Saudi-Maldivian Ties: An Opportunity or Threat for India?
Anushree Ghisad

The President of Maldives Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom paid an official visit to Saudi Arabia from 18th March. A joint statement issued at the conclusion of Yameen’s visit to the Kingdom said that the two sides have expressed their desire to strengthen cooperation in foreign affairs, defence, Islamic affairs, justice, economic, investment and trade sectors, providing support to the issues of the Muslim nation as well as education, health and social affairs to realize their common interests. The Saudi Fund for Development will continue to finance development projects in Maldives. The statement also said that, “as part of efforts to deepen educational and cultural cooperation, Saudi Arabia will provide 150 scholarships to Maldives’ students.” Both the countries have rejected any foreign interference in their internal affairs. Discussions were also held on strengthening unity of Islam and increasing Saudi investments to give fillip to the Maldivian economy.

Implications of Gayoom’s Saudi Arabia visit

Amidst the ongoing Maldivian turmoil where former President Mohamed Nasheed has been sentenced to 13 years imprisonment without being given a fair trial, which has seen internal clashes in Malidvian society and has evoked a severe reaction from UNHRC and other countries, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his scheduled Maldives trip in mid-March, so as not to endorse Gayoom’s actions of trampling democracy by undermining opposition and appointing loyalist to all constitutional places. It is China alone which had categorically declined to comment on the developments in the Indian Ocean island citing it as an ‘internal matter’, and now Saudi has joined the hands by endorsing President Gayoom and his policies. This raises substantial concerns for India as Maldives is coming under the influence of China under Gayoom’s regime, wherein Beijing is securing this precious ‘pearl’ in its ‘string of pearls’ by ensuring its multidimensional dependence on China. Saudi too seems to be following in the Chinese footsteps, albeit under the religious garb of promoting ‘Unity of Islam’, however antithetical any pseudo autocratic regime might be in the eyes of Islamic tenets.

Saudi Arabia’s recent mollycoddling with Maldives

Diplomatic relations between the Maldives and Saudi Arabia were established in 1981.It is noteworthy that in 2008, Maldives opened its embassy in Riyadh, which was its first ever mission to the West Asia. Both the countries have always recognized the historic friendship and Saudi’s role in development of Maldives. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has agreed to open an embassy in the island nation during the current visit of Maldivian President.

The Kingdom’s growing role in this Sunni littoral nation became palpable when in February last year many tourist reservations were cancelled with no prior notice as Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (the current Saudi head of state) allegedly booked three islands of Maldives. Tourism is the lifeblood of Maldivian economy and yet Maldivian government did not mind hampering its reputation for hospitality when it came to receiving the then Saudi prince, thanks to the Kingdom’s growing investment in the archipelago.

President Gayoom affirmed that the Republic of Maldives views the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the country that houses the two holy mosques and as the focus of the hearts of all Muslims as it represents their Qibla. He also emphasized that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the primary partner of the Republic of Maldives.

It is this growing camaraderie which infused a confidence in Maldives to take the EU head on when the latter removed the duty free status of Maldives’ fish a couple of years ago. Maldives reacted by attacking EU’s policy and said it would certify its fish as halal and find new markets in countries like Saudi Arabia.

Maldives’ Infatuation with Saudi Arabia

Maldives, like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is a Sunni Muslim country and considers Saudi Arabia the fountainhead of Islamic practices, which is a well-respected fact. Enamoured by Saudi’s Islamic heritage, Maldives seems to have started adopting the customs of the Kingdom, but is it at the cost of undermining its own ancient tradition? For example, the official Maldivian language Dhivehi belonging to Indo-Aryan group of languages and is closely related to Sinhalese. The original Dives Akuru script was replaced by Thaana by around 18th century, which is largely modelled on Arabic style of writing. As against this, Central Asian states continue to follow the local traditions and language despite being Islamic countries.

Does this paradigm shift in the native ethnic orientation of Maldivian society underline its eagerness to submit to Saudi Arabia’s hegemony over Sunni Islam? Two success stories of Asia- Japan and South Korea, are firmly rooted in their respective ancient heritages and do not ape India despite being ardent followers of Buddhism. Invoking religious aping out of a genuine religious awe can turn into formidable identity crisis for locals as is evident in the case of Pakistan. And if this is the case, then will Maldives not try to replicate Saudi’s education system which is largely based on Wahabi ideology, for which Saudi is believed to be funding in this island nation?

Going beyond Religion- Saudi stakes in Maldives

Maldives has undergone lot of struggle since 2003 to throw off the shackles of dictatorial rule to see the light of democracy. It finally succeeded in throwing the three decade long dictatorial yoke of Mohamed Gayoom in 2008, when Nasheed came to power by democratic means. With strings of high profile political ousters and in desperate attempts to consolidate power by throttling Nasheed from contesting next presidential election scheduled in 2018, the current Maldivian regime is undermining the very spirit of democracy which its citizens had fought so hard for. As a result, the Jamhoori Pary (JP) has parted ways with ruling alliance and joined hands with Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to start a movement called ‘save the constitution’. Even the ultra-hardliner Adhaalath Party (AP) is disillusioned with the current government due to its brutality and its President Sheikh Imran Abdulla has called for the formation of a “national unity alliance” against the government. Occasional clashes between Gayoomists and Nasheedists on the streets of Male have further intensified this conflict.

Saudi Arabia finds itself cornered after Arab Spring as its roots are secured in economic and democratic reforms, the later one being the existential threat for monarchs of the Kingdom. Hence Saudi is clamouring hard to nip this spirit in its bud wherever it starts surfacing, and Maldives seems to be traversing the same path. Hence, Saudi Arabia might be willing to strengthen the hands of Gayoom by assuring investment and trade.

The usage of wordings in the recently released joint statement emphasises on ‘rejecting any foreign interference in their internal affairs.’ This implies that the arrest of Nasheed, a champion of democracy and human rights; which has clearly been orchestrated with Chinese blessings, has been upheld by Saudi Arabia.

In order to lose its clutches of overdependence on United States, Saudi has embarked upon what is touted in Riyadh as a ‘look east policy’ since mid of last decade, which is an attempt to diversify. Playing on its ‘custodian of holy mosque’ card, Saudi Arabia uses the non-oil Islamic countries like Maldives to ensure a master-client relationship based upon the broader connotations of ‘Islamic unity’. Also, it is in long term commercial interests of the Kingdom to have a stronghold in a strategically located island nation like Maldives, which falls on international sea lanes of communication through which a major chunk of Saudi oil passes.

Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in Indoctrination & Terror Financing

In the joint Communiqué, both the countries have repeatedly focused upon deepening of educational and cultural cooperation, for which, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has announced the allocation of one hundred fifty scholarships for students from Maldives. In 2014, Saudi scholars had pledged a grant of $ 100,000 for Islamic education, while the Saudi prince has pledged to build 10 world class mosques in Maldives.

According to Prof. Shireen Hunter, financial support received from abroad can be divided into two categories; one for maintaining Muslim institutions such as mosques and two, to exercise a degree of political control over various groups that are recipient of such funds. Saudi Arabia is the most important country mainly indulging in second kind of support. Though the impact of Saudi education is not uniform and does not necessarily transform into blind support for the Kingdom’s government as it also produces radical Wahhabis who are highly critical of country’s ruling elite. Yet any outcome, which rides on ‘mine is the only truth’ dictum and fails to appreciate the inherent pluralistic nature of human society, is inimical to long term stability and security structure of that region where such investment is being made. And due to modern tools of communication and social networking and rising people to people contact, the cascading effect of such ideologies can endanger the security structure of neighbouring countries as well.

Saudis follow the Wahabi school of philosophy in its own education model, and has a track record of funding for such education world wide. In India, we have the prime example of growing radicalism under the influence of Saudi funded Wahabi ideology in the Kashmir Valley. In a report in 2011, Asit Jolly indicated this trend and reported the mushrooming of mosques and madrassas, funded by the Ahl-e-Hadith. The report, quoting US intelligence sources, highlighted the House of Saud decision of 2005, to allocate US$35 billion for building mosques in South Asia. A large number of madrassas have also accompanied this growth, and have penetrated the poorer segment of Kashmiri society.

In this backdrop, Maldives can probably emerge as a smaller version of what they have done with PoK and Pakistan, a breeding ground of terrorism. According to Zahid Shahab Ahmed from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia was one of the prominent players who funded madrasas in Pakistan to promote anti- Shia Islam. It eventually resulted in the radicalisation of Pakistani youths.

Saudi is the main financier of Madrasas which creates Taliban type fighters. Saudi Arabia has also emerged as a large source for funds for terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed told the CNN-IBN news channel during his visit to India in 2009 that "Hundreds of Maldivians" have been recruited by the Taliban and are fighting in Pakistan. Dr. Azra Naseem of Maldives argues that Maldives is tilting towards Deobandi Islam, the religion of the Taliban. There are reports of Maldivian youths fighting alongside Taliban in Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan. The growing radicalism, funded by money received from charities and donations, has led to extremist views on religion and its influence on society.

Saudi’s commitment to build ten world class mosques in Maldives reiterates the taboo of ‘liquor mosques’ where praying in the mosques built out of tourism revenue ( as tourists indulge in relishing alcohol) is considered haraam. Otherwise what logic explains building ten more mosques in a country which has less than 4,00,000 of population and already had more than 725 mosques by mid-1991? Hence such commitments by Saudi Arabia need to be watched carefully as it raises many apprehensions for regional stability.

Saudi: A stabilizing factor amidst growing ISIS threats in Indian Ocean?

Amidst the rising clout of non-state actors and global extremism, Saudi and Maldives have reiterated their determination to fight extremism and terrorism in all their forms and manifestations, as both the countries are based on “tolerant principles of Islam”. This could also be interpreted as a hint towards curbing the ISIS menace. Saudi Arabia, during the early days of ISIS appeared to be smitten by it, as it had pledged to vanquish the Shiite crescent with Sunni fire. But later the Kingdom officially condemned Islamic State’s activities as it started taking shape in the heart of a historical Sunni patrimony and posed existential threat to the Kingdom’s monarchy by promoting the pristine Wahabi ideology of "One leader, One authority, One mosque: submit to it, or be killed". The ‘one leader’ here essentially meant the Caliph of Islamic State and not the king of the Saudi Arabian kingdom. As British diplomat Alastair Crooke observes, ‘On the one hand, ISIS is deeply Wahabist. On the other hand, it is ultra-radical in a different way. It could be seen essentially as a corrective movement to contemporary Wahabism.’ To add to its woes, neither the pro-reform (spring leaders) nor anti-reform leaders (ISIS) are giving any importance to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed had earlier expressed fears that around 200 Maldivian youths have been recruited by ISIS. Even the Commissioner of Police Hussain Waheed has said that it is a cause of concern that Maldivians nationals are leaving the country to fight in wars abroad. The exact number of Maldivians abroad for Jihad remains unclear, with sporadic groups departing to Syria and Iraq every week. The Commissioner of Police has estimated that around 50 Maldivians are working with foreign rebel groups, dwarfing figures suggested by Home Minister Umar Naseer in December 2014. A jihadist group called Bilad Al Sham Media (BASM) – which describes itself as ‘Maldivians in Syria’ – revealed that a fifth Maldivian had died in Syria. Now the figure of youths joining extremist groups can be contested, but the fact cannot be denied that even a small group is potent enough to spread the poison of extremism in this tiny nation, which can have cascading effect over maritime security of Indian Ocean.

If both the nations are genuinely committed to fight the ghost of ISIS, then it is a welcome move as a stable and peaceful Maldives is in the interest of regional security of Indian Ocean Region at large and India in particular. But the question remains as to what Saudi and Maldives are aspiring for? To replicate a Pakistani model in India’s backyard or to create a win-win-win situation for all?

Maneuvering between Two Friends- Way Ahead for India

Saudi Arabia is a time tested friend of India with trade being the dominant factor in the relationship. Diplomatically, Saudi is the gateway into the wider Arab world. India has contributed a lot in the prosperity of Saudi, by buying oil at high prices and by helping in building up its economy. It is largely believed that the Kingdom granted a grace period of six months to correct and regularize status of illegal workers in Saudi Arabia post enactment of Nitaqat wok policy in 2011 (directed at illegal expatriates in Saudi Arabia), keeping in mind more than 280,000 Indians working in Saudi.

Similarly, Maldives has traditionally come under India’s sphere of influence and depends heavily on India for its maritime security and military requirements. New Delhi’s immediate intervention under the banner of ‘Operation Cactus’ after Maldives request in 1988 to thwart the attempted coup against the then President Mohamed Gayoom is still remembered with reverence in Maldives. But the ongoing turmoil in Maldives which essentially is inimical to Indian interest is raising the concerns in New Delhi. Any attempt by an external player to strengthen ongoing consolidation of power and exacerbate the radicalization can have detrimental effects for India.

Deepening Saudi-Maldives relation can prevent Maldives from turning into the launchpad of Islamic State in Indian Subcontinent. But at the same time, India cannot remain insulated if Maldives becomes a safe haven for other extremists due to generous pouring of money from Saudi, which may like to foil Islamic State by emboldening its arch rival Al-Qaeda or LeT. Even the common Maldivian is not willing to endanger the gains of hard earned democracy by turning his homeland into a fertile ground of extremism. The challenge for India is to ensure that the money emanating from Saudi goes for empowerment of Maldivian society by actually promoting ‘the tolerant version of Islam’ than further radicalizing them and to pull out its economy from the current slump, without undermining the friendly relations with both the countries. It is extremely important to turn this credible threat of growing camaraderie between Saudi and Maldives into an opportunity for strengthening regional security mechanism by exchanging information.

The timing of Yameen’s visit to Saudi, barely five days after the pronouncement of Nasheed’s thirteen years jail term is alarming and underscores the urgency with which China and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have legitimized President Yameen’s acts. India cannot in any case remain a mute spectator and has to steer the wheel if it aspires to be the ‘Net Security Provider’ of the Indian Ocean region.

Published date: 31st March 2015, Image source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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