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A Future beyond the Commonwealth: The Maldives

Ambassador of the Maldives Ahmed Shiaan addresses the reasons behind his country’s decision to go it alone, stating that it presents an exciting opportunity
In today’s age of increasing uncertainty, why would a small island nation choose to go it alone? This was the question on the world’s lips when Britain made the decision, after many years of mutual cooperation, to leave the EU. For those of us in the UK during the Brexit vote, we witnessed a similar, albeit less vociferous reaction, when Maldives made the decision to leave the Commonwealth just a few months later.
Choosing to leave a group that has offered decades of support to our islands was not easy. Yet Maldives, like the UK, is keen to remain engaged and relevant in an increasingly complex and intertwined world. We believe that strengthening the relationship between our two island nations is a good place to start.
Of course this position might seem counterintuitive. Why would Maldives leave the Commonwealth if we want to strengthen our bond with the UK? But for us this is no contradiction.
Our membership of the Commonwealth started out as one of mutual support. As one of its smallest nations, the Commonwealth’s charter offered Maldives a chance to strengthen institutions and links to other member states. Over recent years, however, the relationship soured. A plummeting budget meant that Commonwealth development projects have failed to materialise. That work was replaced by the ever more ideological Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) which became a politicised baton for wealthier nations to exert influence over the smaller members. And Maldives is not the only nation who fears these developments. In November, the media in India raised concerns about the direction of Commonwealth, warning that it is beginning to favour the agendas of a select clique of larger states.
Maldives and the UK have a long history of cooperation going back to before the Commonwealth was even founded. We provided crucial support during World War II. We share a school system, a legal system and even a love of the Premier League. There is no reason that this should end. But this partnership needs to be one between equals.
The friendship between our two countries has been neglected. The EU has always been an important partner for us, but Britain’s role within the EU meant a bilateral relationship based on trade, development and economic prosperity fell by the wayside. Britain’s own voice when it came to forging closer ties with our islands was diluted. Now that Britain is regaining its power to directly negotiate trade agreements, there are ample opportunities for this to change.
The prospects for economic partnership have never been stronger. Maldives recently received its first ever credit rating from Moody’s, which expects healthy GDP prospects and robust growth, allowing for lucrative returns from investments. The thriving tourism sector has been particularly important, with visitor numbers showing steady growth from the UK and Europe, despite continuing uncertainty in the global economy. We are proud to be called the high-end destination in the world. Hard work and sound policies have brought us here. Our sustained economic growth is one of the best in Asia. We certainly believe that we are ready for the next level. UK investment in the Maldives is indeed growing, and the upcoming bilateral investment seminar to be held in London will create new opportunities. When it comes to doing business with the UK, Maldivians are ready to press the accelerator.
To equate leaving the Commonwealth with economic isolation is clearly false. But this is also true of diplomacy. We are not leaving the international stage. In fact, our departure from this grouping presents an exciting opportunity to develop and recalibrate the bond between our two nations. This resetting must first begin with mutual understanding. Currently there is no permanent diplomatic representation in the Maldives, despite nearly 100,000 Britons visiting our islands last year. Recently, this has contributed to diplomacy based on rumour rather than respect, hearsay over reality. Competing interests and political alliances stretching over borders have used the international media to spread falsehoods about domestic security, amongst others. As a nation we are not in denial about the challenges we face, but when none of the doom-mongering that was propagated has actually come true, the world must understand our frustrations. Our economy continues to grow, there have been zero cases of domestic terror and our media continues to operate freely. So we must ensure that the UK understands what is happening on the ground in our nation – politically, socially and economically. We are ready to play our part in this.
Our two countries must therefore seize these joint opportunities. But we also share mutual challenges. The UK and the Maldives must face down the threat of transnational terror and climate change. Efforts have already been made to tackle these dangers together; our two nations recently released a joint mission statement on violent extremism. This is a powerful start. But more could be done. In a world wracked by transnational terror networks, it would be foolish for us to turn our backs on each other when international cooperation and intelligence sharing is a proven tool to stymie these abhorrent groups.
The Commonwealth used to pride itself on being an organisation in which all nations are committed to working together in partnership and, most importantly, as equals. The Maldives may have left the Commonwealth, but these values remain close to our hearts. Let there be no doubt though – Maldives is not closing its doors to its friends in the Commonwealth. We aim to improve bilateral relations with Commonwealth members, especially with the United Kingdom, and work to reform the Commonwealth from the outside; to make an organisation that is fit for purpose, is value for money, and more importantly serves the aspirations of the member states. The Maldives takes pride in the active and valuable role it plays on an international level. Despite our size, our voice is strong and clear. The Maldives affirms that its international engagement will continue both bilaterally and multilaterally.


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