Government offers MVR1 million reward if national team reaches AFC Cup semi-finals

President Abdulla Yameen has offered a MVR1 million (US$64,850) reward to the national football team if they make it to the semi-finals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup – scheduled to begin in the Maldives next week.

Speaking at a special function held last night for senior government officials to meet the team, Yameen expressed his desire “to make sports into something which transcends politics.”

“And for Maldivians the king or queen of sports is football,” he said.

The President’s Office has confirmed this amount will be paid by the government but did not comment on how it would be acquired or whether it be taken from the national budget.

“This cannot be valued in material terms, the joy it would bring to our hearts cannot be measured,” he said, noting that the team would receive even more rewards from the people of the Maldives.

Yameen’s generosity followed Jumhooree Party (JP) Gasim Ibrahim’s offer on Monday of  MVR500,000 reward for the team “even if they don’t win the tournament”.

“Please don’t disappoint us, take us forward. God willing, we will win these matches. With the grace of God, and his will, the Maldivian national team will persevere all the upcoming challenges without any change in their ambitions.”

The AFC Challenge Cup matches will be played at the National Stadium in Malé City and Hithadhoo Zone Stadium in Addu City.

President Yameen notes that hosting the AFC challenge cup in the Maldives was a difficult task, but his government decided to do everything it could for youth and to unite the nation.

Shedding light on the benefits of hosting the tournament, he said it would put the Maldives on the tourism charts and playing matches outside of Malé at the Addu City stadium would bring economic development to the region.

Having upgraded the stadium to AFC standards would provide more opportunities for Maldivian teams to play more regional and international matches, with the resulting of improving Maldivian football.

Sports manifesto

Noting that his government gave a special importance to football and sports in general Yameen said that progress was being made in implementing the youth and sports-related programs in his manifesto

“We are going through very tough times [financially], even so we included those funds by the grace of god and we will deliver it. We included MVR300 million [in the budget] for youth and sports activities.”

The work of establishing sporting complexes on all islands with over 2000 people had already begun with futsal and turf stadiums being given particular focus.

Assuring the youth that all football resources required for the next ten years will be established within his five year term, the president also announced development of the ‘Kulhivaru Ekuveni’ sports complex in Malé as a “Sporting City”.

He said the National Stadium in Malé would be upgraded,  while a brand new sporting complex was planned to be established in Hulhumalé with a modern football stadium and integrated services.

In an effort to display the youth’s “individual unique talent” to the world, the president said a football match would be organised with the national football team of Japan, and a cricket match with the Sri Lankan national team, remarking that President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had done the same before him.

“It is not a simple task to include MVR300 million in the budget every year. We are experiencing [financial] difficulties in many areas right now. However, even with that, we wanted to make sports into something which is beyond politics – for the Maldivian youth, to forget the past, for friendly relations and unity among us.

He appealed to the people of Maldives to support the national team disregarding any differences in political ideologies,  requesting all citizens to “make the national team jersey popular at stadiums and streets”.


Religion and nationalism key themes on National Day

The government held an event inaugurated by Vice President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed at the Republican Square on Wednesday night to mark the Maldives’ 440th National Day.

The day is marked to celebrate the anniversary of the country’s independence from the Portugese invasion.

Members of the cabinet, foreign dignitaries, members of independent commissions as well as the security forces attended the event.

President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom – who is currently in India on his first official trip abroad after assuming office in November 2013 – also gave a pre-recorded national address via the state broadcaster on the occasion.

In his address, the President stated no individual must be allowed the opportunity to take away the nation’s peace for political purposes or to gain personal benefit.

While it is important to view every citizen as a stakeholder in matters of the country, people should not be given the chance to challenge nationalism or conduct any activity that may threaten independence and sovereignty in the guise of freedom of expression or through differences in political opinions, Yameen continued.

“We must instill the spirit of nationalism in the younger generations who will inherit this country in future. The moral we must take away from National Day is for those in power and leading the country, citizens and all responsible leaders to raise national and community interest over personal interest as we work to overcome challenges. This is the example set by Mohamed Thakurufaanu [Maldivian ruler who saved the country from the Portuguese conqueres who ruled the country from 1558 to 1573]. This is the true meaning of his jihad in national interest back on that day,” Yameen stated.

“We must repeat the work our ancestors conducted in rain and shine. The reason we are to take breaths of independence today is due to the glorious jihad and sacrifices they made then for the sake of gaining independence. The country will not be able to take breaths of independence tomorrow unless we succeed in doing major work to overcome economic slavery and establish economic contentment,” he continued.

He pledged to fulfil his term serving all citizens equally and justly.

“I will make this government into one that is kind to its people, and loved by the people. I will bring swift changes as is desired by people and take the Maldives into a new era of development. My team and I will not be deterred in our work regardless of how rough the political seas we must cross become,” he concluded his address.

National Pride

“The spirit of nationalism can be maintained in its purest form only when social justice is established in the country,” Vice President Jameel said, speaking at Wednesday’s event.

The current government would work following the example set by Mohamed Thakurufaanu, Jameel said and called on citizens to protect the country’s independence and sovereignty.

“True nationalism can only be experienced with the improvement of living standards, and the country develops its health and education sectors,” he said.

“The nation must today be covetous of its national pride, of increasing self-sufficience, and should not let go of the national character. Today, if one has love for nationalism, one will not damage the country’s social fabric. One will not give away the country’s economic power into the hands of a foreign party. They will not sell off the national identity to a foreign group with no consideration towards national pride just for political gain. They will not let things go to the point where the country is stripped of the right to speak up about its own internal matters,” Jameel continued.

He appealed to the public to ensure that no one allows any other person to “damage the brotherly bonds between us in the name of establishing democracy, or in things that arise from differences in opinion, or any other cause”.

He then said that the day emphasizes the bridge between nationalism and islam in the country, adding that thus what must be given highest priority is the strengthening religious faith.

“Psychological war against religion, nationalism”

Home Minister Umar Naseer warned in his speech at the same event that there is an “ongoing psychological war aiming to lead astray our faith in Islam, and break up our ties of nationalism, a war that is escalating at a very fast speed”.

He stated that while this is a global danger, the Maldives is not far removed from being in its “line of fire”. Stating that the currently is already being affected by it, he appealed to all Maldivians to refrain from joining the “war” against the nation.

“For a Maldivian son to become a slave of this psychological war is like a cancer cell forming in the body of this nation. It is a huge danger,” he stated.

“It is important to become more independent in the country’s development work, and to give up depending on foreign labourers. There is no reason that the sons of fathers who scraped moss off the underside of fishing boats have to depend on a foreigner just to dust off their motorcycles,” the Home Minister said.

“Ours is a blessed land. It is a land that breeds heroes. Every time a foreign power has tried to meddle with our independence or our Islamic faith, Maldivian soil has brought out heroes that will cause the whole world to step back from,” Umar stated.

Irreligious acts are common today: Adhaalath Party

Religious conservative Adhaalath Party has also released a statement today, extending greetings on the occasion.

The statement spoke of the heroic events of Mohamed Thakurufaanu who had “slain the Portugese commander who had tried to force alcohol down the throats of pious Maldivians”, and then proceeded to compare heroes of the past with present day Maldives.

“The biggest difference is the mentality of Maldivians then and the mentality of Maldivians today. Then, when attempts were made to force alcohol down their throats, they resisted. Yet today, alcohol and narcotics is an epidemic which is alarmingly common among Maldivians,” it read.

“Then the Portuguese tried to force other religions unto Maldivians. Yet today, irreligious acts against Islamic norms are abundantly observed among Maldivians. This is not something the government can deal with by making it the mandate of a specific ministry, but a goal that all institutes must unite to reach.”


Comment: Demand to nationalise airport threatens relationship with India

The sudden and inexplicable way in which an ‘investor-row’ involving the Indian infrastructure group, GMR, is getting a new twist in recent days in Maldives, if unchecked, has the potential to rock bilateral relations.

Coming just days after the successful visit of Indian Defence Minister A K Antony to the atoll-nation, the demands for the ‘nationalisation’ of the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) in Male has left a bad taste. The larger questions however concern the internal political dynamics of Maldives, whose emerging international economic image could impact on the investment-climate when the nation can ill-afford any reversal in FDI inflows.

It was Antony’s second visit to Maldives in three years as Defence Minister, and the only one from another nation holding the post to have visited Maldives in recent history. It was also the first visit by an Indian Minister after the regime-change in Male in February this year.

Going by the joint statement issued on the occasion, the visit and the discussions reportedly were productive for both sides, indicating a greater level of security cooperation between the two South Asian neighbours. Among others, India has promised a new Defence Ministry building, an additional helicopter for the fledgling air arm of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) and naval personnel to help with the maintenance of the Maldivian fleet.

Minister Antony used the occasion to inaugurate the India-aided military hospital in Male with expert personnel on hand, and also laid the foundation for a police training school.

There is an acknowledged need for greater professionalisation of the Maldivian security forces. It has become necessary in the light of the events of the past years and more, when it became clear that the bifurcation of what once used to be known as the National Security Service (NSS) has not served the purpose. In a fledgling multi-party democracy, the uniformed forces came to be a burden to transition even after electoral changes had effected a quiet political transition three years ago.

The Maldives also wants military hospitals in the atolls, which could then be thrown open for serving the common man in the remote islands. Given the increasing levels of bilateral security cooperation between the two countries, New Delhi will also be posting a Defence Attache at the Indian High Commission in Male. At present, the Indian Defence Attache at Colombo, Sri Lanka, is also in charge of India’s specific security interests in Maldives.

Increasing relevance of sea-lines

The Indian initiatives come in the wake of the bilateral, bi-annual Dhosti-XI Coast Guard exercises that were put in place after the coup bid in 1988, which was aborted after India rushed immediate military help. This year’s edition of the exercises also involved neighbouring Sri Lanka, considering that all three nations face shared threats to peace and tranquillity of their shared Indian Ocean waters. Indications were that extra-territorial nations had shown an interest in these maritime exercises, which were promptly kept out, given the immediacy and relevance of the issues, like ‘Somali piracy’ in the shared neighbourhood.

The realisation in India and Maldives for increased offshore military cooperation flows from the increasing relevance of the Indian Ocean sea-lines to the overall geo-strategic concerns of the global community, starting with ‘energy security’. It has been equally reflected in on-shore policy and decision-making in New Delhi, which used to be reciprocated in more than a full measure in Male over the past decades.

In recent times, however, the non-security centric Indian interests and concerns in Maldives have seen enough ups and downs, threatening to unsettle the process, time and again.

This has often resulted in the Governments and policy-makers of the two countries having to start clearing the mess already generated before they could start off on something new. This has had the potential to put the clock back on bilateral cooperation. The delays often get attributed to India, particularly the institutionalised democratic decision-making processes inherent to the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy. Oftentimes, the reverse may be true. The current criticism and opposition to the INIA project, coming as it does from most partners in the government of President Mohamed Waheed, is only the latest in the series, but it also has the potential to rock the boat more violently than in the past, for a variety of reasons.

One agreement, multiple crises

All this does not mean that the government, polity and people of Maldives may not have reservations about the ‘INIA agreement’, which essentially is a lease deed with elements of large-scale investments for modernisation, thrown in, for the tourism-driven economy to upgrade the Male airport to international standards.

Some of the issues being flagged two years after the signing of the agreement – and after substantial progress has been made on the ground – are factors the like of which are involved in any private sector investment in any country. It would be more so when those investments are of overseas origin.

Maldivian political parties that were opposed to the airport contract, when signed, are in power at present. If nothing else, their constituencies would expect them to review the policy that they had derided when in the opposition.

In the Indian context, the ‘civilian nuclear deal’ with the US, and the on-going opposition protests against the sanctioning of ‘FDI in retail trade’, can be parallels. If any or many of them are to return to power at a future date, the political opposition in the country would be called upon to revisit their positions on such issues. Either they accept the ground realities as they existed at that time, or revise the government policy on issues of the kind. These are different from other charges of corruption, for these ones do not involve any complaints of fiscal wrong-doing or loss to the government, per se.

Unlike in India, on the airport deal in Maldives, policy issues, allegations of procedural violations, possibilities of other wrong-doing and loss to the government have all been aired already. Some of them, like the charge that the previous government had circumvented constitutional mandates and legal provisions in the process, or had not acted with care on the prioritisation of contractual conditions and obligations all relate to the domestic front. What they may have to deal with the foreign investor, India’s GMR in this case, are something flowing from the former, but are also independent of the same.

The current phase of the protests owe to President Waheed Hassan’s letter to all parties participating in his government for their views on the matter, for the government to put the inherited problem in the backburner to the mutual satisfaction of all stake-holders. At the end of the day, the airport deal is huge and unprecedented in procedural and financial terms for the country. There is also a need to evolve national consensus on issues and procedures in particular if a successor government has to uphold the national commitments made by a predecessor.

It should in context involve the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of predecessor Mohamed Nasheed at some stage, if ‘consensus-building’ has to make sense to the domestic constituencies and means commitment for the investor company from overseas, from whichever part of the world they come from. It was in the absence of such a consensus when the Nasheed government cleared the deal that the entire issue has been raked up all over again by a successor-government. ‘Due diligence’ became a possibly casualty to political expediency, all round.

The result is that the same agreement has come to be played out politically for a second time in as many years. Earlier, when the agreement was ready for signing, it brought together the divided opposition parties on the same firing-line against the government. They cited various violations of laws and procedures. The after-thought of a parliamentary legislation, directing prior legislative clearance for ‘transfer of national assets’ to private parties, led to the government of the day crying foul, and all 13 nominated members of the cabinet quitting in haste.

Today, when all those parties are in government together, the revival of the issue has threatened the government. One of the government partners, namely, the Dhivehi Rayaththunge Party (DRP) has argued that the government would not have the kind of monies required to pay back the contractor if the deal was rescinded. A few others have called for the ‘nationalisation’ of the airport while some have described it more clearly and carefully as ‘taking it back’. In the process, attributing motives to the DRP leadership and the questioning of their ‘nationalism’ have begun threatening the stability of the government.

That the inherent differences within the ruling coalition cannot but come out in the open once the common adversary in President Nasheed and his MDP had been neutralised was known even to a casual observer of coalition politics the world over. It is written into any coalition arrangement. In Maldives, it reflects a perception of lessening political challenge posed by the MDP, among the partners in the ruling alliance. Such perceptions and decisions based on such perceptions can come to trouble the alliance, just as a perception of a ‘social alliance’ that the MDP thought it had at its disposal when in power failed the party when and where it mattered.

Not different from tourism FDI

This is not the first time that Maldives is faced with policy issues pertaining to overseas’ investments. FDI has been at the centre of the resorts-driven tourism industry, which in turn continues to be the backbone of Maldivian economy over the past decades. The country is yet to find a substitute or a supplementary to the same. So dependent has the economy been on tourism that every global meltdown and every tsunami-like natural catastrophe has upset the Maldivian apple-cart, thankfully to revive in good time and through innovative approaches.

Yet, when the tourism economy evolved, the policy involved long-term lease of individual islands/islets for the foreign investor to build his resort, market it mostly to foreigners, and also repatriate his profits in dollars, and without going through the Maldivian banking system. There were no tabs or restrictions other than the payment of ‘bed tax’ on a pro rata basis to the Maldivian government. The policy has paid very rich dividends to the economy of Maldives, changed the face of the country and has inspired individual Maldivians to aspire for more.

The evolution and implementation of the nation’s tourism policy owed mainly to the presence of a strong and single leadership at the helm through those formative years of what should be acclaimed as the modern, Maldivian economic success story. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s three-decade long rule also helped reach out modern education and healthcare across the atolls, but through the state system. The Gayoom regime adopted a combination of divergent economic policies that benefited the nation on the fiscal front and the people on the socio-economic front.

Through the Gayoom initiative, an imaginative mix of overboard globalisation in the South Asian region of the times at the level of revenue-generation and the socialistic pattern of distribution of the nation’s income made wonders. Neighbouring Sri Lanka was the closest (in terms of geography) and immediate (chronologically) neighbour to experiment with market capitalism. Yet, close to 35 years down the line, the results of the combination are mixed at best in Sri Lanka. In Maldives, however, it has been an unqualified success.

Under the Maldivian scheme, tourism industry, structured as a policy and product of the norms of market economy generated funds for the government to take the benefits of education and healthcare to the largest yet dispersed sections of a dis-spirited society. The benefits in terms of national growth and individual’s development have all occurred in front of the present-day generation, and they have relished and cherished them, too. It is the model that could be said to have been applied to the airport modernisation lease contract, too, though on details of procedure and benefits, there could be differences, both of concepts and of consequent opinions.

In a limited way at least, the airport development and long-lease of the existing reconstruction and accompanying reimbursement of the investment should thus be seen as an extension of the previous policy that the Nasheed government had inherited and explored for further exploitation for the medium and long-term benefits of the people at large. On a related issue, of course, the Nasheed government may have departed from the set norms and practices that did rise the hackles then as now. Included in the list was the decision to grant resort licenses in ‘inhabited islands’, interfering with local culture and also the Islamic tenets against sale and consumption of liquor.

‘Nationalism’ and ‘nationalism’

It is in this context a closer look needs to be given to the demands for the ‘nationalisation’ of the airport. For starters, INIA continues to be owned by the Maldivian State and Government, the GMR has been given only a long lease of the same. To demand ‘nationalisation’ would thus be a travesty of the truth, and challenges the nation’s inherent and inalienable right – which anyway has not been alienated. In a nation where the State owns all the land, such a construct could also hit at (though not at all in the legal sense) later claims for a return of the property to the State when due. If nothing else, it could create a mood of resignation, not just of reservation if only over decades, which in turn is at the heart of the current protests, instead.

GMR at no point in time is known to have demanded ownership of the airport, to begin with. It is thus clear that the State cannot nationalise what it already owns, and continues to own. Worse still, given the traditional meaning attaching to a terminology like ‘nationalisation’, street-demands for the same in the context of INIA could sent jitters down the spines of all those who have already invested hugely on the resort-islands, benefitting all stake-holders in the process.

Unless otherwise proscribed, what may apply to other lessees of islands should apply to whichever lessee of the airport islands, be – as long as it is for development against the payment of lease money and on prescribed conditions for a fixed period of time. The reverse should also be true the same way – what is sought to be applicable to the single largest investor in the nation’s history could be applied to lesser mortals without anyone being wiser of any unforeseeable situation when an agreement is signed or a situation is created, later.

It is not unlikely that there may still be a need for the Maldivian Government to revisit the lease-policies as a whole and applying the yardstick to the GMR deal too. Whether such changes could be specific to a particular project or agreement, or can have retrospective effect is a question that needs to be agitated in the context of the individuality or otherwise of individual agreements involved. However, responsibility needs to be restored to the national dialogue and clarity evolved through a consensus process, lest any foreign investor – existing one or a future one – would have doubts of his own on entry-exit terms and timelines.

Product of sweat and toil

All this does not preclude the present-day sentiments attaching to what has since been rechristened as INIA in the living generation of middle-aged Maldivians and above, particularly so those in Male. The airport was a product of their sweat and toil, and literally so. As students and youth in their growing-up years, they had contributed physical labour and whatever a poor nation could afford for the up-gradation of the airport in the mid-Seventies. Both sentimentally and politically, it had contributed in some ways to the Independence of the Maldivian protectorate from the British ‘Protector’. The airport is thus of a sentimental value to many grown-up in the country.

All this should not mean that the ‘sovereignty’ of the Maldivian state and the security of its territory should be reduced to be identified with the airport near-exclusively in parlour discussions, if not national discourses. If the argument is that the INIA is a tool for defending the sovereignty of the nation and its territorial integrity, there are other, smaller airports across the country, including those for the dozens of hovercraft dotting the lower skies, which are all vehicles of economic growth, not military-threat. So has been INIA, barring the one occasion, when the Indian Air Force (IAF) was called upon to defend the airport and the nation through it, from marauding mercenaries in 1988.

Yet in the new millennium for those who made the airport possible in the first place, and their younger generation to confuse ‘nationalism’ with ‘sovereignty’, raising arguments based on such perceptions would not help the nation, after a point. The spirit and phraseology are not inter-changeable, nor can they be inter-mingled in legal and commercial terms, either. Arguments thus based on non-existent linkages could make for good politics, but would not contribute to good policy. They have to be separated and addressed as individual aspects – but addressed they should be.

Despite a further expansion and growth of resort-tourism in the country, the limitations for the future are being systematically exposed. The Maldives does not have answers to the ever-increasing demands on the economy, whose expansionist pace is slowly coming to a grinding halt. With no scope for unlimited advent of manufacturing or even the services sector, as a money-spinner and/or forex-earner, the country would have to look at infrastructure as a source for attracting investments and creating the kind of jobs that the average Maldivian youth will be happy with, and paid for, in full measure.

Reviewing investment policy is one thing, but revisiting an individual contract is another. The two shall not meet – and the nation cannot afford it if the matter is allowed to drag on either. The alternative should be to learn from the mistakes, if any, and apply correctives where possible to the issues on hand – and also in revisiting the policy for the future. That alone would help.

Profitability, vulnerability

It is in this context investments from across the world have to be assessed for their overall profitability for the Maldivian people and economy, and the relative vulnerability that such arrangements could throw the nation into. In the current phase of the expansion of the Maldivian economy and growth, small-time investments in international/regional relevance would not suffice, as used to be the case for the funds requiring for putting up a resort or two. Either foreign governments or international agencies will have to put in the money, which will be in the form of repayable credit, even if at a low rate of interest and over the long term.

The alternative, which comes without any political or fiscal tag, over the medium and the long-term, is to encourage FDI, particularly in the infrastructure sector, where the foreign investors’ perceived propensity for political mischief over time would be minimal, as against their investments in the stock market, for instance. There are no repayment-tags attaching to such investments, but for the licensed fees, which however have to be negotiated with care and foresight.

Over time, the experiences of other nations have shown that investor-nations have often used their investments and repayments to muscle their political way in the host-nation, through the short, medium and long-terms. In their case, the repayment terms and schedules hang over the nations’ head like the Damocles’ Sword. Against this, overseas-investor has often been seen as a friend and advocate of the host-nation in his native land, in political, economic and security terms. The lessor-nation does not have to repay him with interest, with profligacy and bad-planning in the interim adding to the fiscal and economic vows of Governments as mightier nations have been over the past years.

In its place, a carefully-negotiated lease agreement provides for his recouping his investment-cost with interest over in a calibrated time-period. What may thus be required at the moment is re-negotiation of the INIA agreement on the one hand, and the need for the Maldivian government and legislature to fix certain loopholes that they might have found in their existing policies and procedures, possibly with the view to evolving a consensus approach, which had eluded the nation on this score in the past. Therein may lie the solution now to the Maldivian airport row, too – not elsewhere or otherwise!

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation.

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