Military leaders from the Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka have agreed to cooperate in order to increase security regulations on vessels that violate maritime laws.
The meeting took place at the third National Security Advisor (NSA) level Trilateral Meeting on Maritime Security Cooperation between the Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka on March 6 and 7 in New Delhi.
The agreement comprised of a number of steps, including information sharing, training in oil pollution response and cooperation in the legal and policy response to piracy.
Shivshankar Menon, chair of the meeting and Indian National Security Advisor stated, “the immediate threat that we have been facing in the last few years is piracy and that fortunately…is down. But, even though the number is down…that doesn’t mean the primary source of the problem, which is on land, has been solved. We need to keep putting in this effort.”
The next NSA meeting will take place in the Maldives.
“This is the foundation of Addu’s development,” said Addu’s mayor Abdullah Sodiq, referring to the city’s SAARC preparations during a press conference held in Hithadhoo yesterday. He said the projects had been supported by “99 percent” of Addu residents.
Maldivian media was flown to Addu yesterday to observe preparations for the upcoming 17th annual SAARC Summit, scheduled for November 10-12. Festivities will be held in the area starting on the first of the month, in conjunction with the Muslim holiday of Eid.
“We are expecting a lot of traffic through here, and are confident that everything will be ready in time,” Sodiq said. “But this is only the beginning, and we have many more plans for development.”
Addu’s SAARC projects have been underway for six months, officials report. As the deadline approaches, construction teams are working round the clock to finish two harbors, a VVIP lounge, roads and the country’s largest convention center.
Sodiq said the harbors will renovate Addu’s commercial prospects, while the convention center provides new opportunities for locals, officials and foreigners alike.
“The harbor is a central place for Addu, there is demand for it even after SAARC and we have plans to generate more industry and shipping using these new resources,” said Sodiq.
New roads constructed around the convention center have made future road development less expensive for the council’s budget, he added.
Addu’s council also plans to use the Rf115 million convention center, a two-story building of glass, wood and marble with a capacity of 3000, to transform the atoll from a quiet place to a hub of business and tourism.
“We have some representatives talking to businesses in Singapore and Malaysia about hosting events here,” Sodiq told Minivan News. “We will be soliciting bids to find the right event manager to look after the convention center as well. I think there are people interested in what Addu has to offer, and I’m sure we can get a market for it.”
Officials and locals interviewed also hinted at hopes for musical events, theatrical performances, art exhibitions and holiday celebrations.
Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Assistant Director Ahmed Abeer Ismail said the centre’s origins were a sign of Addu’s potential. “That area began as a swamp, now it’s the biggest convention center in the country.” The swamp was heavily landscaped by MNDF and police forces, and now features a few scenic islands.
One of the Maldives’ most strategic atolls, Addu has been largely left to seed since the British withdrew its forces and influence in 1975. City councilor Ahmed Mirzad called SAARC the beginning of a new Addu.
“For 30 years we had Gayoom, and nothing was done in Addu. Then there was a new president, and unlike Gayoom he didn’t just look after Male’, he looked after the entire Maldives. For 30 years we didn’t even have one harbor that was working for Addu, but in the past six months, we have gotten everything,” said Mirzad.
Addu’s councilors were elected for the first time six months ago. Mirzad said the next three years will be a difficult but critical time for the council to prove itself to Addu’s people. Still, the timing is ideal.
“I don’t think, I know that this summit is the right starting point. Now, we will only keep going with our plans to grow,” he said.
One particular operation illustrates the grassroots motives behind the SAARC preparations. Selected from Maldives National University (MNU) Addu first-year students in hospitality, 24 Media Liaison Officers greeted Male’s press pack yesterday.
One young woman said the event was as much for the liaisons as for Male’ press.
“It’ll be challenging to handle foreigners and media personnel,” a group of students concurred. “But we are so happy to have this opportunity.”
“I was shocked to be asked to take part in SAARC, I never thought that I would get to work at something I’d heard so much about,” said another student. “And the certificate of reference that I’ll get afterwards will be really helpful for me when I’m looking for a job after graduation,” she added.
Liaisons have just completed a six-month management course and are attending seminars and briefings for SAARC. They will be divided into 11 teams of two to three officers and assigned to press pooles from different countries.
“The ministry was going to get people from Male’, but I suggested we use the local energy. They are good, they can do the job, and this is a key event, so why shouldn’t these students take part?” said Abeer.
Addu’s development isn’t only tailored to foreigners; Sodiq said part of the development plan is to bring Addu residents home.
“Unlike other islands, we have historical places to visit and our islands are connected, so tourists can actually see more than the sun, sand and sea. We will be constructing more lodgings as well, and our hospital and airport are going to be expanded. More business means more jobs, and part of the purpose of all this is to bring Addu citizens back after their migrations to Male’,” he said.
In Addu, infrastructure is a priority for community growth. Noting that education was key to development, Sodiq said that a Kangaroo school is scheduled to open next year, and a Billabong school is being considered.
For the moment, however, Addu’s mind is on SAARC.
With teams working around the clock to complete harbors in Gan and Feydhoo, and MNDF motorcades practicing their moves late into the night, Addu is a bustle of construction and security.
Both harbors were originally due for completion on October 25, yet concrete foundations have not yet been laid. However officials assure that they are 90 percent complete. When asked about setbacks, National Security Advisor Ameen Faisal said, “The weather. Due to heavy rains, many projects were delayed. It was unexpected and beyond our control, but we managed and we are on target.”
Inquiries of Addu’s appearance for SAARC yielded few details. “It’s a secret, we want it to be a surprise,” Faisal and Sodiq concurred.
Security, however, is highly detailed.
MNDF has delegated security teams to specific event components including media, medical, resort transport, and the airport. “Right now we are very confident in our security personnel and do not anticipate any problems during the SAARC summit,” said International Media Coordinator Ahmed Ibrahim.
Ibrahim added that “it will be helpful to have the extra security forces that other countries are providing because Addu is very big.” In addition to ground security, MNDF will be supported by the coast guard, which will establish multiple security layers around Addu’s marine perimeter, special task forces from Sri Lanka, and surveillance equipment from China, among others.
Summit guests include three of the world’s most controversial heads of state from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their reputations do not appear to cause anxiety to SAARC officials.
“They will not receive any special treatment, unless requested of course,” said MNDF Commander of SAARC Airport Security, Ahmed Shafeeq.
“There is no risk at all,” said Faisal. “We aren’t even bothered about it.”
Tourism insiders say that the industry has not done enough to provide security at the country’s resorts as authorities, while security officials and businesses continue to work on outlining new protective measures for properties across the country.
As security officials continue to await the outcomes from consultations by a steering group formed following a security seminar and workshop held last week to outline methods to reduce possible threats facing the country’s resorts, some property owners and managers appear divided over the severity of the challenges faced.
Speaking to Minivan News, ‘Sim’ Mohamed Ibrahim from the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) said that despite ongoing attempts to outline a nationwide resort security initiative since 2008, no such policy had as yet been put in place.
Following last week’s security seminars, Sim said he was confident that by working with the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF), the police, and the coastguard, progress was now being made in outlining long-term security strategies for tourism. He conceded though that the industry would need to bare more of the financial brunt to protect its interests in the future.
“Resorts do need more investment in regards to security, we haven’t done enough so far,” said the MATI head.
Sim said that last week’s seminar reflected growing industry concerns of late raised by the active Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture as well as industry bodies over protecting the country’s lucrative resort islands from possible theft and attack.
The country has this year alone faced two isolated, yet high-profile incidences of intrusion at properties such as Kihaadhuffaru resort and Baros Island Resort and Spa highlighting for some the magnitude of the threats facing the country.
Sim claimed that these concerns were not an “isolated” issue for tourist properties alone, but rather a symptom of rising levels of crime on inhabited islands such as the Maldivian capital of Male’ that had spilled onto resorts.
“This is not to say that the government is working on this issue [of crime], but really they need better laws in the country for offenders,” he claimed.
To try and combat fears over criminals targeting resorts, the MATI Secretary-General said he believed that improved networking between different resorts and ease of communication was a vital part of limiting potential attacks in the future. He added that the closer cooperation between tourism officials and the police and armed forces in the country was also seen as another key aim.
However, Sim claimed that rather than bringing wide-ranging reforms to tourist and resort security, the country would be better prioritising commitments in areas where it was able to ensure effective changes could be put in place.
He added that a committee containing government and tourism industry figures was now working to address what sort of commitments should be prioritised on the back of last week’s security seminar.
“The best thing to come from these talks is that we are now attempting to work together [with the government and security forces]. We know we are not alone as an industry,” he said. “In the past, we have tended not to mix the leisure side of holidays with security, but this is something that we need to do.”
Speaking today to Minivan News, National Security Advisor Ameen Faisal said that he still haven’t received feedback from the steering committee of government and industry figures regarding outlining new proposals for resort security.
While Faisal added that he was not sure of the exact nature that potential changes could mean for how defence forces worked with the tourism industry, he was convinced it would not lead to a rise in their presence on resort islands.
“Personally, I don’t think operational changes will be seen in the manner that police and the MNDF operate regarding tourism,” he said. “There will probably be some training programmes conducted by police for resort security, but I don’t think we will see a physical presence by defence forces at these resorts.”
In addressing any perceived threats posed by Maldivian gang crime reaching the isolated environs of the country’s tourist properties, not all resort groups appeared to have share MATI’s beliefs that security problems were generated solely by offshore criminals.
One general manager for a leading multinational brand of resorts in the country said under anonymity that he believed the resort robberies were more likely to have resulted from serving or former employees with knowledge of the properties than from random attacks by gangs or opportunistic thieves.
In taking this view, the general manager said that he believed it was often imperative to try and effectively manage staff and their grievances that could often occur from very small and often easily rectified measures.