Speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York last week, Mohamed Shainee said that relations between the Republic of Maldives and Saudi Arabia are “at their best for a very long time” — and he should know.
Shainee is the Maldives minister for fisheries and agriculture, two important parts of the economy of the string of 1,100 islands and atolls that make up Asia’s smallest country.
But he is also charged with a special responsibility for matters relating to Saudi Arabia, he said, and has accompanied the Maldives President Abdulla Yameen on several official visits to the Kingdom.
“King Salman visited our country when he was still crown prince in 2013, and there has been a close relationship ever since that. We have some things in common — we are two of the most predominantly Islamic countries in the world, with very high proportions of Muslims in the population. Since he came, there has been a very good exchange of ideas and understandings,” Shainee said.
Saudis are attracted by the Maldives’ balmy tropical climate and its beaches, considered among the finest in the world and a lure for tourists of every nationality. But the relationship has also blossomed into a stronger economic partnership, with Saudi Arabia increasingly playing the part of investor in and developer of the Maldives’ economy.
The Kingdom has been a benefactor to the Maldives for some time, putting money into the building of an airport in the 1970s, along with other development work like sewage and water supply, and helping meet the bill for reconstruction of the islands’ infrastructure after the devastation caused by the 2004 tsunami, in which Shainee was very personally involved.
Official figures show that assistance from Saudi Arabia totalled nearly SR300 million ($80 million) up to 2010, but this has accelerated since, with SR722 million pledged since for hospitals and other development.
By far the biggest chunk will go on the planned upgrade to Velana International Airport, where a $357 million contract has been awarded to the Saudi Binladin contracting group.
The airport upgrade is vital for the Maldives’ future because, regardless of the importance of fisheries and agriculture sectors in Shainee’s portfolio, tourism is by far the biggest part of the islands’ economy, accounting for about 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 60 percent of foreign exchange earnings.
Work begins on the project later this year, and when it is completed it will allow the airport to cater for up to 7 million people a year, compared with 1.5 million now. By comparison, the native population of the islands is about 350,000 people.
The airport development is a central part of an economic strategy that also envisages the creation — with Saudi support — of special economic zones, to encourage businesses like shipping and finance, that have not previously been a feature of economic life there. Tourism-related activities in these zones will be kept to a maximum of 20 percent.
Chinese investors have also been active in the islands, leading some commentators to claim there is a “race” between Saudi Arabia and China to develop the Maldives’ economy and have influence in the affairs of the strategically important islands, in the Indian Ocean between India and Africa.
Shainee said the country’s investment authorities would choose on the basis of whichever was best for the country. “Maldivans are very nationalistic,” he said.
There were allegations of protectionist motives on the part of some Maldivans earlier this year, when a $10 billion Saudi project to develop the Faafu Atoll was put on hold. The opposition said that the atoll had been “sold” to Saudi Arabia, but Shainee pointed out that the land would have remained under Maldives’ laws and sovereignty, and would have been developed with social, medical and educational facilities, for the benefit of the country.
Business people from the Arabian Gulf are already active in the Maldives’ hotel industry, with luxury property owned or run by the Four Seasons, Jumeirah and One & Only groups, in conjunction with local partners.
Apart from development, the other vital issue, in which Shainee also has a special interest, is the environment. The islands are among the lowest inhabited places on earth, with an average height of only 1.5 meters above sea level, and the inhabitants of the populated 187 islands face constant threat from rising sea levels.
The Maldives was among the first countries to bring the issue of rising sea levels to world attention in the 1980s, but Shainee is optimistic that solutions to the seemingly intractable problem are at hand.
“Climate change is of course a very serious issue, but I do not think we can worry too much about rising sea levels. It is true that we are very low lying, but look at the Netherlands. There a lot of the country is below sea level, but it has survived,” Shainee said.
He is hoping that the Maldives can promote its own kind of solution to environmental problems from the international stage. The country has been on the UN human rights and climate change councils in the past, and is currently lobbying to join the powerful UN Security Council. The country also chairs the international Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).
Shainee believes that there are other things that can be done to alleviate the effect of rising sea levels. “It is essential to promote healthy oceans and sustainable fisheries, which gives the coral and sea life a change to adapt to the new environment,” he added.
He was speaking from the heart. He is the son and grandson of fishermen, and began his career as a fisherman before entering government service. Shainee retains a close affinity with the oceanic world, and is proud of his postgraduate work in Norway and Canada in new techniques for fisheries protection. The Maldives is a leading member of the UN coalition to save shark species, and has declared the islands a no-fishing zone for endangered sharks.
In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, when 80 percent of the islands had been underwater and 60 percent of the economy was affected, Shainee was charged with distributing financial aid to parts of the far-flung islands by boat and sea-plane, with a suitcase full of currency handcuffed to his wrist.
“The islands were very badly affected, but there was a comparatively low loss of life. We are a seafaring people and we knew instinctively what to do,” he said.