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Saudis set to lease atoll in Maldives. Wahhabi threat in India's backyard?

Binoo K John | Updated on: 6 March 2017, 19:15 IST

To the south west of Kerala in the Indian Ocean lie the Maldives – a chain of coral islands known for their beauty as well as their tumultuous existence.

Most of the islands are barely centimetres above sea level, with the highest natural point being just eight feet above sea level. And some years ago, climate change experts announced that the entire chain of islands will soon be swallowed up by the rising waters of the Indian Ocean. According to a United Nations report, the Maldives may not survive beyond the year 2100.


However, despite the threat to their very existence, the lonely islands are hot property in international diplomatic circles. India, China and Saudi Arabia are each planning to lease one atoll (group of islands) each from Maldives' bouquet of 26. 

India vs China

Maldives has, for long, been an Indian outpost, especially during the three-decade-long presidency of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

But the islands are increasingly slipping into the arms of potential contestants to maritime supremacy in the region.

The island nation is a key part of China's audacious 'String of Pearls' policy, which intends to surround India with crucial outposts around the Indian Ocean.

But it's the Saudis who are the first off the block. This week, King Salman landed in the Maldives with his 1,500-strong entourage to finalise the deal.

Opposition to leasing out atolls

The Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has issued a strong statement emphasising the dangers of leasing out atolls to foreign powers, which can be nothing but a case of selling family jewels to pay an old debt. In the proverbial sense, it can be as dangerous as inviting a tiger to share your meal.

“President (Abdulla) Yameen recently announced plans to sell Faafu atoll to the government of Saudi Arabia, without any form of consultation with the people of Faafu or the Maldives. This has resulted in understandable public outrage. To date, no information on the proposed project has been shared with the public. The MDP expresses serious concern that the Faafu plans – which would allow a foreign power to control one of the country's 26 atolls – amounts to creeping colonialism by the Saudi government.”

The MDP parliamentary group also stated its intention to overturn a constitutional amendment passed in 2015, which allows foreign parties to own land in the Maldives. 

What do the Saudis want?

Saudi Arabia's intentions to lease the atoll, as of now, are unclear. But surely, the atoll cannot be for the purpose of building a mall or a resort. The real reason behind King Salman's initiative can only be to shore up the wobbly Maldives as a powerful Islamic state with Saudi presence, Saudi money and a Saudi army.

It is not that the Maldives, cut off from the rest of the dirty world by miles of ocean, are immune to religious tail-winds. As early as the 13th century, the islands were visited by an Islamic itinerant, who promptly converted the people from Buddhism. Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta also landed there.

Like waves that lash its coasts, conquerors and travellers over centuries have seen the archipelago as a challenge and opportunity. King Salman is the latest among them.

And with Saudi Arabia would come Wahhabism, the puritanical and literal interpretation of Islam, which is often cited as the root of jihadism. The Saudis would inject generous doses of Wahhabism into the frail social and economic fabric of the island nation, where political coups are a dime a dozen.

The MDP has also expressed its concern about the rapidly increasing radicalisation in the Maldives. According to the party, over 200 Maldivians have travelled to Syria and other Middle-Eastern countries, supported by known terrorist groups, including ISIS.

It is evident that a Saudi Arabian atoll in India's backyard could be dangerous to India. It could create a new assembly line of radicals to the south west, as if the ones in the north and to the east in Bangladesh were not enough.

The danger to Kerala

An estimated two or three lakh Maldivian residents spend most of their time in Kerala for basic things like healthcare, education and trade and small businesses. Capital city Thiruvanathapuram, from where the first flight to Maldives' capital Male started about two decades ago, is the biggest beneficiary.

Herein lies the real danger: Kerala, with its 30% well-educated and largely liberal Muslim population, has been immune to the medievalist trends emanating from the Gulf, to which Kerala has close ties. But Kerala, too, has been experimenting with radicalism – what with bomb blasts and ISIS lovers. One among Kerala's ISIS supporters who had fled the state a year ago was reported killed in a drone attack last week in Afghanistan.

So, in terms of security risks, it is very easy to conjure up a radical bridge across the Indian Ocean that will funnel both Saudi money and ideology to Kerala, where temples, churches and mosques are the main industries upturning the Nehruvian vision of big industries being the temples of modern India, and also make it a communal tinder box. Many grand mosques built with Gulf money already exist in Kerala.

So, the danger and risks of a Saudi Arabian atoll in the Maldives is immediate.

India-Saudi alliance to check China?

There is a counter-argument as well.Could Saudi Arabia actually work as India's ally in the Indian Ocean, especially to counter the Chinese influence? This will take some time to take shape (provided the Maldives survive global warming).

However, in the short to medium term, the arrival of Saudi Arabia in India's backyard can only spell danger.

First published: 6 March 2017, 19:20 IST