Saudi Arabia’s push to boost political and trade ties with the Maldives faces growing resistance as activists in the archipelago oppose plans for an ambitious development project funded by the kingdom.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is on a month-long tour of Asia as Saudi Arabia seeks to deepen alliances with predominantly Muslim states in the region, is due to visit the Indian Ocean nation at the weekend.
The monarch, accompanied by an entourage of hundreds, is expected to book out two entire resorts among the more than 1,000 islands and islets of the Maldives as he takes a break, according to people briefed on the plans.
But his visit is considered to be more than a holiday: his government and members of the royal family are in talks to launch ambitious projects in the archipelago spanning tourism and airport development, according to politicians and Gulf bankers.
“The Maldives are of strategic importance to the Saudis, as well as offering a good south-south investment outlet,” said a Saudi government adviser. “This is a manifestation of Riyadh’s new foreign policy — creating an alliance against extremism and terrorism, a fundamental reorientation of policy.”
King Salman’s tour has already taken him to China, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia, where the government has signed a series of investment agreements, including for refineries and petrochemical projects.
But the multibillion dollar plan in the Maldives’ Faafu Atoll region has triggered a backlash, with opposition politicianscomplaining the deal will force islanders from their homes, facilitate corruption and exacerbate environmental concerns.
Journalists covering the protests have been detained and residents prevented from leaving their islands to join demonstrations, according to the opposition. The authorities have also raided opposition premises to confiscate materials related to the protests.
“There is no consultation with parliament or the public,” said Eva Abdulla, an MP from the opposition Maldivian Democratic party. “More protests are planned — people are painting their walls saying ‘Save our atoll’.”
Abdulla Yameen, the Maldives’ president, responded to the criticism last month, saying Riyadh wanted to invest $10bn in a development project at Faafu Atoll. His government has been forced to deny that any islands will be sold to the Saudis.
“Any development of Faafu Atoll is part of a wider, multi-faceted program to finance a major, multibillion dollar investment project encompassing mixed development, residential and high class development and several tourist resorts and airports,” the government said in a statement earlier this month.
Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, said it was in the interests of powers such as Saudi Arabia and China to establish a presence in the Maldives because of the strategic importance of the region. “The Indian Ocean is increasingly securitised,” he said.
But government critics worry that Saudi influence will foster extremist interpretations of Islam in the Maldives, where militancy has been on the rise.
Ahmed Nihan, who heads the ruling Progressive Party parliamentary group, insists that Saudi clerics have been a moderating influence over the 400,000-strong population. A majority of Maldivians support plans to boost development on the islands, he said, describing the protests as “stunts” staged by the opposition.
“I can confirm the very good intentions to develop the nation,” he said, when asked about the negotiations with the Saudi government. “The government is committed to working with development partners — be it Saudi, China or India — any helping hand.”