The Maldives is unanimously considered one of the top holiday destinations. Among the many travellers who crowd the streets of Malé, there is a group not interested in its golden sand: the Saudis, who are coming to the Islamic republic with something else on their minds. The Maldives is not only a good ally of Saudi Arabia, but it is strategically located on the route to Beijing, a trade partner Riyadh is desperately trying to seduce.
The final goal is to bypass its greatest enemy, Iran, to become the partner of Xi Jinping’s ambitious program of connecting Beijing with Eurasia through an infrastructure network financed by the Chinese. The One Belt One Road initiative, if ever achieved, is destined to become the world’s greatest trade route, covering more than 60 countries. Such a gigantic project will require significant resources that will need to be garnered globally. Saudi Arabia’s main obsession is that Tehran, historically tied to China by strong military cooperation, might get the “best piece of the pie”, becoming not only richer but also more powerful in the Middle East.
Iran vs Saudi Arabia
Besides the military connection, Iran is more attractive than Saudi Arabia because of its natural resources. Rather than by Saudi oil, China is charmed by Iran’s liquefied natural gas, of which Beijing is the world’s third largest importer. With the lifting of international sanctions in 2015, Iran has been able to become more confident in the energy game and to strengthen the link with China, as proven by the launch of the Silk Road train which is set to connect Iran and China in less than 14 days.
This scenario does not look promising for Saudi Arabia. And that is when Maldives enters the stage. What Maldives has that Saudi Arabia has not is a strategic location in the middle of what the Chinese call the Maritime Silk Road. The One Belt, One Road initiative is technically composed by two different routes: a land one, that connects China to Europe also via Tehran, and a maritime one, that includes Maldives in its trajectory.
The Added Benefit
Besides is great value as a trade hub for China, Maldives’ 820km-long chain of atolls are also a perfect spot to install military bases, first step in the Chinese military expansion’ strategy into the heart of the Indian Ocean. The attractiveness of the Maldives is, therefore, the leverage Saudi Arabia can use to establish a gainful relationship with China. The small Republic of the Maldives is indeed one of the most loyal Saudi Arabia allies. The reasons of such strong ties are different.
First, faith and ideology: the Maldives is the only nation, apart from Saudi Arabia, to claim that its citizens are one hundred percent Muslims, and have laws prohibiting the importation of any material that contradicts Islam. Furthermore, Wahhabism seems to have found its way in the country, traditionally aligned with a more moderate Sufi tradition. The assassination of the most famous Maldivian blogger Yameen Rasheed, 29, who in his blog The Daily Panic criticised the government and religious extremism, seems to prove the growing tendency to radicalism.
Secondly, money: Riyadh is funding a gigantic $10bn project in the northern archipelago of Faafu, 19 recently emerged atolls 120 miles from the Malé Capital. The project will include a port, an airport, luxury condos and a special economic zone. The idea is to buy the atolls and build an international city for a population of one million that will have state-of-the-art facilities in every aspect.
To prove its faithfulness and gratitude to the more powerful ally, the Maldives has promptly joined the club of Gulf countries that have decided to cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, accused of financing terrorism and, even worse, of being too soft on Iran.
In this triangle between Saudi Arabia China and Iran, the Maldives can become a useful ace in the hole for Riyadh’s strategy. While the tourist crowds will continue to populate its golden beaches, the small country will continue on its path to becoming more and more centre stage in a game of hard politics.
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