The combination of increasing political turmoil and worrying radicalization trends sees the Maldives facing significant risks in the short to medium term.
The Maldives is facing a critical juncture, as civil unrest grows, and the government of President Abdulla Yameen continues to lose support. Since coming to power in 2013, Yameen has enacted a series of increasingly draconian laws, changes which have led to widespread political and public opposition. The resentment towards the government appears to be coming to a head, as reports of a move against the President are materializing. On August 25th, the BBC announced it had received information that a move to oust the president is expected to materialize in the coming weeks.
While the government has denied these claims, it is facing a broad opposition coalition, with opposition MP Eva Abdulla stating that “[Yameen’s] lost all support from within his own political party. He doesn’t have any kind of support from the independent institutions, he doesn’t have support from the security forces.”
Game of Thrones in the Maldives
Having (nominally) transitioned to democracy in 2008, the Maldives has, under Yameen, witnessed a slide back into authoritarianism: not that the country’s democratic credentials were praiseworthy to begin with. After ruling the country for 30 years, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, allowed elections in 2008, yet the country’s first democratically elected leader Mohamed Nasheed was ousted in an alleged coup in 2012. He was later arrested (pictured below) under the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2015, in what observers characterized as a politically motivated move; he is currently in exile in the UK.
Nasheed’s successor, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, did not fare any better. Accused of complicity in the 2012 coup by protesters led by his brother Naushad Waheed, he lost the 2013 election to Yameen.
While Yameen’s tenure has been longer, it has seen its own share of controversies. Last year, Yameen reinstated the death penalty after a 60 year de facto moratorium; a move that brought international condemnation. Since then Yameen has had hundreds of political activists arrested; shutting down three major news outlets in 2016. August also saw him pass a strict anti-defamation law, a move seen as an attempt to stifle dissent and press freedom.
Moreover, the political games have only continued under Yameen. On September 28th 2015, Yameen was the target of an assassination attempt that left his wife severely injured. The blame for the attack was laid at the feet of Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, who was later also arrested for the disappearance of $79 million from the national tourism body.
More recently, Yameen has faced growing political resistance, and faces a broad opposition coalition led by his former deputy Mohammed Jameel and the exiled President Nasheed. As if this were not enough, Yameen must also contend with a breakaway faction in his own party led by his half-brother and former ally ex-President Gayoom.
While the Maldives’ recent history of political turmoil has so far not managed to dampen its appeal as a tourist hotspot, this lack of sound governance comes at a time when another threat – terrorism – is on the rise.
The Maldives: an unlikely terrorist cradle
In recent years, the Maldives – a majority Sunni country – has seen a rise in religious conservatism spurred by funding from Saudi Arabia. Moreover, in 2014 India alleged that Lashkar-e-Taiba – a militant Pakistani group – was recruiting and establishing cells in the island nation.
More recently, the Maldives has become a prime source country for foreign fighters aiding ISIS. Indeed, surprisingly, the Maldives has the second highest foreign fighter per capita ratio – behind only Tunisia. The number of suspected Maldivian fighters ranges from 40 to 200 – or 1:500 of the nation’s population of 340,000. Furthermore, some 20 Maldivian foreign fighters have been killed in Syria and Iraq, leading Male to seek counter-terrorism assistance from India. While the overall numbers are small, they are nevertheless alarming given the country’s population and the potential for increased homegrown terrorism upon their return.
It is important to note that the threat of terrorism in the Maldives is not mere conjecture. In 2015 the Maldives instituted anti-terrorism legislation, after a video from ISIS in August threatened to kill President Yameen and vice president Ahmed Adeeb if imprisoned opposition leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla was not released. This draws a direct link between domestic political turmoil and increasing homegrown, as well as, international terror threats in the Maldives.
Growing local conservatism combined with anti-government sentiments could well lead to an increased of terrorism in the Maldives. This is especially important given the soft target nature of tourist resorts, as well as anger over inequality (both domestically and internationally – as embodied by wealthy foreigners) in the country. Those disaffected by corrupt politics and the uneven distribution of the fruits of tourism, and sympathetic to Islamist ideals, will find plenty of potential targets.
The 2004 Bali bombings offer a vivid tutorial to any aspiring Maldivian terrorist. Indeed, after the 2015 assassination attempt against President Yameen, Australia issued a terrorism travel warning to its citizens.
Political instability will also weaken anti-terror efforts, as security forces focus on quelling unrest. This in turn will weaken efforts to prevent foreign fighters from returning home, individuals who may instigate attacks to escalate violence between the public and the government. Furthermore, in a country where 80% of the workforce depends on tourism, the danger (either actualized or threatened) of terrorism could cripple the national economy as tourists avoid the Maldives.
This is especially dangerous for the Maldives which focuses on wealthier tourists. As the country cannot rely on mass tourism to compensate for a downturn, the Maldives is vulnerable to any damage to its brand, as its traditional HNWI clients can easily vacation elsewhere. Consequently, this threat endangers recent government efforts to boost annual tourism numbers to 1.5 million, as part of the country’s Visit Maldives Year 2016 campaign.
Tourism also represents the country’s main source of foreign exchange, which if decreased, would greatly harm a nation which overwhelmingly relies on food, water, and fuel imports to meet basic needs. Increased import prices – or any interruption of the aforementioned necessities – will only engender popular anger, as well as interrupt hospitality services – creating a viscous feedback loop.
The combination of political turmoil and worrying radicalization trends sees the Maldives facing significant risks in the short to medium term. Whereas ongoing political antics have failed to dampen the economy in the past, when combined with a rising terrorist threat, both factors create a stormy outlook for paradise island.