Special Advisor to President Mohamed Waheed and leader of the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), Dr Hassan Saeed, has appealed to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging him to terminate the Maldives’ airport development contract with Indian infrastructure giant GMR.
GMR signed a 25 year concession agreement with the former administration to develop and manage Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA). Saeed’s DQP was vocally opposed to the deal while in opposition.
In a self-described “candid” letter to Singh dated September 19, obtained by Minivan News, Saeed claimed that “GMR and India ‘bashing’ is becoming popular politics”, and warned that “as a result, “the Maldives is becoming fertile ground for nationalistic and extremist politicians.”
“I want to warn you now that there is a real danger that the current situation could create the opportunity for these extremist politicians to be elected to prominent positions, including the Presidency and Parliament on an anti-GMR and anti-India platform,” Saeed informed Singh.
“That would not be in the interests of either the Maldives or India. You are well aware of the growing religious extremism in our country,” Saeed stated, in an apparent turnaround from the party’s former position.
Months prior to the downfall of Nasheed’s government in February, Saeed’s DQP published a pamphlet entitled ‘President Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy the Islamic faith of Maldivians’, which accused Nasheed of “working ceaselessly to weaken the Islamic faith of Maldivians, allow space for other religions, and make irreligious and sinful behaviour common.”
Specific allegations in the pamphlet against Nasheed’s administration included “fostering ties with Jews”, “holding discos”, “dancing”, permitting the consumption of alcohol, fraternising with “Christian priests”, characterising the Maldives as “a nest of terrorists and Maldivian scholars as terrorists”, failing to condemn comments by UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay opposing “Shariah punishments like flogging fornicators”, permitting senior female diplomats and party officials to wear skirts, and attending the Miss France 2011 Beauty Queen pageant on the night of the Holy Hajj.
“Nationalism and extremism in India’s backyard is not good for India or our small country,” Saeed informed Prime Minister Singh, in his letter.
Saeed went on to accuse GMR of extensive bribery, including the payment of “millions of dollars to buy MPs to get a parliamentary majority for the then ruling Maldivian Democratic Party”.
He claimed that “politicians and MPs who end up in GMR’s pocket keep silent but no one – with the exception of former President Nasheed and his key associates – have defended the indefensible GMR deal in public.”
“When politicians and legislators are unable to debate openly such important national issues and address them in an appropriate manner the public starts to look for alternative voices,” Saeed claimed.
“I fear that the only viable alternative for them appears to be nationalist and religious leaders, which could turn a bad situation ugly.”
Saeed advised Prime Minister Singh that “due to the negative connotations of the GMR issue, many positive elements of our relationship such as the vast amounts of grants and loans by India to the Maldives go unnoticed.”
Maldivian Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad in late October warned that the Maldives would be unable to pay state salaries for the rest of the year without a further US$25 million loan from the Indian government.
The US$25 million was agreed upon in September 2012 as part of a US$100 million standby credit facility signed with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November 2011.
“Indians and the Indian government may find it difficult to understand the growing anti-Indian sentiments here in the Maldives in spite of the vast amount of aid and loans we receive from you,” Saeed informed Prime Minister Singh, and complained that all bilateral talks with India now “start with and end up on the subject of the GMR issue.”
“As a result many other crucial discussions are delayed or are tied up with GMR. Normally straightforward issues such as simplifying the Indian visa for Maldivians end up being tied into the GMR issue,” Saeed said.
A second pamphlet produced by Saeed’s DQP while it was in opposition criticised GMR as “paving the way for the enslavement of Maldivians in our beloved land”, and warned that “Indian people are especially devious”.
“Maldivians feel our respect is taken for granted, our sovereignty infringed and that India is developing a ‘big brother’ approach to relations with us,” Saeed wrote to Singh on September 19.
“The Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit to our country in February  failed to resolve the political crisis largely because India is no longer seen as a friendly and fair neighbour who could broker an honest and fair deal. It cannot help India’s international reputation to be seen as unable to resolve a crisis in its own backyard.”
Saeed furthermore informed Prime Minister Singh that “the Indian diplomatic corps in the Maldives appears to be so passionate in protecting GMR interests that one often gets confused as to whether they are GMR employees or diplomats representing the Indian government.”
The remarks echoed controversial comments by President’s Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza at an anti-GMR rally on Friday – during which Riza accused Indian High Commissioner D M Mulay of protecting GMR’s interests and being “a traitor and enemy of Maldives and Maldivian people”.
Saeed claimed in his letter that “increasingly Maldivians believe that the unfair treatment of the Maldives by the Commonwealth is connected with GMR and India.”
“It appears to many Maldivians that Indian officials are using international leverage and contacts to influence Commonwealth governments and forcing the way the Maldives is governed, thus impinging on our sovereignty. Some Indian diplomats continuously remind our senior government officials that the Maldives would be removed from the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) agenda the moment the GMR issue is resolved,” Saeed claimed.
For its part, GMR has downplayed its confrontation with the new government. However it admitted last month to India’s Business Standard publication that “public statements and press conferences of some government ministers and coalition party leaders are clearly aimed at arousing public sentiments against GMR and creating undue challenges for us.
“To gain political advantage, some elements of the government itself have started hampering the smooth functioning and development of the airport,” the company added.
The most recent surge of tension follows the company’s forwarding of a US$2.2 million bill to the government’s side of the contract – the Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL).
The negative balance was the result a civil court case filed by Saeed’s DQP during the Nasheed administration, which blocked the company from levying an airport development charge (ADC) as stipulated in its concession agreement.
The Civil Court ruled in the DQP’s favour. Opting to honour the contract, the Nasheed administration instructed the company to deduct the ADC from its concession fees while it sought to appeal the matter.
The new government – which included the DQP – inherited the problem following the downfall of Nasheed’s government on February 7. In the first quarter of 2012 the government received US$525,355 of an expected US$8.7 million, after the deduction of the ADC. That was followed by a US$1.5 million bill for the second quarter, after the ADC payable eclipsed the revenue due the government.
Combined with the third quarter payment due, the government now owes the airport developer US$3.7 million.
“The net result of this is that the Maldivian government now has to pay GMR for running the airport. On this basis it is likely that the Maldivian government will end up paying about MVR 8 billion (US$519 million) to GMR for the duration of the contract,” Saeed wrote.
Saeed concluded his letter to Prime Minister Singh by suggesting that India “assist us in terminating the GMR contract as soon as possible, well before the 2013 presidential election.”
Download the complete letter (English)