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The Maldives: small gains

The recently-elected president of the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, ushered in the new year by making the first official visit of his term to India from 1-4 January 2014. He was invited by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. Gayoom was accompanied by a high-level delegation, including several Cabinet ministers and senior officials.

Observers on both sides are seeing the choice of India for his first state visit as an effort to repair ties between the two countries. The relationship had become strained during the political crisis in the island nation after the controversial ouster of President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in February 2012. The then Vice-President Mohamed Waheed was installed in Nasheed’s place, with police and military support. Waheed was backed by President Abdulla Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPP).

In a move that upset India, the Waheed regime unilaterally terminated the $500 million contract awarded by Nasheed’s government to the Bangalore-based construction infrastructure company Grandhi Mallikarjuna Rao (GMR) Group to upgrade and operate Malé’s international airport. The cancellation of the contract resulted in a series of manoeuvres by India, including tightening visa regulations for Maldivians, who often travel to India for medical and education purposes.

Abdulla Yameen’s goal while in India is to seek the easing of visa restrictions; he will not, as rumoured, restore the contract with GMR. That contract is under arbitration and the next hearing, scheduled for mid-2014 in Singapore, will address GMR’s $1.4 billion claim in damages and restitution. India will surely bring up the GMR issue, as also issues faced by the Tata group in procuring land for a housing project in the Maldivian capital. Yameen will seek to win some concessions, while India will address its concerns of the increasing Chinese influence in the Maldives.

Despite his party’s anti-GMR positioning, it is worth noting that the Yameen regime has made an effort to tone down the anti-Indian rhetoric. His government denied permission to a coalition-led by the Islamist Adhaalath party to mark the second anniversary of the first major anti-GMR rally held on 23 December 2011 – the rally which set in motion the events that led to the ouster of Nasheed and GMR.

But ousting GMR also means that investors are cautious about the Maldives. Yameen, who highlighted economic development as a major campaign plank, now needs all the international assistance he can get to fix an economy that has been in decline during two years of political turbulence.  The construction industry – the third largest sector in the Maldives after tourism and fishing – was affected by the tightening of restrictions on export to Maldives of rocks and boulders – materials which cannot be procured locally.

So far, Yameen has been a low-key politician, who is unlikely to ruffle feathers abroad. Despite concerns that the radical Islamist Adhaalath party will be awarded the education portfolio, this did not happen. It remains to be seen how much of a distance Yameen intends to keep between his party and its Islamist allies. He has also not yet pressed charges against Nasheed in the case of the detention of a Criminal Court judge, a key demand of several of his allies. But Yameen’s Cabinet includes many of the same ministers who were in his predecessor Waheed’s Cabinet, including some controversial figures.

The Maldives will hold parliamentary elections later this year. The effectiveness of Yameen’s government will be critical to the outcome. Should his PPM win a majority, Yameen will be able to avoid many of the challenges Nasheed faced in his early days, when his opponents dominated Parliament.

For now, it is clear that Yameen wants to take a conciliatory stand and restore ties with India and other foreign governments after the tensions of the past two years. For the average Maldivian, however, perhaps the best outcome they can hope for from the President’s visit to India will be a dilution of the visa restrictions for students and people seeking medical treatment.

Yameen Rasheed is a Malé-based commentator on the politics and society of the Maldives.

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