from having a stake in the country’s economy. Only the industrious middle-class (from the islands and Male’) and some of the descendants of landed nobility (concentrated in the capital) bag influential chunks of the industry that brings in 60% of foreign income. It is also true that most of this money is never really injected into the local economy, it vanishes into bank accounts in offshore tax havens owned by the global hospitality industry oligarchs. 

In 2019, Maldives had 1.7 million tourists. The Tourism Ministry’s figures show that the pandemic gutted the 5-billion-dollar local economy in March 2020, and it has not recovered since. Despite this, in late 2019 and in the last few months this year, the government found creative ways to revive it at the expense of the Maldivian people. 

Pandemic profiteering 

Maldives was one of the first countries to open for tourism after lockdowns globally, at a time when the pandemic was raging in Europe, which includes the top-10 countries whose nationals frequent the island nation. Tourists were exempt from the lockdown measures, restricting inter-island travel only for locals. Male’ especially was closed down possibly due to its proximity to the country’s busy international airport in Hulhule’. 

Negative PCR tests are required since October 2020 but when the pandemic was at its worst in Europe and North America last year in July, guests were flowing in and weren’t required a negative test. The borders were open without any test or tracing procedures. 

A tone-deaf Forbes article mentioned that the Maldives was “desperate” enough to fork out its vaccines for visitors. It was also an article that centres multinational corporations, eliciting criticism over how these companies are twisting the arms of a poor country. A premature announcement by the Tourism Ministry that had no word of the public health officials or the Maldivian people.

Within the industry, lockdown restrictions discriminated against guesthouse tourism. In April, when India was recording unprecedented COVID-19 related fatalities, the government only shut its doors on Indian guests seeking to holiday on inhabited islands. Meaning affluent Bollywood stars could still have their Maldives’ escapades if they can afford to go to a private resort island (considered ‘uninhabited’ islands). Small businesses are routinely bearing the brunt of discriminatory lockdown measures.

The government announced lockdown measures early this month for locals. But the borders remained open. After the HPA demanded the borders be closed for South Asian tourists, the government finally stopped issuing tourist visas on 13 May, in the same breath reassuring that these measures will be reviewed later this month. 

None of this prevented Australian cricketers stranded in India from quarantining in the Maldives before heading back down under. In the same way that the government allowed Asian Football Federation (AFC) to send football teams to the Maldives for an AFC Cup playoff match between Bengaluru FC and Eagles FC. It was only when Maldivian social media users began criticising the move, amid circulating photos of players strolling around Male’, in breach of restrictions, that the youth minister cancelled the planned AFC matches. 

Bollywood in the Maldives

This year, as corpses piled up abandoned in Indian cities, the country’s elite decided it was time for a change of scenery. While the virus was completely devastating South Asian cities, Maldives was hosting Bollywood actors in a bid to resuscitate the tourism-dependent-economy. The move backfired in both countries, with many shaming the celebrities for their lack of conscience during a once-in-a-century pandemic. 

‘The Sunny Side of Life’ felt like an awkward choice for Bollywood, an industry plagued with colorism. It was purely status-signalling. Indian social media conversations on the Maldives are fascinating. Some suggest the Maldives belongs to the Indian Ocean, and is therefore part of India. There was little reflection over Maldivians’ cultural and linguistic affinity to India – the focus was on marking territory. On their Instagram accounts, the location indicates the Indian Ocean. In the captions, they marvelled over the glimmering seas that form their ‘backyard’, which some could not even bring to name or locate.  

Ventilator corruption

Last year the government was embroiled in a corruption scandal worth over MVR30 million (USD 1.9 million) involving ventilators that were unlawfully procured from a Dubai-based company. 

This initially slipped the radar of the anti-graft body, which later found that the former health minister and 11 employees benefited from the scam violating local public finance laws. 

A year later, the embattled government is nowhere close to reclaiming state funds lost to yet another massive corruption scandal. 

The less luxurious side 

According to the Reuters vaccine tracker, around 42.9% of the country’s population have received the first dose of the vaccine, including some 90% of frontline workers, consisting of tourism staff. Tourist workers, and others who depend on the industry have suffered the most during the pandemic. Tourism Employees Association reported approximately 25,000 tourism employees have been laid-off within the past two years. 

When the pandemic hit the Maldives last year, South Asian migrants working in the frontlines were the first to be adversely affected. Many were trapped in congested accommodation without pay and the means to return home. Those who protested forced unpaid labour were quickly arbitrarily deported without awarding damages. Many news outlets ran xenophobic headlines blaming impoverished Bangladeshi, Nepali and Indian workers for ‘spreading the virus’. 

In this way the pandemic has exposed the existing structural inequalities in Maldivian society. If you are a politician or a businessman, there are no COVID-19 rules that get in the way of what you want. None of these Big Men suffered the consequences of breaking the rules; fines for violating restrictions were ironically deployed against those who cannot afford to pay it. 

Whether it is campaigning and holding local council elections or opening the country up for luxury tourism as the numbers skyrocketed, the consequences have trapped the locals in with the new variants of a dangerous disease in a country whose capital city’s congestion levels rival Hong Kong and Manhattan. 

Conclusion

As the Tourism Minister promises endless vaccines, the reality is a lot more finite. It seemed like yesterday when India was the exemplar of COVID-kindness, generously donating vaccines. Today, the Indian government’s feckless response to the catastrophe has been rightly described as a ‘crime against humanity.’  

Indeed, the Maldives’ tourism industry does not want its wealthy tourists to be troubled by the inconvenient existence of a local population. The seemingly innocuous imagery invoked by the 3-billion-dollar industry cannot be divorced from the structural violence it regularly detonates against ordinary Maldivians. 

Perhaps we are to be blamed too, for popularising the image of the Maldives as blank-slate beaches awaiting consumption by the West, and more recently the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, India, and China. 

“No news, no shoes” reads a tagline of a resort where tourists spend millions per night. The world, and all the chaos within it, happen elsewhere. A proliferated untruth that costs ordinary Maldivians the chance to live a life in dignity. It is an industry that relegates locals to second class citizenship through a structure that is displacing and killing Maldivians, concurrently making the Maldives’ vulnerable eco-system uninhabitable.