Last week, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced a grant of $160m for “development projects” in crisis-hit Maldives, raising questions on the motive behind the move.
“As part of the support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Saudi Fund for Development and the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development has pledged $160 million in support of the Maldives and its brotherly people for the development projects including the airport development and fisheries sector of the Maldives,” a statement on the Maldives presidency website said on February 18.
The announcement came days before an extension of the state of emergency by the president of Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, who had imposed a state of emergency on February 5 for 15 days to annul a Supreme Court ruling that quashed convictions against nine opposition leaders.
The opposition in the Maldives led by deposed President Mohammed Nasheed’s Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) reacted sharply.
“It is unfortunate that certain countries are assisting the deep state,” Mohamed Aslam, MDP legislator and member of the House Economic Committee, told Al Jazeera without naming the two Gulf countries.
“The Maldives, at present, is in a state of flux politically and socially.
“It is also under siege by an organised and systematic strategy developed and implemented by radical Islamists with the intention of infiltration and subsequent total control of key departments of the state,” Aslam said.
The Maldives President’s Office has yet to reply to an Al Jazeera email asking for more details regarding the Saudi and the UAE aid.
It is unfortunate that certain countries are assisting the deep state.
Mohamed Aslam, opposition MDP legislator on Saudi-UAE aid
But repercussions of the crisis in Male has reverberated beyond its shores with neighbouring India and the Asian giant China jostling for influence in the island nation – which is key to maritime security in the Indian Ocean.
The tiny archipelago nation, southwest of India in the Indian Ocean, has gained strategic importance as it signed up for Beijing’s ambitious “One Belt One Road” project that retraces ancient trade routes across Asia and Europe.
Saudi Arabia is among the many countries seeking to grow influence in the island nation, known for its beautiful atolls, often called “the last paradise on earth”. Tens of thousands of tourists visit the island every year.
In 2017, reports of a proposed Saudi-funded investment on an atoll in the Maldives, billed as a high-end tourism project, had also been criticised by the opposition, which it said amounted to “creeping colonialism by the Saudi government”.
Critics have said this effectively involved the sale of land to the government of Saudi Arabia. The Maldives government, however, has refuted these allegations saying no land has been sold.
To facilitate such investment, Maldives approved a new law in 2015 allowing foreigners who invest more than $1bn to own land in perpetuity.
‘Geopolitics driving Saudi moves’
Steffen Hertog, Associate Professor at the London School of Economics, says the Saudi move is “certainly new and high-profile”.
“There might be a geopolitical dimension to this, but so far, I have not seen any signs that the kingdom is trying to, say, add a military dimension to the partnership,” Hertog told Al Jazeera.
Senior Indian journalist Saeed Naqvi says geopolitics is driving Saudi moves in the region.
“Through its many investments and aid in the Maldives, Saudi Arabia is ensuring other stakeholders are forced to talk to them for influence in the Indian Ocean region,” Naqvi told Al Jazeera.
India and China have been jostling for influence in the neighbourhood.
Beijing, which has recently signed a Free Trade Agreement with the Maldives, has warned against outside powers meddling in the affairs of the country.
“How the Saudi-China roles play out remains to be seen – all Saudi funding for the Maldives have to be tested against this touchstone, especially in the coming weeks and months,” said N Sathiya Moorthy, Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think-tank based in New Delhi.
Through its many investments and aid in the Maldives, Saudi Arabia is ensuring other stakeholders are forced to talk to them for influence in the Indian Ocean region
Saeed Naqvi, veteran Indian journalist
“This play-out needs to be watched, independent of their individual interests and investments in the Maldives, especially under Yameen now,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Saudi and Chinese involvement in the Maldives has drawn the attention of geostrategic experts in the region.
Brahma Chellaney, an India foreign policy expert and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, accused Saudi Arabia of encouraging “authoritarianism” in the Maldives.
“Saudi Arabia, along with China, has been playing a negative role in the Maldives, to the detriment of Indian Ocean security. Such success has encouraged the unbridled lurch towards authoritarianism in that strategically located island-nation,” Chellaney told Al Jazeera.
Earlier this month after the announcement of the emergency, Maldives President Yameen sent envoys to Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan to brief them on the political crisis, pointedly leaving out India.
India, once seen as one of the closest allies of the island nation, is struggling to mend frayed bilateral ties.
The Maldivian opposition led by Nasheed had demanded that India intervene to stop Yameen from going ahead with measures that undermined democracy in the island nation.
The Indian and the Maldives foreign ministries traded barbs over the extension of the emergency last week. New Delhi said it was “deeply dismayed” over the developments, drawing a sharp response from the Maldives.
The island nation has since snubbed New Delhi by refusing an invite to join multilateral naval exercises.
Since 2012, when its first democratically elected leader Nasheed was removed, the Maldives has been wracked by political unrest.
Nasheed on Monday urged the EU to impose targeted sanctions against “serious human rights abusers” in the Maldives.
KC Singh, Indian diplomat and former Indian envoy to the UAE, has dubbed the Saudi-Emirati aid a “huge development”. “Is India in the loop,” he tweeted, raising concerns regarding New Delhi’s interests in the region.
Singh told Al Jazeera it was unlikely that Saudi Arabia and UAE “would join India in containing China in the region”.
“Indian Prime Minister Modi was in UAE last month and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was in Saudi Arabia. Maldives must have been discussed. The fact that India has not directly intervened so far to restore democracy and constitutionalism may be due to assurances from those two countries that they would intercede with the president of Maldives,” Singh told Al Jazeera.
India’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and UAE has been driven primarily by trade and the Indian diaspora in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is India’s top energy supplier.
“It seems unlikely that those two nations will confront China or, even less, join India in containing it. The Maldives is unlikely to curtail Chinese projects, which India is understandably riled over. The next few weeks will show whether President Yameen tweaks his India baiting and opposition persecution,” Singh added.
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