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2019: Maldives makes comeback on the international arena

Mariyam Malsa
18 December 2019, MVT 09:20
2019 was a successful diplomatic year for Maldives. PHOTO: JAUNA NAFIZ / THE EDITION
Mariyam Malsa
18 December 2019, MVT 09:20

The year 2019 saw Maldives re-assert its presence on the international scene. Efforts by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to secure lucrative economic bonds, bolster existing ties with friendly nations and up interaction at international fora made for frequent headlines over the past year.

Considering the six key foreign policy strategies formulated by the government, the progress attained was both extensive and considerable.

The successes of the foreign policy opted by the administration of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih particularly contrasts with the previous government’s more isolated approach to foreign policy.

Rekindling ties with India

The new administration’s plans to re-establish ties with India were put into effect on the very first day of its existence. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was officially invited to attend the inauguration of President Solih on November 17, 2018, and following the ceremony, both leaders had the first discussion on the future of relations between the two neighbouring countries.

This marked the Indian Prime Minister’s maiden voyage to the country following his assumption of office in 2014. Ties between Maldives and India had soured during the tenure of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom due to the latter’s close relationship with China. This state of affairs is further evidenced by the fact that Maldives was the only South-East Asian nation PM Modi had not made an official visit to, during his previous term.

Although Maldives has since bolstered relations with India, the new administration made it amply clear that China was not being purposefully sidelined and that priority was simply accorded to neighbouring nations. “We don't believe China can replace India or India can replace China”, asserted Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid.

On December 16, 2018, President Solih’s first state visit after assuming office was to India. After signing several agreements, endorsing India’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and inviting PM Modi to visit Maldives in turn, the president concluded the two-day state trip on December 18. The Indian leader accepted the invitation and arrived at Velana International Airport on June 8 this year.

The very same day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the second foreign dignitary to address the Maldivian parliament.

It was also during Modi’s trip that President Solih officially confirmed the government's 'India-First Policy', describing India-Maldives ties as being traditionally characterized by trust, transparency, mutual understanding and sensitivity.

Furthermore, key dignitaries from both sides, including Minister of Defence Mariya Ahmed Didi and former Minister of External Affairs of India Shushma Swaraj, also conducted official trips between Maldives and India over the year.

In terms of economic assistance, the sum of India’s overall aid package to Maldives, including loans, was USD 1.4 billion. India’s contribution to the country’s socio-economic development was further emphasized by the signing of several MOU’s across sectors ranging from defence to agriculture.

Greater presence in the international arena

One of the administration’s first moves in the international arena was applying to rejoin the Commonwealth of Nations, which Yameen had pulled Maldives out of in 2016, claiming that the organization was meddling with domestic affairs and that there was discrimination between other member states.

Thus far, two Commonwealth assessment teams have arrived in Maldives after President Solih officially applied for reintegration.

Over the year, Maldives upped its participation with the United Nations in an incontrovertible effort to increase its presence in the international arena.

Notably, the previous administration’s limitations on visits from UN rapporteurs were removed. The Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Nils Melzer and Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights Karima Bennoune visited Maldives over the previous year.

On the 54th anniversary of Maldives joining the UN, President Solih departed for New York City, USA, to participate in the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). His address marked the first time a Maldivian head of state addressed the UN General Assembly in seven years.

Foreign Minister Shahid also delivered addresses at the UN Security Council in January and February of 2019, in which he called for immediate actions to combat the impacts of climate change and emphasized the democratic change the Maldives has undergone.

Furthermore, Maldives also stressed its stance on key issues at international forums.

In December 2018, President Solih invited former President Mohamed Nasheed to head the Maldivian delegation that attended the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24). At Katowice, Poland, Nasheed strongly urged the international community to make urgent commitments to reduce global carbon emissions.

In September 2019, Maldives reasserted its long held stance on disarmament by ratifying the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first international legally binding instrument to completely prohibit the development, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons.

Maldives also advocated for Palestine at the Organization of Islamic Corporation (OIC) and the UN, with Shahid describing Maldives’ dedication to the cause as ‘unshakeable’. In line with the stance on Palestine, Maldives strongly condemned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement concerning intentions to annex certain Palestinian territories.

Additionally, the highest level visit to Maldives by the EU to date occurred over the past year. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, visited Maldives in August.

Maldives also hosted the fourth Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) at Paradise Island Resort and the EU-Maldives Policy Dialogue in Kurumba Maldives.

Maldives winning the bid to host the 11th Indian Ocean Island Games in 2023 after a determined campaign is also a noteworthy achievement of the year.

Several diplomatic trips to boost ties

Since November 17, 2018, both President Solih and Foreign Minister Shahid have undertaken several official trips with the sole purpose of bolstering diplomatic ties.

In 2019, Minister Shahid met high-level representatives of 81 countries, presidents of 11 countries, prime ministers of 13 countries, 39 foreign ministers and ambassadors hailing from 56 countries. The foreign minister also met with the Secretary Generals of the OIC, the Commonwealth and the UN.

Following his initial state trip to India, President Solih, along with Foreign Minister Shahid, travelled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from January 13-16.

Afterwards, President Solih arrived in Sri Lanka on February 3 for a four-day diplomatic trip and to attend the country’s 71st Independence Day celebrations as chief guest.

The president’s next state trip from May 29 to June 1, took him to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where he attended the 14th summit of the OIC, in Mecca.

Two MOU’s were signed between Maldives and Singapore over the course of President Solih’s state visit to the latter between June 29 and July 2.

From July 19 to 22, First Lady Fazna Ahmed accompanied President Solih to Mauritius to attend the opening ceremony of the Indian Ocean Island Games (IOIG) in Port Louis.

An additional seven MOUs were signed during the president's visit to Seychelles from August 2 to 4. The visit marked the first-ever diplomatic visit by a Maldivian leader to the archipelagic republic.

Over the course of the official visit to the USA from September 22 to 27, the president participated in the 74th Annual Session of the UNGA, in New York.

Furthermore, President Solih and First Lady Fazna Ahmed conducted a state trip to Japan from October 20 to 27, during which they attended the official enthronement ceremony of Japan's new Emperor Naruhito, along with dignitaries from over 170 countries.

President Solih also recently travelled to the UAE again, on the invitation of Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

A flurry of visa agreements

Notable progress was also made in 2019 under the foreign ministry’s aim to provide quality consular services for Maldivians.

Over the past year, comprehensive visa-waiver agreements were concluded with the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Thailand and Morocco.

Furthermore, more lenient visa agreements were signed or renewed with neighbouring Sri Lanka and India, both of which are frequently visited by Maldivians.

On September 2, the government renewed an agreement with Sri Lanka, the country that hosts the largest population of Maldivians living abroad. The agreement includes provisions for free 90-day on-arrival visas for visitors from both Maldives and Lanka.

Nationals of either country wishing to conduct business and pursue investments can acquire multiple entry non-resident business visas. Additionally, the agreement grants multiple entry visas for Maldivian students enrolled in Sri Lankan educational institutes and for their parents or legal guardians if the students are under 18 years of age. Meanwhile, the visa agreement with India, implemented on March 11, states that a 90-day visa will be issued for Maldivians travelling to India for medical, leisure or business related purposes. Such visas will be issued once per every 6-month period.

If a Maldivian visiting India on a tourist visa requires medical treatment, they can attain a medical visa without having to travel back to Maldives. In such cases, family members can apply for medical attendant visas. For long-term medical treatment in India, the Indian embassy located in Maldives may issue visas valid up to a one-year period. In such cases, two caretakers will be issued medical attendant visas.

Multiple entry student visas will be issued to students for the duration of their chosen courses. Parents can qualify for multiple entry visas to visit their underage children studying in India. Dependent visas and elderly dependent visas will be issued to underage children or elderly parents of Maldivian students in India. In addition to elderly dependent visas, students carrying out research or pursuing higher education in India will be allowed to bring spouses on family visas.

Aside from visa agreements, progress towards providing improved consular services to Maldivians was boosted with the opening of the Thai embassy and the efforts commenced to establish a consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Foreign aid secured

The Foreign Ministry has also made considerable contributions to Maldives’ drive to attain further economic development.

Several discussions were conducted and numerous bilateral agreements in the areas of fisheries, tourism and trade were finalised.

In this regard, the Partnership Forum held from June 17 to 18 at Kurumba Maldives, is particularly notable as it invited close bilateral and multilateral partners to deliberate on the direction of government. Many of the aforementioned MOUs were signed during the Partnership Forum as well.

Although a number of countries have extended free aid to the country, the main donors are India, US, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Japan. Overall, the total amount of foreign aid secured as grants during the one-year period, excluding loans, reaches MVR 3.21 billion.

One out of five

Despite only a year having passed since the new government was sworn in, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has thus far achieved great successes with its new approach to foreign policy.

The dedication displayed by the ministry to ensure greater Maldivian participation in the international arena was undeniable. Similarly apparent was the priority given to endeavours to cultivate bilateral ties with friendly nations in a mutually beneficial manner.

In addition to serving a crucial strategic purpose, the strategies and stances opted for by the foreign ministry complement national socio-economic development plans.

Considering the achievements of the year, it is safe to conclude that the upcoming four years carry promises of more diplomatic successes.