The Soneva Group has composed a statement in response to allegations published in the UK media, that the head of the upmarket resort company, Sonu Shivdasani, had engaged a PR firm to “spruce up” the image of Dr Mohamed Waheed’s government.
The company’s flagship resort, Soneva Fushi in Baa Atoll, is known for its ecological innovation. It hosts the annual ‘Slow Life Symposium’, drawing environmental luminaries from around the world – including, last October, former President Mohamed Nasheed.
However, “No fan of [former President] Nasheed’s tax proposals, Sonu was keen to help the new administration spruce up its image,” alleged a recent column in the the UK’s Private Eye magazine.
The article contended that post February 7, an “unlikely alliance” had emerged between certain resorts – desperate to stabilise the sudden political instability for the sake of their bottom lines – and the new government, a loose alliance of ambitious political elements who came to power on a platform of Islamic conservatism.
“The reality is that the Maldives – already favoured by footballers, Russian gangsters and off-duty Israeli arms dealers – are an even harder sell since the coup has given us an unlikely alliance between hoteliers promoting bikini-clad, cocktail-fuelled luxury and a government that includes two imams, wants to bring back the death penalty and has done nothing about the destruction by supporters of the coup of the national museum’s entire pre-Islamic collection,” the article stated.
The article alleged that “in April [Shivdasani] e-mailed Britain’s well known PR guru Matthew Freud, saying: ‘I just spoke to President Waheed. He is happy to engage your services (for tourism PR) on a barter basis whereby Reethi Rah and Soneva Fushi would offer accommodation at our resorts in lieu of the barter. Did you manage to speak to Alan Leibman from One and Only?’” the column stated.
“Freud initially appeared thrilled at the prospect of free holidays: ’We greatly look forward to working with you and the president,’” it stated, apparently having obtained the relevant correspondence between the pair.
“But by the time President Waheed had got in on the act later in the month, writing to Freud: ‘We had discussed along with Sonu that a contract will be signed first among SixSenses, One and Only and Matthew to assist us with tourism promotion in the UK. Matthew will send us an outline a proposed activities as discussed’ – the legendary PR guru had developed cold feet: ‘I am sorry that the adverse political climate prevents us from being more directly involved but going to a doctor who will make you sicker is rarely a good idea.’”
In a counter statement from the group, obtained by Minivan News, the company sought to clarify the “facts” of the case.
“Sonu Shivdasani does not have a political relationship with President Mohamed Waheed, their interaction revolves specifically around environmental and ecological issues,” the Soneva statement read.
“In addition to former President Mohammed Nasheed, President Mohamed Waheed demonstrated an active level of support and interest in Soneva Fushi’s sustainable practices during his vice presidency. He attended both the 2010 and 2011 SLOWLIFE Symposia at Soneva Fushi.
“President Mohamed Waheed’s interest in environmental issues has remained consistent; it is on these grounds and issues that he and Sonu Shivdasani have interacted since his assumption to the Presidency.”
The company claimed that the discussion between Freud PR and President Waheed had concerned the PR firm’s Director, Arlo Brady, “who is associated with the Blue Marine Foundation.”
“The discussions focused on creating the World’s largest Marine Reserve in the country and other environment initiatives. I offered Freud PR complimentary accommodation at Soneva Fushi in return for their support of the government with this campaign and other environment initiatives in the country that were discussed,” the Soneva statement read.
A source within the Soneva Group described the situation as “a bloody mess”.
Shivdasani “completely fell for Waheed’s line that Nasheed didn’t resign under duress” and had – unsuccessfully – asked a number of PR agencies to set up interviews for the new President, Minivan News was informed.
The source surmised that Shivdasani had “innocently, stupidly, somehow believed Waheed”, and “gone out of his way to help [the new President].”
Soneva’s statement meanwhile disputed the resort’s motivation to support the new government based on supposed plans to amend a corporate tax bill implemented by Nasheed, as, “to the best of my knowledge, there are no plans by the current President Mohamed Waheed to reduce or eliminate this tax.”
Following the controversial transfer of power the Maldives now faces spiralling budget deficit of 27 percent, an ongoing foreign currency shortage, plummeting investor confidence, spiraling expenditure, and a drop off in foreign aid.
A proposal by the Finance Ministry last week to curb impending economic crisis included raising the tourism goods and services tax (TGST) to 15 percent, among other measures. Several resort managers told Minivan News earlier this year that a sudden TGST increase would have to be taken out their margins due to contractual commitments with tour operators, following the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s demand that this be raised to 12 percent.
“To the best of my knowledge, President Mohamed Nasheed did not have plans to raise further taxes from resorts in the Maldives,” the Soneva statement read.
“There were discussions about taxes being introduced on other industries in the Maldives as well as the introduction of an income tax on Maldivian nationals. Neither of these would impact Soneva or I as we are not involved in other businesses in the Maldives,” it added.
Sonenva Fushi’s Slow Life Symposium in October attracted an array of high profile business, media and environmental figures including Virgin head Richard Branson, actress Daryl Hannah, star of films including ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘Splash’; Ed Norton, star of films including ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American History X’; Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project; Mike Mason, founder of Climate Care, one of the world’s first carbon trading companies; and British author, journalist and environmental activist Mark Lynas.
Branson waded into Maldivian politics on his blog on February 24, calling on President Waheed to “do the right thing” and hold free and fair elections before the end of the year.
It was, Branson wrote to Dr Waheed, “completely astounding that you have been part of an overthrow of a democratically elected government that has effectively let the old regime back into power.”
“Knowing you, I would assume that you were given no choice and that it was through threats that you have ended up in this position,” Branson said. “I do very much hope that was the case rather than you doing it of your own free will.”
Days later, Branson wrote another entry, saying that he had spoken on the phone to Dr Waheed, who told him he had appointed “a respected person” to examine the truth of what caused President Nasheed to “resign”.
“He says that he didn’t know who issued an arrest warrant for President Nasheed after he left office but that it had been rescinded within 48 hours. He is determined to be an honest broker, to be seen to be one, and to get everyone’s confidence. He said that he offered to bring in people from President Nasheed’s party but they refused to join.
“He also pointed out that President Nasheed’s party had been a minority party and had only been in power due to the support of others. It would be for those others, and the electorate to decide who rules in the future. He ended by pledging elections in July of next year – in line with the constitution – once confidence has been restored,” Branson wrote.
“Based on his personal reputation I believe he’s sincere in wanting to do what’s right for the country and return it to a true and lasting democracy.”
A few days later, Branson wrote a third post, resuming his first call “for early elections “as soon as feasibly possible”.
“Having listened to both sides, it does seem wise for an election to take place as soon as is feasibly possible so that the people of the Maldives can begin to put this ugly chapter behind them,” Branson wrote.
Lynas – another Slow Life participant who also worked as Nasheed’s Climate Advisor – was quick to condemn Dr Waheed’s new government, claiming that his “lack of democratic legitimacy” had lost the Maldives’ its voice at international climate negotiations.
“Waheed and his representatives have no moral authority because they were not elected, have strong connections with corrupt and violent elements of the former dictatorship, and took power in the dubious circumstances of a police coup,” Lynas argued.
“The Maldives has lost many years of work already – it has little credibility left with donors or international investors. Investors and donors alike are looking for stability and strong governance – and they will not get either of those whilst the political system is essentially deadlocked between competing parties, with regular protests and ensuing police violence.
“In climate terms the Maldives is well on its way to becoming a failed state – I see no prospect of it achieving Nasheed’s 2020 carbon neutral goal, even if that goal is still official policy,” Lynas said.
“I think time has basically run out now – unless there are early elections quickly and a legitimate government re-established there is no real prospect of resurrecting the Maldives’ leadership on climate change.”
Yet another Slow Life participant, Mike Mason, who worked pro bono as Nasheed’s Energy Advisor, resigned following Nasheed’s ousting despite being asked by Waheed to remain.
“I don’t think Dr Waheed is a bad man – actually I like him a lot personally,” he wrote, in an email to an official in the Trade Ministry obtained by Minivan News.
“However, he has done nothing to assure me that this is really a democratic process. Rather, my intelligence tells me this is a Gayoom inspired coup with Dr Waheed as an unfortunate puppet.
“Even if I did work with Waheed, I couldn’t deliver the plan now [because of falling] investor confidence,” he subsequently told Minivan News. “[The perpetrators] have destroyed US$2-3 billion worth of investment and condemned the country to an unstable economic future based upon diesel.”