Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 07, 2017
Maldives’ tilt towards China: Yameen’s innovative way of putting the ball in the court of West

By making the first-ever ‘sovereign bond’ offering of Maldives to raise $ 200 million, President Abdulla Yameen also seems wanting to put the ball in the court of western nations to do their bit to discourage his government from moving closer to China and Saudi Arabia. Possibly included in the list of nations is its larger neighbour, India, which has a real problem about China expanding its footprint in the immediate neighbourhood, and also with the possible spread of fundamentalist Wahabbism brand of Islam, under Saudi patronage.

The announcement about the floatation of the sovereign bond was made some months ago. It now offers a seven percent interest with a five-year maturity period. International risk-analysts, Moody’s and Fitch, rated the bond at B2 and B+ respectively, indicating a stable outlook, based on tourism-driven economic growth, low institutional strength and a high debt-burden.

The Government at the time highlighted only the ‘stable outlook’ part for public consumption. The political opposition latched on to the perceived negative aspects of the bond. It also needs to be noted that the bond would mature for repayment only in 2021, long after the presidential polls of November 2018.

If Yameen wins, then the Government could be expected to re-issue the bond, or issue even more of the kind. If his present-day Opposition made it, he could then question them about their opposition to the bond issue, and demand repayment. Either way, it is a typical Third World model of development spending, where the incumbent ruler does not (have to) care how governmental debts had to be serviced in the future, or paid back, when became due.

‘Meaningful’ support

There are other messages too, both to the ’international partners’, of whom the Yameen Government talks about from time to time, and on an issue of its choice – as is anyway the case with other governments and leaderships. Even while telling his people that he was doing everything under his command to develop Maldives overnight without waiting for a future date, he is also sending out a message to the non-Chinese, non-Saudi friends of the nation.

If any of these countries, or their institutions, picked up these bonds, then Yameen could cite it as an instance of their ‘meaningful support’ for his initiatives to develop Maldives. If they stayed away, whatever the reason and justification, he could still go to China and/or Saudi Arabia, and tell the rest, how they had forced him and his country into the hands of the other two, despite they having an opportunity to chip in.

Either way, Yameen could and would go to Maldivian voters to tell them that the MDP-led Opposition combine nearer home was wrong, one way or the other. That way, he seem to have a deeper mind than his political competitors. Despite propaganda to the contrary, Yameen’s half-brother and President of three decades, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was propriety-ridden in terms of neighbourhood relations. MDP rival and predecessor, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed is often too focussed on specifics that he tends to overlook/ignore the larger picture, quite often.

Targeting America

Taking his sub-regional role more seriously than others might want to yield, Yameen also criticised US President  Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the ‘Paris Climate Agreement’.  He said that Maldives was ‘disappointed by the US abdication of responsibility on climate-change’.

Climate-change is a serious issue for Maldives, yet Yameen’s denouncement of the American decision does have a domestic political component to it – though inadvertently so. Though most observers of Maldives are ignorant to the fact still, Gayoom, and not Nasheed, as President as far back as 1978 had flagged the nation’s concerns on climate-change and sea-level rise.

Ahead of the Copenhagen Conference in December 2009, Nasheed as President had  attracted global (media) attention by conducting an under-water Cabinet meeting, to highlight Maldives’ plight in the matter. Critics claimed that Nasheed was behaving as the ‘poster-boy’ of the West on climate-change issues than stopping with flagging Maldivian concerns, along with other members of the Alliance of Small Island States (ASIS), founded in 1994, and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), an UN recognised organisation since 1992.

Neither Gayoom nor Nasheed have criticised the current US stand on the Paris Accord. Needless to point out, the Yameen camp would go to town how both had ‘succumbed’ to ‘non-existent American pressure’, apprehending withdrawal of moral and political support for their ‘efforts to topple’ Yameen.

Snapping ties with Qatar

The more recent development of the kind on the international stage involving the Yameen leadership relates to the Maldives’ snapping of diplomatic ties with the Gulf-Arab nation of Qatar. Following in the Saudi footprint, as was the case with the snapping of ties with ‘Shia’ Iran a year ago, Maldives announced its decision hours after Riyadh snapped ties with Qatar.

Maldives is a member of the Saudi-led Islamic states’ military cooperation initiative on counter-terrorism. Taking the Saudi line, the Foreign Ministry said that the Maldives “took the decision because of its firm opposition to activities that encourage terrorism and extremism”. In this context, a Foreign Ministry statement added that Maldives has “always pursued a policy of promoting peace and stability in the Middle East” and reiterated the “commitment to work with countries that promote peace, stability, and show solidarity in the fight against terrorism”.

The MDP in particular lost no time in denouncing the Government’s decision, claiming it was against the interests of Maldives, both in terms of tourism promotion and other aspects of bilateral trade and the nation’s business community. However, the Gayoom faction within Yameen’s ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) seemed to be taking its time, reacting to the Qatar issue. As may be recalled, Gayoom was a student of Al Azhar University, Cairo, and Egypt has joined Saudi Arabia in severing ties with Qatar.

Here again, Yameen seems to be telling the international community to make their choice on terrorism issue – but with a domestic angle to it, too. Either they back Qatar, which the Saudis and the rest have accused of facilitating terrorism, or back the latter’s decision. If it is the former, the West would be criticised for indulging in double-speak on terrorism. If it is the other way round, then Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Maldives and the rest have made the right decision.

By extension, the choice for the international community could well be between ‘Iran/Qatar-backed terrorism’, or Saudi-promoted fundamentalist Wahabbism. It would then mean that Yameen’s local critics too would have to relate to him likewise, and so should the larger Maldivian population, standing still below the 400,000-mark.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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