Politics

Maldives fights rumours of island sales to Saudi Arabia with a clampdown on the media, critics – Scroll.in

In the island state of the Maldives, which consists of 20 island clusters or atolls, Faafu is often called the 21st atoll. In other words, at the very bottom of the government’s priority.

Hassan Moosa, a journalist with the news website Maldives Independent, sensed this bitterness in his maiden visit to the atoll last month. Faafu’s five inhabited islands housed less than 5,000 people, its residents admitted, but does a lack of electorate mean they be last in the queue for the most basic of amenities – schools, banks, roads, hospitals?

That’s why they had welcomed President Abdulla Yameen’s announcement of a mega project in their atoll. Saudi Arabia’s royal family had plans to invest over $10 billion for a French Riviera-style mixed-development in Faafu, replete with “residential high-class development, many tourist resorts and airports”. If successful, it was touted to be the next Dubai.

But what about the rumours of the president’s plan to sell those islands to the Saudi government? Would the residents of Faafu be prepared to leave their homes and relocate for the sake of the project? “Some of them didn’t like the questions,” Hassan recalled. “They said we [from the capital Malé and the more prosperous northern atolls] were jealous.” Some clicked his photographs and uploaded it on a residents’ group Facebook page. One threatened to throw engine oil on Hassan’s colleague who had accompanied him on the trip.

That night, around 12 men surrounded the guesthouse Hassan and his colleague were at, demanding that they get off the island. A few frantic phone calls later, the two were escorted to the police station. But instead of acting against their intimidation, the police took away the journalists’ phones and later, combed through their notes and photographs. They were accused of “spreading hatred” on the island.

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