The Maldives president roused the Tory faithful at Manchester last week. Next Saturday he will hold an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the dangers of global warming
On a humid, airless night last March, Mohamed Nasheed – the 42-year-old president of the Maldives – opened up his palace in Male for an unusual public event. A projection screen was hung at the back of a ballroom and brightly coloured chairs were arranged in rows. Then the audience was shown in: lawyers, cabinet members, presidential advisers and journalists, along with a sizeable chunk of Maldives society.
Nasheed, dressed in an open-neck striped shirt and dark chinos, sat in the front row. The lights dimmed and scenes of environmental mayhem unfolded on the screen: Sydney Opera House in flames, ice sheets crashing into the seas, deserts spreading and forests burning.
Thus the people of the Maldives had their first glimpse of Franny Armstrong's documentary, The Age of Stupid, in which Pete Postlethwaite plays the last man left alive in a post-apocalyptic, climate-fried world.
The film is scrappy but passionate, a classic example of agit-prop cinema. But in the dripping night heat of Male, The Age of Stupid had a very different effect on its audience than it has had in the west. Its message seemed direct and immediate, a call to arms. Nor is it hard to understand such emotion. The islands that make up the Maldives are threatened with complete inundation, probably by the end of the century, as ice sheets melt and sea levels rise catastrophically, thanks to global warming.
The islands stand less than a couple of metres above sea level. In fact, their highest point, at 2.3 metres, is the "lowest high point" for any nation on Earth. It won't take much to inundate them. Hence the impact of the film which left its audience desperate for reassurance from their president as he moved to a microphone stand in the centre of the ballroom.
"If man can walk on the moon, we can unite to defeat our common carbon enemy," Nasheed told them. "And so today, I announce that the Maldives will become the first carbon-neutral country in the world."
The announcement was a typically slick PR exercise by Nasheed. He had only been propelled into power a few weeks earlier in a national vote that had made him "the world's first democratically elected president of a 100% Muslim country", as he puts it.
Yet he was already revealing himself to be an adroit and effective operator. The former investigative journalist, jailed six times by his authoritarian predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and made an Amnesty prisoner of conscience in 1991, has begun making waves – in every sense.
Apart from his pledge to turn the Maldives – a collection of atolls and islands in the Indian Ocean that have become one of the world's most luxurious tourist resorts – into a carbon-neutral state, he has revealed that he has embarked on an ambitious campaign to buy up land – in India, Sri Lanka or Australia – on which he will build a New Maldives to replace the old one when it disappears under the waves. This will be achieved by using the country's vast tourism revenues to establish "a sovereign wealth fund" to relocate its people.
"Our actions will be a template, an action kit for other nations across the world," he said recently.
Last week Nasheed – or "Anni" as he is generally known – was at it again. First, he wowed the Conservative party conference in Manchester with a flawlessly delivered speech – typically presented without notes – on the importance of centre-right politics when it comes to saving the world. Then he topped this performance by announcing that this Saturday he will chair the world's first underwater cabinet meeting.
The aim of this remarkable plan is to raise global consciousness about the issues that must be hammered out at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen this December, he says. Thus Nasheed's ministers will don wetsuits and air tanks in six days' time, gather in the shallow waters off the island of Girifushi, and then get down to the business of governing the Maldives underwater – mainly by communicating through hand gestures. One minister, for education, has already had to pull out after diving experts announced he was not fit enough to take part.
The meeting will, as some observers have noted rather sardonically, bring politics in the Maldives, literally, to a new low. As one official remarked: "The paperwork should be challenging if nothing else."
The idea of an underwater cabinet meeting is certainly gimmicky but it will focus attention on a nation that stands to suffer more than any other from global warming. The Maldives could, quite simply, be wiped off the face of the Earth. "Unless something is done, my grandchildren will find these islands have completely disappeared under the waves," Nasheed said last week. Hence those undersea meetings and those carefully organised screenings.
Mohamed Nasheed was born in Male in May 1967, the son of a prosperous businessman. He was educated at Majeediyya secondary school in the Maldives before continuing his studies at a school in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1981 and then, a year later, at Dauntsey's school in Wiltshire where he sat his A-levels. Afterwards, he took a degree in marine studies at Liverpool John Moores University.
He returned to the Maldives in the late 1980s – and ran straight into trouble. He founded his own magazine, Sangu, and published a series of investigative reports about President Gayoom's regime, which he accused of being corrupt and guilty of a string of human rights abuses. After the fifth issue, Gayoom had had enough. Police raided the magazine's offices and arrested Nasheed. The 23-year-old spent several months in solitary confinement, accused of attempting to overthrow the government.
These allegations and bouts of harassment were repeated over the next 10 years. "I have personally experienced the worst that a malicious regime can contrive in order to suppress its people," he told the Conservative conference last week. "I was imprisoned on 16 different occasions and spent a total of six years in jail. Of these, I spent 18 months in solitary confinement."
The saddest aspect was that he missed the births of his two daughters, he said. "It was a tough reminder of a fundamental truth… that the freedom of the individual should not be destroyed at the whim of an over-mighty state." The remark, predictability, sent the Tory conference into ovation overdrive. But then Nasheed knows how to work a crowd, if nothing else.
In 2005, Nasheed fled the Maldives to Britain. You could "always talk to a western government about democracy", he said. He returned to his homeland after a few months, however, and in 2008 stood against Gayoom – then Asia's longest serving president – in the Maldives first ever democratic elections. Nashood won, with 54% of the votes.
He has since shown a striking sureness of action, though his short reign has not been without its critics. His remarks in Manchester last week, aimed to gee along his centre-right allies, together with his plans for underwater cabinet meetings and for moving the entire population to a promised land free of the threat of inundation, have led to accusations that he is a little light on political substance and too gimmicky for his own good.
Nasheed is scaring off investors, say opponents who include his predecessor, Gayoom. "This man is so hellbent on hogging the media limelight that he is forgetting to do his job, which is to run the country," said a spokesman for the former president.
Such criticism reeks of sour grapes, of course. Nevertheless, it is questionable just how far Nasheed can go for his country. Just who will sell him the land where he can build his New Maldives? And just what good will it do to make his nation carbon-neutral? Providing answers to these questions will not be easy, though in many ways they distract from the real purpose of Nasheed's plans.
We are all Maldivians, he argues. Every nation on the planet is threatened today by global warming. The Maldives and its inhabitants just happen to be first in line for the great calamity when it arrives. They may survive more than 100 years, of course, if rises in sea level remain modest. However, the oceans will continue to rise throughout next century and probably the one after it, scientists warn. The islands will therefore have to face their watery fate either in the 21st century or the 22nd, or even in the 23rd.
The actions of Mohamed Nasheed are therefore aimed at stimulating action by the west in the hope his country can reap some collateral benefit when a programme for dealing effectively with climate change is eventually hammered out. As he says: "If scientists are not able to save the Maldives, then they won't be able to save the world."