Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 17, 2023
The balanced approach adopted by Maldives highlights how the Maldivian foreign policy has evolved under the Solih presidency
Maldives’ balanced global outreach The Maldivian Foreign Ministry’s announcement on restoring diplomatic ties with Iran as President Ibrahim Solih was meeting with German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in Berlin, has lent a new impetus to the archipelago nation’s global outreach, which has been expanding ever since this government came to power in 2018. In doing so, the Solih leadership has unabashedly and unapologetically stuck to an ‘India First’ policy but without hurting existing and new relations, including China. In reality, Solih has made ‘India First’ a trusted and tested launch pad for his nation’s increasing forays into the international arena, with a balanced approach and positive results, all-round. Restoration of Iranian ties came almost immediately after the latter patched up with traditional adversary Saudi Arabia, in the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. In January 2021, the Solih government had revived ties with Qatar, likewise, on the same day Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt did so after the predecessor administration of President Abdulla Yameen (2013-18) had snapped them.

Maldives has re-established its credentials as a moderate Islamic nation, where sectarian divides did not matter outside of geopolitical compulsions.

Solih’s silent message was clear. While as a Sunni Islamic State, Maldives looked up to Saudi Arabia as the guiding star of the Islamic ulema, by restoring ties with Shia Iran, Maldives has re-established its credentials as a moderate Islamic nation, where sectarian divides did not matter outside of geopolitical compulsions. In Berlin, the Maldivian leader visited the Internationale Tourismus Börse (ITB) after the COVID-induced three-year break, to market his nation as a tourism destination, par excellence. The tourism sector is the single largest contributor to the nation’s economy, and the Solih government took a bold step to open up the nation just six months after the global lockdown when the rest of the world was scared to do anything close to that. In that critical stage, when Maldivian economy was devastatingly hit, the concept of ‘bubble tourism’ from India made the difference. The government’s efforts ensured that tourists did not contract the pandemic. This encouraged the relatively high-end tourists from Europe and elsewhere to travel to Maldives when other tourist destinations in most parts of the world were still shut. At the Berlin fair, thus, Solih discussed tourism promotion with Saudi Tourism Minister, Ahmed Al-Khateeb. Coincidentally, Saudi Arabia’s budget airline, Flynas, has included Maldives among its new destinations. Independently, Saudi Arabia is funding the construction of 400 housing units in the capital Malé’s reclaimed, suburban Hulumale island, connected by the China-funded Sinamale sea bridge built under the previous regime of jailed president, Abdulla Yameen.

The Solih-Shahid duo

On the way to Germany, Solih stopped over in Serbia to meet President Aleksandar Vučić. He also met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and also Presidents, Dr. Mahmoud Abbas (Palestine), Wavel Ramkalawan (Seychelles), Dr. José Ramos-Hort (Timor-Leste), Dr. Lazarus Chakwera (Malawi) while he was in Qatar. The mix of nations, whose leaders President Solih met during his three-nation visit should highlight the way Maldivian foreign policy has evolved under the Solih presidency, with varied interests and concerns. In Doha, Solih’s main engagement was at the Fifth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (UNCLDC). Speaking from the Maldivian experience, also as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS), he recalled, how no exception was made while the nation graduated from the category of ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LCD) into a middle-income nation. Both LDCs and SIDS suffered the consequences of climate-change, he said, reiterating the point also highlighted by his predecessors since the late seventies. Nearer home, Solih’s foreign policy outreach has included visits from various heads of state, government and foreign ministers, both before and after the COVID lockdown. Thus, in January 2023, Cambodian Prime Minister, Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Se, was invited to Malé. A high-point in such visits was commenced with that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the only world leader to be invited for Solih’s inauguration in November 2018, and the multiple visits by Minister Jaishankar, not to leave out VVIP and VIP visits from Malé to Delhi, which included that of Defence Minister Mariya Didi. Not to be missed out is the short-stay Malé visit of then US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, in October 2020.Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdulla Shahid also pushed Maldives’ foreign policy through his diplomatic efforts. He addressed a conference in Berlin on the economy of small nation-states, underscoring their need for global support. Before joining the President in the three-nation tour, Shahid addressed the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Geneva, where Maldives is one of the 47 elected members with the right to vote, for a two-year term, ending 2025. He later visited New Delhi, addressed the prestigious ‘Raisina Dialogue’, South Asia’s equivalent of Singapore’s Shangri-La Dialogue, met India’s Jaishankar and counterparts from other nations.

Why ‘India First’?

It is true that the Solih administration has reaffirmed his Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) ‘India First’ foreign policy approach, enunciated by party chief, Mohammed Nasheed, who was the nation’s first President to be elected under a multi-party democratic scheme in 2008. Before Nasheed, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the nation for 30 long years (1978-2008) too had followed a no-nonsense foreign policy, tilted towards India. Such an approach was dictated purely by ground realities, based on the geographical proximity of the two nations. In the case of Maldives, India as the closest neighbour with resources and resourceful neighbour proved its worth, first through Operation Cactus (1988) of the Indian Air Force (IAF), thwarting the coup bid by Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries. It also includes humanitarian operations, for example, the post-tsunami rescue, relief and reconstruction works (2004). India also extended help   during the closure of two desalination centres by providing tons of drinking water in 2014, and during COVID, it provided assistance by sending medicines, food, and funds. This apart, New Delhi has also extended massive aid under the ‘High-Impact Projects’ scheme, for developing physical and social infrastructure, especially in the distant islands, where development had yet to reach. The significant part of it was that New Delhi, rather than choosing the projects that it would fund, stopped earmarking the funds and let the host-government choose the projects.

Effective re-balancing

This incidentally may have been at variance from the way China funded high-cost schemes in Maldives, under the Yameen regime. Yet, unlike anticipated, President Solih, while maintaining stoic silence on the China front almost throughout his term thus far, has ensured the kind of balance that was absent underpredecessor Yameen’s regime which was titlted towards China..  Solih lost no time to congratulate Chinese President Xi Jinping on his assuming the third term; his government has done all the right thing by China, politically, diplomatically and otherwise.

The Solih-Shahid duo has done the re-balancing and effortlessly so through the past four-plus years and as a result, the Maldivian foreign policy has grown stronger than any time in the past decades.

In context, the Solih administration has not identified with party chief and Parliament Speaker Nasheed, who has been criticising China, for pushing Maldives into a ‘debt-trap’ under Yameen regime. Foreign Minister Shahid has been keeping in constant touch with the Chinese side, through the nation’s Embassy in Malé, inaugurated by President Nasheed (November 2011). Against this, the Yameen regime, while taking the credit for the only visit thus far by a Chinese President (September 2014), also distanced Maldives from the rest of the democratic world, and not just India. The Solih-Shahid duo has done the re-balancing and effortlessly so through the past four-plus years and as a result, the Maldivian foreign policy has grown stronger than any time in the past decades. Given the history of the nation’s independence from being a British Protectorate, it is saying a lot for Maldivian nationalism, its sovereignty, and territorial integrity. That also explains why Yameen’s ‘India Out/India Military Out’ campaign has failed to convince the people who had seen Indian troops going back home, without being asked, not just once but thrice in the past 45 years.  
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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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