Since the contested 2013 election of Abdulla Yameen, Maldives has made the headlines internationally for the wrong reasons. Although tourism continues to thrive, the arrest, detention and subsequent exile of its first democratically elected president, the arrest of two supreme court judges and a state of emergency imposed in early 2018 all serve to reinforce the impression that an almost total state capture has occurred. Despite strong criticism from international bodies, reports of corruption continue, as well as instances of intimidation and arrests of opponents of the government.
Plots, Scandal and Graft
In September 2015, a small explosion on President Yameen's yacht – an attempt on his life, it was later claimed – occurred as the president and his entourage arrived in Male. A month later the president arrested his vice-president, Ahmed Adeeb, for charges of high treason and terrorism, the fourth high-profile rival of the president to be arrested on terrorism charges since 2013. Adeeb was handed a 10-year jail sentence in 2016, cleansing the executive of potential challengers for the presidency.
Despite this consolidation of power, an even bigger storm was brewing for Yameen: in 2017 an Al Jazeera investigation into corruption in Maldives stunned the nation. In his documentary piece Stealing Paradise, journalist Will Jordan identified what he believed was a vast US$1.5 billion graft scheme, in which President Yameen and his associates were allegedly skimming huge sums from the fees paid by foreign companies wanting to lease Maldivian islands to turn into resorts. While many locals knew that corruption was a problem, nobody had any idea of the scale at which this was apparently operating.
Relations between the government and the press were already fragile following the disappearance in 2014 of Rilwan Abdulla, a journalist for the newspaper Minivan News, who received death threats after investigating political corruption and was last seen being abducted at knife-point outside his house. After the government introduced new laws allowing the state to close media organisations accused of defamation in 2016, the status of the press in Maldives was downgraded from 'Partly Free' to 'Not Free' by democracy organisation Freedom House, a position echoed by organisations such as Reporters Without Borders.
Is It Safe To Go?
Despite the political tension and worryingly authoritarian developments in Male, tourism continues to boom, with 1.2 million tourists arriving in 2017 alone, more than four times the population of the entire country. Hotels at both ends of the spectrum are being built with astonishing speed: new luxury properties at the top end and cheaper guesthouses on inhabited islands are completed almost monthly.
With growing options for travel beyond the established resort islands, this is a fascinating time to visit Maldives, especially if you’re lucky enough to visit the capital and other inhabited islands. If you do visit Male, do be sure to avoid any large demonstrations of other mass gatherings, however, as there's always the possibility of unrest. The fast pace of change here – despite the current political instability – is all part of the charm of discovering this proud and fiercely independent island nation.