The Ministry of Economic Development will not renew individual liquor permits, according to State Minister Adhil Saleem, and new regulations governing the sale of alcohol will still apply minus the controversial clause permitting the sale of alcohol on inhabited islands.
The Ministry will continue to honour existing licenses until they expired, Adhil said.
“They were issued in increments of six months to a year,” he explained. “After that there will be no access to liquor on any inhabited island in the Maldives, be it by expats, resort staff, or whoever.”
The exception, he confirmed, were UN staff and diplomats who were governed by international conventions, making “the Maldives and Saudi Arabia the only countries effectively banning the availability of liquor for non-Muslims.”
State Minister for Islamic Affairs Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed said there was scope for alcohol to be sold to non-Muslims in an Islamic state, and said comparisons with Saudi Arabia were false because alcohol was readily available to non-Muslims at resorts and the Hulhule Island Hotel (HIH) on the airport island.
“The tourism industry has sold alcohol [to non-Muslims] for a long time,” he explained. “But it is a concern to open bars in [wider Maldivian] society. Maldivians do not want to have bars near schools and mosques, not because they are angry towards non-Muslim expatriates. Teachers and doctors are respected members of society.”
Shaheem observed that even in countries like Malaysia and Qatar where alcohol was sold, bars were not permitted near schools and mosques.
“The Ministry for Economic Development did not discuss this with us, and we are supposed to be a unity government.”
Adhil agreed that as the Holiday Inn was located near a school, parliament and the Centre for the Holy Qur’an, “I don’t think it will have a license to sell liquor any time soon.”
Prohibition black markets
While the government had effectively banned alcohol from inhabited islands with the removal of both the individual licenses and the new regulations, Adhil noted that “the demand [for alcohol] has not gone. There is big demand from the country’s 100,000 non-Muslim expatriates.”
The resorts and HIH near Male’ were not an option for many expatriates on salaries of less than US$1000 a month, he explained.
“The resorts will be fine for accountants and managers who can afford the boat ride and the sale price at resort bars,” Adhil said. “And those who used to drink alcohol with dinner now have a 20 minute boat ride to HIH. It is like Australia sending Maldivian or Indian expatriates to Tasmania when they want to chew betel nut.”
Adhil claimed the issue would trigger a problem of law enforcement “when [alcohol] is somehow smuggled through. We have not done anything to dampen the demand and we cannot hope to plug the supply – that has never been achieved anywhere in the world.”
He suggested that beyond organising protests, “the scholars have not addressed the issue of demand. They need to go to the street corners and make the non-Muslim expatriates listen.”
He said he doubted many expatriates were even aware of the new arrangements.
Shaheem emphasised that neither the Adhaalath party nor the Islamic Ministry were “against tourism, the economy or development.”
“My concern was also that radical groups might have used [the new regulations] as an excuse for an attack, and this would have caused the economy to go down along with the number of foreigners visiting [the Maldives].”
Shaheem noted that he had recently returned from a trip to the UK where he attended discussions on counter-terrorism with a range of relevant authorities, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Cabinet Office, Home Office and heads of counter-terrorism in the Justice Ministry.
“There was a lot of discussion around how to fight ideologies and radical ideas,” he explained.
Adhil said he felt the Ministry’s regulations had been “deliberately misrepresented on account of political interests”, in a push to introduce non-alcohol tourism and “wipe alcohol from the country altogether.”
What would likely happen, he predicted, was that island communities would make their own development decisions “without blanket regulations.” Herathera resort, he noted by way of example, is only separated from an inhabited island “by a recently dug canal.”
“What this does mean is that the government’s plans for development, as set out by the MDP, including schools, transport networks, and healthcare, won’t be achievable in 5-10 years. The Maldives public has to realise this, because otherwise we’ll be depending on Saudi Arabia to achieve progress before 2060.”
Shaheem however suggested there was extensive potential for the Maldives to develop “cultural tourism” on inhabited islands.
“A lot of hotels, such as the Intercontinental in Medina, are without alcohol,” he explained. “What about developing alcohol-free resorts; Islamic tourism, just like Islamic banking?”