The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy by J J Robinson - review by Richard Cockett

Richard Cockett

Paradise Postponed

The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy


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On 4 November, the Maldives declared a state of emergency. This would surely have taken most people, if they had noticed in the first place, rather by surprise. After all, isn’t this the luxury holiday archipelago, set amid the crystal-clear waters of the Indian Ocean, supposed to be a peaceful getaway from a brutish world? Apparently not, according to J J Robinson’s new book. The Maldives, by his account, is less a paradise than a gangster state with some posh hotels attached.

The state of emergency was declared to put a lid on protests by the opposition in the wake of the arrest of the vice-president, Ahmed Adeeb, on 24 October. He was accused of conspiring to try to kill the president, Abdulla Yameen, who survived an explosion on his yacht at the end of September (though his wife was injured). Adeeb denies any involvement. These murky events triggered another round of political turmoil, which has come to characterise the Maldives since it began its unhappy experiment with democracy in 2008. It is principally this story that Robinson tells in his entertaining book, which is stuffed with heroes, villains, coups and countercoups, as well as plenty of sex, religion and corruption. It reads like a Carl Hiaasen novel.

Robinson arrived in the Maldives to edit a news website called Minivan News. As he admits, he had certainly never heard of it when he was offered the post. ‘Why would somebody start what sounded like a small vehicles special interest publication in a country that was 99 per cent water with barely any roads?’ he asks. In fact, minivan means ‘independent’ in Dhivehi, the local lingo, an important point, as it was the only media outlet not owned by the government, making it a trusted source of news. It also gave Robinson an excellent vantage point from which to view the tumultuous events that unfolded soon after he arrived.

In 2008 Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the current president’s half-brother and by then Asia’s longest-serving dictator, lost a historic election to a young upstart called Mohamed Nasheed, head of the reforming Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president, won international acclaim by making the Maldives the pin-up country for the global climate-change movement. By holding cabinet meetings underwater, he famously highlighted the threat to the low-lying islands.

Money duly poured in from guilt-stricken Western countries to prevent the Maldives from disappearing under the waves, but, as Robinson delights in pointing out, things weren’t so simple in a country that had been run as a corrupt, one-party dictatorship for so long. Most locals cared little about the environment, particularly the famous pristine beaches, which are often used as rubbish dumps. Much money was wasted on or siphoned off from ambitious projects that came to nothing. Robinson records that the European Commission, in a ‘rare example of self-reflection’ in 2010, admitted that the $15 million it had spent trying to establish waste-management centres had achieved nothing.

Before long, anyway, Nasheed was toppled in a coup: having been deserted by the police and the army, he was forced from office in February 2012. Robinson was on hand to report the coup and he gives an exciting account of the days surrounding it in the book’s second chapter. The old regime duly returned to power under a figurehead, Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, and the rest of the book is a detailed exposure of all the seedy, corrupt and hypocritical ways that it buttressed its power while crony businessmen made lots of money.

The famous hotel industry, for instance, was all part of the racket. There are 109 resorts on the Maldives. Robinson shows how the owners were granted huge privileges by the government so they could run their own ‘fiefdoms’ as they liked, totally divorced from the country’s real economy. Nasheed claimed that there were only fifty people in the Maldives who actually benefited from the country’s often eye-wateringly expensive hotels, so he tried to undermine the resort model by introducing ‘guesthouse tourism’, aiming to bring money to the smaller islands and more people. This was, of course, resented by the fabulous fifty, who were probably involved in the coup against Nasheed. Robinson observes that on the day Nasheed was toppled leaked footage filmed inside police headquarters showed a bunch of resort tycoons ‘among those weeping with joy’.

And so it goes on. The Maldives has probably the strictest Islamic laws in the world, compelling its citizens to be Muslim while banning non-citizens from practising other faiths, but the regime would have no qualms ignoring this if it served its interests. Little escapes Robinson’s eye for detail and a good yarn. If you want to enjoy a guilt-free holiday to the Maldives, this is probably not the best book for the poolside. On the other hand, if you read it before setting off, it may put you off going altogether – and that may not be such a bad thing.

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