For me, in the past year, diplomacy has been a bit like the Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth film The Five Obstructions: take a simple concept and then recreate it with different restrictions on the usual way of doing things. After four years as HC in Seychelles, I was sent to set up the UK’s first resident mission in Maldives – a rare privilege, and a great adventure. I arrived and presented my credentials on October 20, 2019, in a ceremony demonstrating the rich historic island culture of this remarkable country.
The first obstruction was starting out without an office or any ‘diplomatic infrastructure’ (car, kettle, registration etc.). October to December was filled with exploration of the Greater Male’ Area, introductory meetings, formal events, the inevitable set-up bureaucracy, and recruitment. Making the most of being the new kid on the block, and making a virtue of not having a physical office, I enjoyed meeting Maldivians in fabulous range of coffee shops, and the unique experience of navigating Male’s congested streets.
Of course, there was already a lot of UK engagement with Maldives: with the police, legal system, the Majlis, central government, and the tourism industry. Maldives is at the top of the British bucket list, with over 100,000 tourists visiting each year. So we are fortunate to have a very experienced Honorary Consul to continue helping visiting and resident British nationals.
In December I made my first visit outside the Greater Malé Region (GMA), to Addu – a place that has strong historic connections with the UK because of the former RAF base at Gan. I ran my first Maldives 10k, starting in darkness and heavy rain, up to my knees in water on the wide streets: a powerful illustration of the immediate impact of climate change on the daily life of Maldivians. I’ll never forget my first sight of Hithadoo at sunrise, a double rainbow over waterlogged streets. Flooding was “the new normal” for Maldivians long before covid coined the phrase.
In March, my wonderful local team began to form, just as the global covid crisis was really affecting travel. Our first week together was also our first in ‘crisis mode’ as we set up a temporary office to help thousands of British nationals get home. It was a challenging time but everyone rose to it, and the long hours and pressure presented an incredible team-building experience. So, the second obstruction was COVID-19 diverting our focus from the team’s orientation, and working on our permanent office stopping.
At that time Maldives was spared a heavy rate of infection. To maintain that, there was lockdown: the ‘third obstruction’. A time nobody will forget. As Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulla Shahid recalled at the UN General Assembly, an eerie silence descended: the seemingly endless stream of flights ceased; Male’s streets no longer thronged with mopeds; the putter of boat engines stopped; the air became clean. Of course much was going on. I think anyone in the diplomatic community here at that time would agree that Maldives’ crisis response was remarkable. So many people here have worked incredibly hard, for a sustained period, responding creatively to circumstances unprecedented in our lifetimes, managing personal concerns, and with an economic crisis descending sharply as tourism ceased.
Unable to open our office, or even to meet physically, the team supported each other and drew support from being part of a global response. This included a second unprecedented run: the #diplomile, connecting 155 British diplomatic missions and raising over £40,000 for covid responses. A few #QuaratineSai and cakes may have also changed (well-washed) hands along the way! When the going gets tough, the tough get creative: I’ve seen some of the best of Maldives’ entrepreneurialism in recent months. I learned that, as well as a large amount of Maldives’ treasures being below sea-level, there’s a whole virtual world to be discovered where micro-commerce and creative exchange is vibrant.
So, while the BHC has not cut a ribbon on its office door, held a “QBP” (Queen’s Birthday Party – our national day event) or hosted other events, we did experiment with virtual ones: a farewell to this year’s record five Chevening Scholars, online consultations with the media and, soon, environmental NGOs. We have been very busy behind the scenes listening, learning, and preparing projects that will significantly increase our work in, and with, Maldives.
My third novel run here will be the #RunForMaldives, which will mark my first year here, raising funds for the Red Crescent and Thalassemia Society and promoting Maldives as a destination. With BA flights having resumed their six-month season this month, we’ve been working hard to change the UK’s travel advice and I’m very pleased indeed that we have now been able to do that, and add Maldives to the UK "travel corridor".
2020 was undoubtedly the year of COVID-19. We must learn to live with it while protecting people and buidling resilient economies. It has shown us what can be achieved, at pace, globally, in the face of a grave threat. Can we – will we? – apply this attitude to make 2021 the year we commit to a green recovery, and turn the tide on climate change?
I certainly hope so. Much of what you hear from the BHC in the coming year will be about the Year of Climate Action as the UK co-hosts COP26, culminating in the Glasgow conference next November. Maldives is important to climate diplomacy because it’s on the frontline of climate change and has done much to advocate for Small Island States (SIDS) facing similar vulnerabilities. We want to help Maldives make the case for more and better access to climate finance – the money the international community provides for adaptation and resilience. We also want Maldives to find innovative financing models for sustainable development – for example, debt-for-nature swaps, blue bonds, or novel insurance models.
The frontline here is often the shoreline. But it’s not just about the waters closing over Maldives’ sandbars, atolls and islands. It’s also the ocean warming, killing coral reefs, salination affecting mangroves, habitat loss, species collapse and extreme and unpredicatable weather events. All realities here. And, like COVID-19, these are not only existential threats themselves: they will also ruin the tourism on which this country depends economically.
But, as Sir David Attenborough’s latest film, A Life On Our Planet tells us, there is hope... if we act now. Maldives needs to develop more environmentally sustainable lifestyles, approaches to development, and tourism. This means: preserving every bit of nature you still have, understanding, cherishing, protecting and growing it. It means creating a circular economy where waste is minimised and single-use plastic is eliminated. It means using the latest science and innovation to work with nature, applying it to the local ecology and culture; and seeing development not as ‘reef or rufiyaa’. Also learning, in particular, from women in island communities still practicing local traditions in tune with the environment that have seen this country through good and bad times. Your tuna fishery is another example, employing many local people using perhaps the most sustainable method in the world. You have well-qualified, passionate experts in NGOs and government.
So there are real positives on which to build. But time is running out. That spurs me, and my team, on every day. And it’s why I still feel excited and privileged to be here at this crucial time. I look forward to meeting many more people, and seeing more of Maldives, in the Year of Climate Action ahead. I mentioned at the start of this article Five Obstructions... if you were counting, you’ll have spotted only three. Well, I hope we will get back to unobstructed diplomacy sometime in 2021, and that we don’t encounter more obstructions along the way!