A lucrative trade in oil and gas appears to be at the heart of a series of geopolitical moves in the Indian Ocean by Saudi Arabia and China. And much of the action centres on the Maldives, one of the small island states on the front lines of climate change, according to an in-depth report published yesterday on Climate Home.
The story begins with efforts by Saudi Arabia “to secure oil trade routes to east Asia through a multi-billion-dollar investment in a Maldives atoll,” write editor Karl Mathiesen and reporter Megan Darby, citing interviews with foreign policy specialists and ex-Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, now in exile in London, UK.
Climate Home describes the atoll in question, Faafu, as “a collection of 19 low-lying islands 120 kilometres south of the capital Malé and home to 4,000 people.” Recently, Faafu has been the subject of unconfirmed reports of a Saudi purchase. “President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom has denied the entire atoll will be sold to the Saudis, but said plans for a ‘megaproject’ worth US$10 billion—three times his country’s GDP—would be disclosed ‘once the negotiation process was completed,’” the specialist news outlet notes.
The deal puts the Maldives at the epicentre of Saudi national interest, a possible military expansion by China, and both countries’ interest in safe, secure oil shipments.
“The economic future of the Saudi petro-kingdom is bound to the sale of oil, gas, and other goods to China,” Mathiesen and Darby write. “The supply lines for that trade run through the Indian Ocean, where terror is a growing concern and vessels are shadowed by piracy.”
But the shipments also pass by the Maldives, a tiny country with a “growing Wahhabist majority and autocratic government,” where “the Saudis have found—or, according to the Maldivian opposition, created—a pliant ally where few questions are asked and fewer are allowed.”
Nasheed said it was “disturbing” to see Faafu put up for sale with no public tender. “[The Saudis] want to have a base in the Maldives that would safeguard the trade routes, their oil routes, to their new markets,” he told Mathiesen. “To have strategic installations, infrastructure.” He added that a “cultural campaign” supported by the Saud dynasty had fueled the spread of Wahhabism in the island state, setting the stage for an “unprecedented” land grab.
The Saudis “have had a good run of propagating their worldview to the people of the Maldives and they’ve done that for the last three decades,” he added. “They’ve now, I think, come to view that they have enough sympathy for them to get a foothold.”
Housing Minister Mohamed Muizzu told a news conference in Malé that he hoped to see a big investment. “We don’t want to move slowly,” he said. “We want transformational change. That is the whole mentality of this government. We want to bring better living conditions to this country on a large scale, in a small period of time.”
But Opposition MP Eva Abdulla was skeptical. “With Faafu or any other project, we are told there will be a trickle-down effect,” she told Climate Home. “That is not what we have seen. It is government MPs and their cronies who get all the benefits.”
The other part of the story is China’s growing role in financing infrastructure in the Maldives, including a “Friendship Bridge” connecting Malé to its airport island and a new port on Laamu atoll, south of Faafu. China now holds 70% of the Maldives’ foreign debt, and Chatham House associate fellow Cleo Paskal believes China sees Saudi Arabia’s Faafu deal as an opening to extend its own military footprint.
“China is on record as wanting a base in the Maldives,” she told Climate Home. “It was a big issue in 2015. It already has or is working on ‘commercial’ ports in several countries along the route from the Indian Ocean to China and recently opened an overtly military naval base in Djibouti. Saudis are unlikely to build anything like that for themselves, but may facilitate the construction of some sort of ‘resupply’ installation built by China that would likely have dual use capacity.”
But Ankit Panda, senior editor of The Diplomat, said the longer strategic view may be coming from the Maldives itself. “The geopolitical layer to this, in my view, is more on the Maldivian side for now,” he said. “The Saudis are looking primarily for a strategic investment opportunity,” but the Maldives “understands its strategic location in the Indian Ocean and sees a Saudi outpost there potentially paying dividends in the future.”
Climate Home points to the irony of a strategic oil and gas deal involving this particular small island state. “The employment of the Maldives as a strategic anchor for future oil trade rubs against the country’s vulnerability to climate change,” Mathiesen and Darby write. “It is the lowest-lying country on earth, with a high point of just 2.4 metres, meaning even small rises in sea level could be devastating.”