In late March, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz will visit the Maldives on the final leg of an Asian tour that has included stops in Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and Japan. The visit to the Maldives will be the king’s only stop in South Asia, and certainly his only stop in a tiny archipelagic nation with a population of less than half a million. This alone might make it noteworthy, but the visit is also expected to include the announcement of a major development project in the Maldives’ Faafu atoll, paid for with a Saudi investment of $10 billion. The news has been met with alarm, even though few details of the project have been made available and Saudi Arabia has not confirmed the investment. Notwithstanding some reports, the project is unlikely to significantly alter the Indian Ocean security environment. The concern the plan has provoked, however, is a sign of how sensitive regional governments have become to any developments that appear to threaten the region’s fragile order.
Longstanding rumors of Saudi Arabia’s big plans for the Maldives surfaced again in late January, when President Abdul Yameen visited Faafu, an archipelago of about 20 islands in the center of the Maldives, and promised that it would see a “massive” development project personally sponsored by the king of Saudi Arabia. In late February, an official government press release described the project as a “big city like Dubai” (as translated by the opposition blog DhivehiSitee). In March, President Yameen spoke again to deny reports that the land would be sold outright to Saudi Arabia. Members of the government have issued contradictory statements as to whether the atoll’s four thousand current inhabitants will be allowed to remain. President Yameen has said that further details will be released only after the deal is signed.
So what do the Saudis want with a Maldivian atoll? Few of the visions offered by the Maldives government or the press are realistic. Control of a single atoll would not secure oil routes to China, as exiled opposition leader and former president Mohamed Naheed has suggested, and in any case Saudi Arabia has not previously shown an interest in assuming responsibility for protecting tanker routes. Nor are the government’s promises of a new Dubai built on reclaimed land feasible; the actual Dubai relies on desalination plants for almost 99 percent of its freshwater, a process that requires 4 kilowatt hours of electricity for each cubic meter of fresh water. The United Arab Emirates has easy access to the energy necessary to run these plants; the Maldives does not. And that doesn’t address the question of why Saudi Arabia would invest billions of dollars to build a city in one of the countries most threatened by climate change.
Perhaps the royal family merely envisions the world’s most private holiday resort. In spring 2015, Prince Mohamed bin Salman enjoyed a Maldives getaway while Saudi Arabia’s armed forces were escalating a war in Yemen. In 2014, King Salman reserved three entire islands for a month; he may wish to avoid the negative publicity that this created. Beyond the attractions of beaches and privacy, vacationing in the Maldives—which declared adherence to Sharia law in 2014 and is proud of being one of the world’s two 100 percent Islamic nations—gives the Kingdom’s conservative clerics little grounds for disapproval.
Although it’s still far from clear exactly what—if anything—will be built at Faafu, the news has gone over very badly with some Indian security analysts, who fear an increased Wahhabi influence in an island chain less than 90 miles from the southernmost islands in India’s Lakshadweep archipelago. Since 2015, freehold sales of land have been allowed in the Maldives, thanks to an amendment to the constitution that authorizes sales in the case of megaprojects bringing in at least $1 billion in investment. India’s past concerns that the Maldives might use this provision to sell or lease an atoll to China caused a chill in relations that only thawed when the Maldives committed to an “India First” policy. But the Maldives remains the only country in the region that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not visited. While a sale or lease to Saudi Arabia, with which India has warming relations, is not freighted with the same significance as a sale to China, the principle remains the same: India is uncomfortable with countries acquiring new footholds in the Indian Ocean.
Whether or not the project goes forward, it’s a little late to worry about Saudi influence in the Maldives. The two countries have had close ties for at least four years, and President Yameen has made the relationship a priority. In 2015 he visited Saudi Arabia twice, returning with loans totaling $120 million. He visited again in 2016. Saudi influence in the Maldives can be quite overt: in February the Saudi Embassy caused controversy by handing out envelopes containing $32 in cash to journalists covering an event. But it also takes the form of scholarships for Maldivian students studying in Saudia Arabia and funds to build mosques, including the new ten-story King Salman Mosque and Islamic Center in Male. Critics of the Kingdom’s brand of Islam allege that these mosques preach a radical brand of Islam that has led somewhere between 50 and 250 Maldivians to join extremist fighters in Syria.
No matter what shape the project takes, it threatens serious harm to the Maldives’ fragile democracy. The prestige and funds that flow from Yameen’s relationship with King Salman are too useful in his struggle to control Maldivian politics to allow the relationship to be a matter of public debate. The government has been careful to stress that energetic questioning of the plans for Faafu could scare off the Saudis and cause the Maldives to miss out on the benefits of the investment. In January, President Yameen told his audience at Faafu that “political instability” had caused prior plans for investment to be postponed. In early March, he told media that a public “quarrel” over the plan could scupper the investment. Maldivians are thus being asked to choose between democratic processes and the investment their country undoubtedly needs.
From the perspective of regional security, however, the Faafu atoll controversy is most significant as a reminder of the fears that opacity and disorder breed. A purely economic investment in the Indian Ocean by a mid-level power that strives for good relations with almost all the region’s important actors would not normally be a cause for concern. But President Yameen and the Saudi royals’ desires for secrecy caused the project to take on an air of malignity that it may not deserve. And India’s concern may be magnified by the knowledge that if Saudi Arabia were actually planning a strategic investment—or if it were China making the investment—there would be almost nothing India could do to stop the plan going forward. The Faafu atoll deal, more than anything else, thus exposes the growing sense that the Indian Ocean region is a place where anything can happen, and just might.