About 10 years ago, I found myself in the Maldives on an unplanned trip sponsored by a Gulf company. The company that organized the media trip had interests in two of the best luxury resorts in the Maldives. So it was all lavish, the hospitality, the accommodation, the food and travel between the islands. Returning from a Southeast Asian country after a business event, we thought the corporate jet was headed back for the Gulf city before we were told about the Maldives.
The Maldives is a fabulous holiday destination. So wonderful that when an Arab country was looking for inspiration two decades ago, its ruler visited the Maldives to learn how tourism was developed. I am not sure they allowed themselves to benefit much from the Maldivian experience. There is a wrong impression that the Maldives, which is made up of a chain of about 1,200 islands, is only a destination where well-heeled travelers and honeymooners go to spend time at secluded resorts. In fact, the place caters to all types of budgets. Visiting Male, the capital, allows people to experience a more normal life, learn about the local culture and interact with Maldivians. This is not a story about tourism, but I want to make a point about how pleasant the country is and because unpleasant things have been said in the media about it.
In India, the media was recently full of stories about a possible Indian military intervention in the Maldives, with hundreds of troops reportedly on standby. Some political analysts spoke as if an apocalypse was about to happen or a world war was going to start. Television anchors in their own dramatic ways amplified the flow of bad news. They said there was a crisis in India’s backyard and it had to intervene in its “traditional sphere of influence”. One TV reporter in a hyperbolic eruption in English said the Maldives’s politics had “turned murky, unlike the crystal-clear waters of its islands.” Some talked about India losing its influence to China in the Indian Ocean. The geographical name Indian Ocean does not mean Indian territory, as the Persian Gulf does not represent Iranian territory, the South China Sea does not give China sovereignty over that part of the world and the Arabian Sea does not make Mumbai an Arab territory.
A clash between institutions in a country cannot be described as a regional or international crisis. There is a political standoff between the government and the opposition in the Maldives. If there is politics, there will be political tensions. Not every place can be devoid of politics like Singapore or the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Maldives has political parties that have sharp differences, but that is not an invitation to superpowers, regional powers and showoff powers to come to Male for non-holiday purposes. People in the Maldives are mature and culturally sophisticated enough to sort out their own matters. External knee-jerk reactions can only complicate matters. Certainly, this is no place for a Chinese-Indian rivalry.
The Maldives is a big name in international tourism, it provides opportunities to foreign hotel chains to make money from the holiday trade and it provides jobs to people from other countries. The country should be free to govern itself as per its own domestic demands and religious and cultural ethos, as happens everywhere. The Maldives does not need sermons about democracy on television. Outsiders also need to be sympathetic to the fact that it is a country with a population of just 400,000, and its political culture cannot be a replica of those of other countries, whether democracies or dictatorships. The reality of today’s democracy is that it hardly exists. Most of the Western world is run by political hypocrites, in some countries lawlessness is considered democracy and some so-called democracies are just oligarchies.
Many countries would like to indulge in one-upmanship in the Maldives. They should do it through peacefully competing for investment opportunities. This is a place that will remain a top global vacation destination for a long time to come. It is not going to sink soon due to the rising sea levels.
Being a small country, it is good for the Maldives to diversify its foreign relations. It also needs to improve its defense preparedness in order to protect its sovereignty and prosperity in view of today’s volatile international situation. It cannot afford any repeat of the situation that arose from the attempted coup by a group of locals and mercenaries from a Sri Lankan Tamil militant outfit in 1988.
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