Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Maldives Islands: Meeting the Nation Builder

The FINANCIAL -- Before I fly to Male, the tiny capital of Maldives Islands, I am invited to meet with Ali Umar Manikku, the man who, over a 50 year period, took a tiny nation of islanders from total obscurity to a well-to-do country which, just a few days ago, created the record of having pulled in one million tourists for 2011.

Maldives per capita tourist influx is phenomenal. The ratio of 350,000 population to the tourist population of one million is staggering. Maldives does not necessarily cater to cheap tourism. Some resort accommodation sell at $10,000 to 15,000 a night while downward cascading prices for accommodation do not fall below $250 a night in 3-star resorts.

I meet Ali Umar Manikku in Singapore, in a quiet office at International Plaza in Anson Road. I have met him on and off for some 20 years, mainly during President Gayoom’s time. He has turned 72 now, somewhat feeble, but his memory, and his grasp of the global trends, global economy and what it means to smaller nations is formidable. What is more, he is still interested in taking Maldives Islands to a next level of growth, trying to find innovative ways of increasing its wealth generating capacity and in ensuring still better standards of living for his people. He remains a committed nationalist and a nation builder.

Maniku, serving as Vice President and as Presidential Advisor under two Presidents – Ibrahim Naseer and Gayoom – has been the chief architect of Maldives development and has played a key role in developing the capital Male which currently has some 120,000 people living there, the tourism infrastructure of resorts, Airport s, sea planes, fast boats; he developed the strategy for the Maldivian National Shipping Corporation which not only linked Maldives to the rest of world but became a key income generator for Maldives, the Maldivian National Trading Corporation as well as the fishing industry which now is one of the lifelines of Maldives. From the first day electricity dawned in Maldives or the first kilometre of road was carpeted in the capital, Manikku’s footprint is to be seen everywhere.

He gave me his book titled “ My Log Book : 1947-2008”, autographed it and said “ this was not written to say what I did, but where do we go from here”. The 50 years of enriched experience of dealing with the British over their exit from Maldives and from the Royal Airforce base in Gan Islands, of steering 30 years of President Naseer’s regime and that of President Gayoom’s tenure over 20 years focussed on developing a nation without water, without stones or any building materials, without educated people and without any real international support to a country whose water levels are constantly rising  must have been a real challenge. In his book, he describes his frustration when the world’s first woman prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka thwarted his plans to import large quantities of dried fish from Maldives to Sri Lanka – the only lifeline his people had of making any money at that time. Maldives has come a long way from that time.

After my meeting with Manikku, I was in Maldives, talking to senior government officers including the chief of staff of the President’s Office, and the Minister of Tourism, a lady in a Muslim country with a doctorate in law from Australia and a very key portfolio in the country. I find that the present generation of Maldivians are highly intelligent, well educated, totally focussed, very nationalistic and above all, they display a passion for building their tiny nation of hundreds of inhabited and uninhabited islands into a “ Singapore on the Water”.  They are all betting on developing their large number of islands into more and more affordable resorts for avid travellers seeking sun, sea and sand, building retirement homes for the wealthy and the ordinary men and women who may not be well cared for in their own countries, of information technology parks, fishing industry which can provide much of the fish to the world. Despite all the odds of not having any resource except the islands without rocks,r wood or river sand for mixing with concrete, the Maldivians, educated and disciplined are upbeat. They are planning to raise their national GDP to over $50 billion per annum within years. In simple terms, they are looking at over a $100,000 in per capita income which will be the highest in the world. Goals are being set.

Manikku served two Presidents who were deemed autocratic, although Manikku argues that without a certain level of autocracy, nothing much can be achieved in poor and emerging nations. But concedes that autocracy, like the early days of Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore, need to be on the basis of having people’s development as utmost priority. Today, under the new government of President Nasheed, a UK-educated dissident who was in an out of jail under former President Gayoom, there is greater democracy, more freedom of expression and room for dissent and protests ranging from calls for the abolition of massage parlours in the capital to demanding work for everyone. There is also a measurable shift toward traditional Islamic practices in a country which had comparatively more liberal attitudes.

Maldives tourism has captured the world’s imagination. It is perhaps the ultimate tourist paradise and Maldives hopes of building the nation up the ladder are still based on income from tourism. Any attempt by radical thinking to snuff tourism will undoubtedly be the road back to the subsistence economy of fish and coconut as well as economic and cultural isolation in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

During the last days of my visit to Maldives, I discussed Georgia as a destination for Maldives investments. I told them that there is plenty of land, plenty of water, plenty of rocks and indeed plenty of people to work. Very few have heard of Georgia and its wonderful resources, but they are all extremely interested in checking it out. I am keen to see smaller emerging nations working powerfully together in sharing their expertise and their financial and other resources to build their economies.


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