By N Sathiya Moorthy*
The much-awaited Maldivian leg of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’s Asia tour was cancelled on the very eve of his scheduled arrival on Saturday, March 18, purportedly owing to the eruption of H1Ni swine-flu infection in the country. New dates for the visit would be announced once they are finalised, Maldivian Foreign Minister Mohamed Asim informed the media.
Doubts had arisen about King Salman’s Maldives visit after he extended the Indonesian leg of his month-long Asia tour by three days for a holiday. However, his luxury yacht Al Salamah, a support vessel of the royal navy, helicopters, and military personnel had been in Maldives for over a week. This should give credence to the claim that the cancellation was due to feared health-risks associated with swine-flu, and not otherwise.
It’s unclear if the postponement of King Salman’s visit also seals/delays the fate of the high-profile $10 billion dollar Saudi investment plans for Faafu Atoll in Maldives. The Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) especially had come down heavily on the project, claiming that it aimed at the sale of Maldivian territory to a third country and lacked transparency. Early on, the party had also dubbed the project proposal as ‘Saudi colonialism’ for ‘spread of Wahhabism’.
Until the cancellation was announced, President Abdulla Yameen was also playing safe about the investment proposal. He and his ministerial colleagues flatly denied any ‘sale’ of Maldivian territory and lack-of-transparency charges. A fortnight or so before the intended visit, the Maldivian government did not make any formal announcement about it, until the Saudi media announced it. Even then, no fixed dates had been mentioned in the local media.
Yameen himself kept saying that the project details would be made public once the finer details had been worked out. He denied the suggestion that the Faafu Atoll deal was being contemplated under a Yameen-inspired constitutional amendment of 2015, facilitating property-transfer to foreigners, for investments involving $1 billion-plus and 70 per cent reclaimed land.
With this cancellation, King Salman becomes only the second major global/regional leader to have dropped Maldives from a multi-nation visit after Yameen came to power. In March 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi left out Maldives from his historic four-nation Indian Ocean neighbourhood tour following the arrest and imprisonment of former MDP President Mohammed Nasheed and the accompanying street-protests in the capital city of Male. It was a cause of concern for the visitor’s security team.
The comparison should, however, end there. Any massive third-nation interest and investment in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood should be of concern to the larger Indian neighbour. Maldives falls within globally-accepted ‘traditional sphere of Indian influence’.
Post-Cold War, a rising China has even raised an unnecessary argument that the “Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean”. However, China has continued to claim primacy and supremacy over both South China Sea and East China Sea, thus continuing to create tensions in the region — and for the rest of the world, as well.
In the IOR neighbourhood context, India has been increasingly concerned about China’s increasing footprint in the name of development funding. China has also revived ancient concepts like the ‘Silk Route’, both on land and the sea, the geo-strategic aim of which remains a suspense and is very suspicious. Thus, massive Chinese involvement in Maldives (apart from Sri Lanka) was to have been compounded by possible Saudi investments, too.
King Salman’s visit-postponement means that India can breathe easy for now, and also try and re-work Prime Minister Modi’s much-remembered ‘Neighbourhood Policy’, especially in the context of smaller neighbours like Male, with their developmental aspirations and strategic locale.
Unlike China, with whom post-Independence India has a history of political and military adversity over their 4,000-km-long border in particular, India does not have any issues with Saudi Arabia. The relationship has never faltered, and has only improved in recent times.
Earlier this month, India announced that King Salman was visiting the country later this year. The bilateral trade totals $40 billion with India importing one-fifth of its oil needs from Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, in turn, has prepared a ‘Vision 2030’ document, which aims at ‘transforming Saudi economy’ from the current-overdependence on oil and oil trade. Saudi Arabia wants India to participate in the ‘transformation efforts’.
King Salman is not new to President Yameen. As Crown Prince, Salman had visited Maldives. And Yameen had met King Salman after the latter took over as King in 2015. As may be recalled, it was on his return trip from Riyadh that a bomb exploded on the presidential yacht, leading to the arrest and impeachment of then Vice President Ahmed Adeeb.
Even more, King Salman is not new to Prime Minister Modi. They had met at Riyadh in 2016. Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, had met Salman’s predecessor and late half-brother, Abdulla, in 2010.
All of this goes on to indicate a constant, continuing and growing relationship between Saudi Arabia and India, too, with the West Asian kingdom especially seeking the latter’s help in the ‘economic and development’ transformation — based on technology and skills, it would seem.
The cancellation of the high-profile visit now comes in the midst of the Opposition MDP and the Gayoom faction of Yameen’s PPM joining hands to move a no-trust motion against Parliament Speaker Abdulla Maseeh. For the Gayoom faction of the PPM, headed by party founder and Yameen’s half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the latter’s son Faaris, MP, signed on the no-trust motion.
This was followed by the government withdrawing military security for Gayoom who was set to embark on a private India visit with his wife. In line with the emerging pattern, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), a constitutional entity, also questioned Faaris over alleged spending-irregularities during Gayoom’s 30 long years in office as President.
The numbers do not add up for the Opposition, but at least one member from the five-MP Maldivian Development Alliance (MDA) — a partner in the Yameen government — and one MP from the seven-member Jumhooree Party (JP) have signed the no-trust petition. While MDA has sacked the ‘errant’ member, the decision of the JP (MP number down from original 15) is unclear.
However, the Yameen team had bestowed a lot of prestige on King Salman’s visit, to boost their leader’s image. Apart from massive development and job-creation, the greater Saudi connection and approbation also has socio-religious significance for many Maldivians.
In the context of the cancellation of Salman’s visit, it’s too early to say if those sections of the Maldivian voters would see it as Islam’s ‘Eldest Brother’s’ silent criticism of the Yameen leadership.
On the ground, however, the Yameen leadership continues to send out confusing signals over his perceived popularity. For the third time, the nation-wide local council polls, scheduled this time for April 14, have been postponed. The MDP’s criticism of the government and continual cancellation of the council elections may not have much impact on the Maldivian voters but the ‘cancellation-fatigue’ could cause voter-dismay and disenchantment with the leadership.
In the midst of all this, MDP’s Nasheed has returned to the neighbouring Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, to bolster the morale of his cadres, and also address inner-party issues, if any. If Nasheed was meeting any anti-Yameen Maldivian leader from outside his MDP while in Colombo, it is not yet known. However, the very fact that the Gayoom faction has signed in on the no-trust move against Speaker Maseeh clearly indicates some movement on that front, unlike during Nasheed’s earlier rounds of Colombo visit and accompanying claims.
Overnight, the cancellation of King Salman’s visit has bestowed greater interest in the no-trust vote against the Speaker, which requires only a simple majority. To succeed, they would have to retain all MPs on their side (without they crossing over), and have another dozen or so more, after adding up the remaining members in billionaire-politician Gasim Ibrahim’s Jumhooree Party (JP).
Speaking at a public rally for the first time in two years (after love-hate relations with the Yameen leadership), Gasim has now asked his party’s MPs who had defected to the ruling PPM to return and help resolve the nation’s crises. The JP had won 15 MPs in PPM’s company, and Gasim reminded the defectors about the party brand and its campaign funds, which alone had made them parliamentarians in the first place.
Gasim also wanted the four MDP parliamentarians who had defected to the PPM (Yameen), too, to return. The return of the defector-MPs to the parent-fold would be enough to ensure the passage of the no-trust motion against Speaker Maseeh, he implied, leading in turn to the possible impeachment of President Yameen.
Should they win the no-trust vote, the Opposition can be expected to move an impeachment motion against Yameen which, however, requires a two-thirds majority, or the support of 57 members in the 85-seat Parliament, or People’s Majlis. Should the no-trust vote against the Speaker fail to pass muster, then the Opposition would seek to re-work their strategy and come back, well before the presidential polls, which are due by November 2018.
*The author is Director, Chennai Chapter, of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]