The Maldives’ new minister of national planning and infrastructure previously served as minister of housing, transport and environment under former President Mohamed Nasheed, and his experience and vision will be put to the test as the country embarks on a new era of development and transparency. Here, Aslam discusses the challenges he faces in creating new infrastructure to improve the lives of Maldivians, and to boost the dynamism and diversity of the archipelago’s economy
What are the most significant upcoming infrastructure projects and in what direction does the new administration’s national planning strategy want to take the Maldives?
Over the next three years our biggest infrastructure work will be involved with the provision of water and sewerage for all inhabited islands. Of the 196 islands where people live, 87 still require proper sewerage networks and 137 water infrastructure, meaning a pipe network and fresh drinking water as well as rainwater storage. The lifestyle change over recent decades has put pressure on natural resources such as freshwater. Before this period of economic growth, we did not have flushing toilets or running water, but now people are better off and want to live as well as the rest of the world. This is fine, but it has placed stress on our water reserves, which are mainly from groundwater sources. They have either become contaminated or salinized, so there is an urgent need on almost all of these islands for a supply of potable water, and for health reasons we need a proper sewerage system. Things have progressed slowly, but we don’t think this is an issue on which we can afford to take our time. We aim to supply everyone with water during our term in office.
Apart from that, plans have been formulated for national development across the archipelago, to ensure we do not just have one island where everyone wants to live and where all the economic activity, good healthcare and education is based. At the moment, everybody who can afford it comes to Malé for better education, quality healthcare and job opportunities, but many end up living in very bad conditions. It is one of the most congested cities in the entire world. It is like a black hole, and everything is drawn to it like a magnet. This was not always the case; four or five decades ago, Malé was just another island in the Maldives. First, we want to slow down this process, then stop it and, hopefully, begin to diversify as part of the regional development of the country. A masterplan is now being drawn up – a new National Development Plan – so that all sectors work towards achieving this same goal through coordination at government level. We must look at things from a macro level and make sure we are all working toward the same goal across the various departments. Finally, we are also ensuring that existing infrastructure projects proceed smoothly and are completed on time, monitoring and evaluating all government infrastructure work apart from housing, which has its own separate ministry.
There has been criticism of the last government’s handling of infrastructure contracts that saddled the country with debt. What is the new government’s approach to contracts with foreign partners, and how do you plan to restore investor confidence in the sector?
The previous government’s methods for deciding who to give work to were not transparent at all, so we don’t actually know what went on when contracts were given out. I have inherited a huge number of unpaid bills, which is proving very complicated to sort out. I have formed a task force to look into which ones need to be paid, which must go to arbitrage, and so on. That is now my problem. There are three ways government contracts work: through a normal tender with solicited bids; unsolicited bids in which investors come to us with a proposal, for which we have come up with a transparent procedure now published on the ministry’s website; and solicited bids where we invite a specific company to do very specialised work, which is an instrument we might use only on very rare occasions. We have become more transparent, and we will continue on this path, because investors want to know if they have a fair chance. Good businessmen want to be transparent in everything they do, so that is the kind of environment we want to create and for the Maldives to be seen as an attractive place in which to invest.
What makes the Maldives stand out as an investment destination?
Number one: it’s paradise on Earth; people love to spend their holidays here. And those who do that are often very rich people, so even this in itself is enough for investors to realize that there are many opportunities here due to the presence of such an elite set of consumers. We have not explored many of the possible areas yet. We have merely given them a product based on ‘do nothing time’, and almost none of the things that tourists seek when they go to other places. Wealthy people like to spend and explore. They also want to get the best services, whether they be in healthcare or in shopping, and none of this is there in the Maldives yet. Not all Gulf states have oil; some have thrived just by creating a good environment for people to go to and shop and invest in, and we could do the same thing. And it will be even better to do all of that in heaven on Earth. We don’t know everything; it is for investors to have the ideas. The customers are there, and the potential is enormous. We don’t have precious stones or coal. The previous government talked about exploring for hydrocarbons; I don’t know if there are any such resources, but to me it is madness to even think of that in such a beautiful natural environment. And what you can see above water is not even half of what there is to explore underwater. Visitors do tend to explore and see more of the islands than Maldivians ever do, and this is something we need to exploit more by encouraging more services and activities.
The Abu Dhabi Fund has agreed to finance ultra-luxury tourism developments in the Maldives. What other opportunities do you see for Emirati investors to partner with the Abu Dhabi Fund and contribute to financing infrastructure development projects in the Maldives?
There is a need for a better port in Malé and in a few of the outer regions across the archipelago. The idea of a transshipment port has been around a long time, and still makes sense due to the amount of maritime traffic going east to west and vice versa in the Indian Ocean. Malé port needs to be relocated and congestion in the Greater Malé region needs to be eased by moving some of the commercial activities elsewhere, probably by creating new islands, which some companies around the world can do in a matter of months. That sort of infrastructure and the re-planning of the Malé area, as well as bringing in more visitors, all provide opportunities for investment. I also believe that we need to promote high-end shopping experiences, with the top brands coming in to areas that both visitors and locals can access. The Greater Malé we are envisaging is a larger and more connected area. This is still conceptual, but it will be mapped out in the plans we are working on. I invite investors who want to come and do something here to become part of our society, because that is the best way. We are very welcoming to visitors. Many come and then leave again, but I would like to see a day where more visitors from outside come to stay and live among us. But the legal framework needs to be improved for that vision to become a reality. We would take our cue from some Gulf states where there are more non-Arabs than national citizens.
What expectations do you have concerning the new Joint Cooperation Committee to be formed between the UAE and the Maldives?
New partnerships should bring us closer together. It is always difficult for outsiders to look into a new place and know how things work there, so following up on this kind of partnership will help to overcome that issue. We may have lots of opportunities, but someone who has not visited us does not know how the processes work here. The partnership with the UAE is about building relationships, and through those relationships we will have stronger bonds. The world runs on good relations; there is no business without good relations.