Minister to Minister

Navigating the dual storm of Covid and climate change as a small island nation reliant on tourism has been a challenge for the Maldives. Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid plots the country’s course with former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer AC


Navigating the dual storm of Covid and climate change as a small island nation reliant on tourism has been a challenge for the Maldives. Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid plots the country’s course with former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer AC

Alexander Downer: The Maldives has been a successful economy, driven in large part by, tourism. How are you weathering the Covid crisis and what has the been impact on the industry?

Abdulla Shahid: We have been very successful in transforming and developing our economy from independence in 1965 up until 2004. However, in 2004 the Indian Ocean Tsunami hit us and wiped away almost 60% of our GDP. So, we then had to start again, and have successfully rebuilt the tourist industry in the Maldives. In 2019, we reached the two million a year tourist arrivals mark for the first time. Everything was looking very sunny. However, no one was prepared for this huge pandemic.

Our first Covid case was detected in March 2020 and on 15 March, we were forced to close our borders. Overnight, the Maldives went from being a middle-income country to a low-income country. The entire tourism industry came to a standstill. 60% of our GDP, in some way or another, is connected to tourism, so when the tourists stopped coming, the airport was shut down, people lost jobs there, people lost jobs at the resorts, in the transport system. The entire country came to a standstill. We were able to continue to sustain ourselves because of our international connections.

We import everything, from basic foodstuffs to essential medication, but we were able to continue because we have special relationships with our neighbours and international organisations. The World Bank looked sympathetically at the situation of small developing countries and helped out. We made painful but necessary steps, and as a result, we were able to see positive signs of improvement in the Covid pandemic. But the socio-economic pandemic continued.

So, we decided to make a call on the reopening of borders on 15 July after three months. As an archipelagic nation, we have tourist resorts on individual islands, so if we could put in place strict protocols for ferrying tourists from the airport to hotels, then the islands themselves are separate and very safe for tourists. By the start of 2021, all the beds in the Maldives were full again, despite major markets such as Europe and China still being closed. Instead, we received tourists from new markets in Central Asia and India.

Things are now starting to look brighter. We have also been able to start the vaccine rollout thanks to our special relationship with India. After just 48 hours of the beginning of the Indian vaccination programme, we received 200,000 doses. We have now been able to reach 67% of the population with the first dose.

We are now slowly starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. From April, we are beginning to allow inter-island transport for people who have had both doses of the vaccine. I think an international system needs to be established by which all countries accept a common system that allows vaccinated individuals to travel. We believe in opening up, because for us it means survival. Shutting down borders forever is not an option.

Will you be pushing for the opening of borders through multi-lateral institutions? You are a member of the Commonwealth, and CHOGM is taking place in June, will this be something you will bring up there?

At the moment, there are bilateral agreements between countries, but in the long term there needs to be an international regime. One of the forums to raise this would be CHOGM. One of things that has come to the attention of the international community through the pandemic is the importance and critical role that the tourism industry plays in the economy of not only small island nations but also larger countries. So far, the tourism industry has not been a major part of the conversation vis-a-vis international cooperation. I believe the Commonwealth, the United Nations, and other international organisations need to deal with this.

Maldives fact sheet

557,426 inhabitants spread over 26 atolls, with a total land area of 115 square miles

Average elevation of just 1.5m above sea level, with the highest point being just 5.1m

GDP (nominal) estimated to be $4.5billion in 2021. Largest sectors: fishing and tourism

Initially joined in July 1982, before leaving in October 2016 and rejoining in February 2020

When I was the High Commissioner in London for four years, the Maldives left the Commonwealth during that time and then rejoined. Does that suggest you value your membership of the Commonwealth?

Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting in the case of the Maldives that when we became independent in 1965, we did not join the Commonwealth right away, but in 1982, we decided we wanted to be a part of the grouping, becoming a full member in 1984. We have benefited immensely. Looking at the leadership of the Maldives; political, economic and academic leadership; many of them are graduates of institutions in Commonwealth countries. Australia, for example, myself included, I studied in Canberra. Many cabinet members have studied there, in the UK, in India, in Fiji, and more.

The benefits we have received from the Commonwealth have been outstanding, from institutions such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. For a country like the Maldives, these are vital because we have a lack of institution-building capacity. These associations gave us that opportunity.

However, in 2016 the then-government decided to leave the Commonwealth. I was in opposition at the time and we protested against it. Some of us were even jailed for protesting, but we passionately believed that the Commonwealth was telling us to do the right thing; get back into the fold internationally, start respecting human rights, promote good governance, transparency and so on. The things that come with modern day democracy.

One of the first decisions the cabinet made upon winning power, on the first day in office, was to rejoin the Commonwealth. We are very glad that by the time of the Kigala summit, we will once again be a full member. I was honoured to be at Marlborough House in February 2020, in London, to raise the flag of the Maldives once again, and to be in the family of nations. We firmly believe it is a family.

You are the lowest lying country in the world. COP26 in Glasgow will be an opportunity for small island states such as the Maldives to push the threat of sea level rise quite strongly.

For the Maldives, climate change is reality. We see our shores being taken by the sea. The ocean is encroaching on the small islands that we have. It’s very difficult to take a side because we live from the ocean, but it’s the ocean coming and taking away the precious land. For many countries, the concept of sea level rise would be difficult to comprehend. I was at one of the sand banks last week with my family, which was completely dry when we landed, but within a couple of hours we were knee deep. It brought home to me the fate of many many island states. This is how vulnerable we are. That’s why we will also make sure we raise the issue, we cannot be silent when it comes to climate change. We are looking forward to COP26, especially as we now have the US and China discussing a common position on some issues pertaining to climate change. It shows the will of the people is being listening to. The democratic process does back good decisions.

We are ambitious, the Maldives submitted our NDCs on 27 December 2020 to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030, keeping in line with the timeline set at the Paris Agreement five years ago. However, we will require the assistance of the international community, our partners in the developed world, to achieve this.

Our future is also ocean, we need to save the oceans. Plastic pollution is killing the oceans. We have decided to ban the use of single-use plastics by 2023. It’s going to be tough but we want to be an example, we want to be speaking internationally from the moral high ground.

The entire country came to a standstill. We were able to sustain ourselves thanks to our international connections