A Case for Aid?
What could be the real motives of the Saudis offering financial assistance to the Maldives?
Growing ties between the Maldives and Saudi Arabia have given rise to concerns that the Maldives may be inching towards becoming a theocratic state.
The donation of one million dollars by the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, for the construction of ten “world-class” mosques raised many eyebrows. Some saw it as a step towards radicalization of the island nation. Others argued that aid for infrastructure development or projects in the social sector would have been a better choice. But the Saudis did not ignore this aspect. They donated $1.5 million for financing health projects. The Maldivian Ministry of Islamic Affairs later clarified that the money for mosques was a personal donation by the Crown Prince.
It was reported that during the meeting between Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen and the Saudi Crown Prince, both sides pledged to fight extremism and terrorism “in all forms and manifestations”. Both countries stressed the need for greater cooperation in the economic and trade sectors. According to Saudi Gazette, official discussions included potential investments in energy, tourism, transport and Islamic affairs as well as a soft loan of US$300 million for the Maldives.
The visit was yet another sign of growing ties between the Yameen administration and the Saudi Kingdom. During his visit to Saudi Arabia in February 2014, Vice President Dr. Mohamed Jameel Ahmed reportedly stressed the importance his government placed on enhancing ties with the Arab world and on “strengthening religious unity in the Maldives.” Shortly after Jameel’s return, the Maldives government announced that it would
introduce Arabic teaching in schools as part of a drive to “increase Islamic learning in the country”. Besides the Saudi government, the Saudi Arabian Muslim Scholars Association has also pledged a grant of 1.6 million Maldivian Rufiyaa “to assist in the provision of Islamic education in the Maldives.” These moves have been perceived as leading the Maldives towards becoming a theocratic state.
According to Vishal Arora, a New Delhi-based journalist, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, who completed four months in office on March 17, 2014, has pushed the Indian Ocean archipelago to religious conservatism. The Maldives, a string of 1,192 islands, has made several moves “to cement the supremacy of Sunni Islam” since Yameen was sworn in as president in November 2013. The top priorities set by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs reportedly include blocking all religions except Islam in the nation, ensuring that all laws and regulations adhere to Islamic principles and developing and strengthening the Islamic Fiqh Academy to issue fatwas.
The Ministry of Education has introduced Arabic as a subject in schools and is also planning to have schools teach the Quran as a subject up to grade VII. Yameen’s key foreign policy goals include “protecting the Islamic unity of the country and promoting Islamic characteristics internationally.” In December 2013, the parliament passed a bill to amend the constitution to restrict the legislature from removing the clause that gives Islam the status of state religion. The bill was introduced by the Maldivian Development Alliance, an ally of Yameen’s Progressive Party of the Maldives.
These moves, it is claimed, “have been made against the backdrop of a projected threat to religion from both domestic forces (read: progressive and pro-democracy parties) and foreign powers” (read: the Christian West). Speaking on the Maldives’ Conversion to Islam Day on February 2, 2014, Yameen warned his countrymen, “We should be very vigilant of foreign influences attempting to weaken our religious faith.” Yameen pitched himself as a savior of Islam in his campaign for the presidential election. “Think for yourselves, do you want Islam in the Maldives or do you want to allow space for other religions in the Maldives?” he reportedly asked the people during an election speech.
Yameen, whose election manifesto pledged to implement the death penalty under the Shariah and to strengthen ties with Arab Muslim nations among other things, portrayed his rival Mohamed Nasheed as an enemy of the nation’s Islamic identity. Nasheed, who defeated former autocratic President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the 2008 elections, but was ousted in a coup in February 2012, had promised to bring true democracy for the nation’s progress. At his party’s victory rally following the elections, Yameen, who is Gayoom’s half-brother, said, “We (the coalition) worked together to save the Maldivian nation, to protect the sacred religion of Islam.”
The Maldives officially became an Islamic state in 1997. The country claims that all its citizens are Sunni Muslims. Article 9 of the Maldivian Constitution declares that “a nonMuslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.” Such laws are a remnant of the legacy of Gayoom, who ruled the country for 30 years until 2008. While Gayoom was known for opposing the radical versions of Islam during his rule, his policy changed after pro-democracy Nasheed defeated him in the 2008 elections. To snatch power from Nasheed, Gayoom changed his tactics and sought the support of conservative Islamic parties and organizations. The 2013 presidential elections were, therefore, decisive. The voters had a choice between the continuation of restrictions and conservative policies and progress through a genuine democracy. Those who opted for the latter were outnumbered by a thin margin. The first four months under the new government offer a glimpse into the nation’s future.
The present government of the Maldives has sought cooperation from Saudi Arabia’s leadership in areas such as Haj affairs, the establishment of ‘awqaf’ and a center for Quranic studies. The Saudis were told that the country requires mosques to be built on every inhabited island. The capital, Male, currently has over 30 mosques. The most recognizable is the Islamic Center in Male, whose golden dome dominates the low-slung skyline. Equally stunning is the ornate Hukuru Miskiiy or ‘Friday Mosque’ which was built in 1675.
In the Maldives, apart from internal political tussles and polarization, interference of some foreign countries has also become a regular feature. India and the United States showed concern when China announced that it would set up its embassy in Male in 2011. Western democracies have also expressed worries about the rising influence of Salafist parties such as the Adhaalath Party, coinciding with increasing radicalization of the island nation. The Saudis’ support for Salafist ideas is well-established and wellknown.
The Maldives became a victim of terrorism when a bomb attack in Male wounded 12 western tourists in September 2007. In May 2009, a Maldivian member of Al-Qaeda was found involved in a suicide attack on the headquarters of Pakistan's InterServices Intelligence in Lahore. Hard on the heels of that attack, Pakistani troops arrested nine Al-Qaeda operatives at a training camp in South Waziristan in 2010. They turned out to be Maldivian citizens. This may explain to some extent why Saudi Arabia, the U.S. the EU, India, China and other South Asian countries have been showing so much interest in the Maldives. The recent “generous” help from the Saudi Kingdom to the Maldives has clear motives – the Saudis want Al-Qaeda to remain outside their land.
Many critics ask why the Saudis do not consider the more deserving parts of the world – East Africa, for example – worthy of aid. Yemen and the Horn of Africa are closer to Saudi Arabia, but no help has been extended to them. There is no help for the Rohingyas in Myanmar and the Muslims in Sri Lanka who face unprecedented atrocities. It is obvious that the Saudis are spending their money where they have interests. And this is not unusual as states are known to do this.
The writers, partners in law firm Huzaima & Ikram (Taxand Pakistan), are adjunct faculty members at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.