Last week, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced a grant of $160 million for “development projects” in the Maldives, a country located in the Indian ocean that is currently battling an economic and political crisis.
“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.
Foreign debt is viewed with great enthusiasm by the current governments in the Asia-Pacific region, but not so much by the rest of the population. Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed recently warned that its monumental debt to China has put the country at risk of a “land grab.”
“We can’t pay the $1.5-2 billion debt to China,” Nasheed told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview.
If the Maldives falls behind on its payments, China will “ask for equity” from the owners of various islands and infrastructure operators, and Beijing will then “get free hold of that land,” he also reportedly said.
Just days ago, the current President, Abdulla Yameen, extended the state of emergency that was implemented in early February. Fortunately for China, the focus has quickly shifted from China’s influence in the country to the Gulf’s growing involvement, particularly Saudi Arabia’s.
“It is unfortunate that certain countries are assisting the deep state,” Mohamed Aslam, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) legislator and member of the House Economic Committee, told Al Jazeera. He also said:
“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.”
In 2015, the Maldives approved a law to allow foreigners who invest more than $1 billion to own land in perpetuity. While this may not seem like that big of a deal, having a five-minute conversation with anyone in the Asia-Pacific region will immediately tell you otherwise because land is everything to local inhabitants of the Asia-Pacific. As the New York Times articulated last year:
“But Mr. Ahmed [a local resident] and others here are bracing for a life change they fear could be catastrophic, after the Maldivian president’s announcement in January that leaders of Saudi Arabia were planning a $10 billion investment in the group of islands where Mr. Ahmed lives, known as Faafu Atoll.
“Most alarming to the residents were reports that the government was breaking with a longstanding policy of leasing the islands that are home to some of the world’s premier resorts and selling the atoll outright to the Saudis. The inhabitants fear they might be moved off the islands.”
However, despite the potential loss of land ownership, Saudi funding for any country comes with some more disturbing strings attached. As Fareed Zakaria has explained:
“In Southeast Asia, almost all observers whom I have spoken with believe that there is another crucial cause [behind the ‘cancer’ of Islamic extremism] – exported money and ideology from the Middle East, chiefly Saudi Arabia. A Singaporean official told me, ‘Travel around Asia and you will see so many new mosques and madrassas built in the last 30 years that have had funding from the Gulf. They are modern, clean, air-conditioned, well-equipped – and Wahhabi [Saudi Arabia’s puritanical version of Islam].’ Recently, it was reported that Saudi Arabia plans to contribute almost $1 billion to build 560 mosques in Bangladesh. The Saudi government has denied this, but sources in Bangladesh tell me there’s some truth to the report.”
As The Week also explained in 2015, Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars “investing heavily in building mosques, madrasas, schools, and Sunni cultural centers across the Muslim world. Indian intelligence says that in India alone, from 2011 to 2013, some 25,000 Saudi clerics arrived bearing more than $250 million to build mosques and universities and hold seminars.”
According to the New York Times, Saudi Arabia has “for decades spread its conservative strand of Islam in the Maldives by sending religious leaders, building mosques and giving scholarships to students to attend universities.”
It should therefore come as no surprise to anyone that the South China Morning Post reported that Indian intelligence sources are claiming hundreds of Maldivians have joined ISIS in Syria. ISIS essentially holds the world ransom with Saudi Arabia’s strict strain of Islam, a mere coincidence one can be sure.
India, for its part, also has a deep interest in claiming the Maldives for itself, though it was noticeably left out when President Yameen sent envoys to Saudi Arabia, China, and Pakistan to request help in its current political crisis.
China sees the Maldives as a key part of its One Belt, One Road initiative, and Beijing does not necessarily view Saudi Arabia’s desire to inject itself in the region as a bad thing. In fact, the South China Morning Post lamented that Saudi Arabia is doing so in its bid to assert itself as a more viable partner in China’s rapidly expanding economic projects as opposed to its major arch-rival, Iran, with which China also has a cooperative relationship.