The Republic of the Maldives is a nation made up of 1,190 islands nicknamed the “pearl necklace” of the Indian Ocean. It has traditionally had close ties with Japan because of its strategic position on sea-lanes, and many Japanese tourists visit the beautiful Maldives for honeymoons and other purposes. Toshio Motoya spoke with H. E. Mr. Ahmed Khaleel, ambassador to Japan, about the Maldives’ three resources and potential regarding its relationship with Japan.
Motoya Thank you for joining me on the first Big Talk of 2015. When many Japanese people hear the name “the Maldives,” they think of an island nation with beautiful seas. Today I invited you to share more information about the Maldives.
Khaleel On behalf of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and the citizens of the Maldives, I thank you for this opportunity. This is my second posting at the embassy. I actually was the one who set up the embassy in 2007. However, at that time I was not the ambassador; I was in charge of the embassy as the charge d’affairs a.i. I left Japan at the end of 2007 and was appointed as the ambassador in 2009 December. I am the second ambassador from the Maldives.
Motoya Is that so? Japanese people have a favorable impression of the Maldives, but I feel like few people know very much about your country including its location. Can you share some fundamental information with us?
Khaleel Yes, of course. The Maldives is an island nation right in the middle of the Indian Ocean, southwest of India. It consists of 1,190 islands and stretches across a sea area of approximately 90,000 square kilometers, out of which only 1% is land and above water. I understand that my country’s entire area is approximately the same size as Awaji Island in Japan. The population is approximately 345,000 people, and the capital is Male. The airport is on Hulhule Island, which is about a kilometer away from Male Island. Male Island has an area of just about 1.8 square kilometers, yet approximately 150,000 people live there.
Motoya So all of the capital city functions are centered on Male. That’s an amazing population density.
Khaleel Yes. An artificial island, Hulhumale Island, is being constructed next to the airport (Hulhule Island). Already people are living on this newly created island, and we hope that this island will help ease the overpopulation issues faced by Male. Overall, the Maldives’ average height above sea level is 1.5 meters, but Hulhumale Island is 2.5 meters. Because the Maldives is a country made up of small islands, each island has a different role such as factories or oil storage.
Motoya That’s quite interesting.
Khaleel Japan and the Maldives share the common feature of being island nations, as well as the spirit of hospitality. The Maldives’ chief industries are fishing and tourism.
Motoya I have heard there is a policy of only building one hotel on each island. Rather than hotels, visitors think of each island as a resort and choose accordingly. I suspect privacy can be ensured on single islands as well; it sounds like the Maldives is a resort where wealthy people can relax in seclusion. I would like to stay there for about one month, laying on the beaches, scuba diving, and kicking back.
Khaleel As you say, the one island, one resort policy has been hugely successful, and we have been able to turn the Maldives into one of the world’s most prominent resort brands. As a result, the GDP per capita is from 6,000 to 7,000 dollars, the top level in South Asia. The citizens enjoy a high standard of living. Roughly 70% of the nation’s foreign exchange comes from tourism revenue.
Motoya Approximately 40,000 Japanese tourists visit the Maldives each year.
Khaleel Yes. Among these, three fourths are honeymooners.
Motoya Really? There are no direct flights from Japan to the Maldives, so how do you get there?
Khaleel Possible places to transfer include Singapore, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Colombo in Sri Lanka. I think Singapore is the most convenient route. It takes approximately seven hours to get to Singapore from Japan, and then four more to Male. There are two flights from Singapore to Male each day. From Ibrahim Nasir International Airport on Hulhule Island, you can easily travel to the other islands by boat or light plane including seaplanes.
Motoya So there is a sufficient transportation network between the islands. I assume most of the country’s area is ocean. It sounds like you are utilizing these aquatic resources via fishing, but have you developed other resources such as minerals?
Khaleel The Maldives’ territory spans 90,000 square kilometers, of which 99.7% is ocean. Most mineral resources are on the bottom of the ocean, which is why we have not yet investigated or developed them.
Motoya When it was not yet known if there were any resources at the Japanese Senkaku Islands, China had nothing to say about them. But when a UN survey ascertained the existence of these resources, China began claiming that the Senkaku Islands were part of its territory. Resources spark conflicts between neighboring countries. The Maldives still has vast territorial waters that have yet to be investigated. If you learn there are resources there, the common sense of the world says that neighboring countries will try to get involved. You must take sufficient care.
Khaleel Yes, that’s true. We are certainly aware of such conflicts all over the world. Actually, the Maldives has no quarrels with any of our neighbors and enjoys friendly relations and cooperation with all countries. India is our largest neighboring country, and we have constructed extremely friendly relationships in the economic, cultural, and human realms.
Motoya Your neighboring countries are India and Sri Lanka. The major religion in India is Hinduism, and in Sri Lanka is Buddhism. The Maldives is Sunni Islam, so each is different.
Khaleel Yes, we have different religions and we fully respect each other’s religions. The Maldives has always been a moderate Islamic country and I have no doubt that it will always remain the same. Our focus is to ensure the continuation of the rapid socio-economic development of the country, which we have enjoyed for the last few decades.
Motoya That is very wise. How many resources have been lost across the world as people killed each other due to religious opposition? The January attack on the newspaper in Paris, France because of its cartoons was very tragic.
Khaleel The thinking of the perpetrators of that crime is not Islamic. They are simple criminals and we condemn this barbaric and cowardly act in the strongest possible terms.
Motoya In Japan there has long existed the concept of “eight million gods,” so we are tolerant of every religion. Nations on continents must be very concerned with their relations with neighboring countries with which they share borders, but island nations ? like Japan and the Maldives ? don’t have to worry as much. Still, one must imagine that all neighboring countries are hypothetical enemies. Even if good relationships exist now, if religious problems are spread due to resource-related issues, these relations could deteriorate all at once. Military conflict should be avoided, so it is very difficult to deal with such conflicts. I think the first response is the most important; if we neglect to remove fishing boats that violate our territorial waters in the initial stage, the situation will rapidly develop and they will be followed by government-owned ships and battleships.
Khaleel That’s certainly true.
Motoya In 2012, the Republic of Palau attacked and tried to capture a Chinese fishing boat that was carrying out illegal operations in its territorial waters. It shot one of the sailors to death and arrested 25 people. I thought this resolute response was fantastic. In contrast, in 2010 a Chinese fishing boat rammed into a Japan Coast Guard patrol boat. The Chinese captain was released without indictment and he was returned home on an airplane, which was no good. The Maldives is losing territory as sea levels rise, and I have heard there are plans to migrate to other countries. There is also the potential of abundant oceanic resources from the vast territorial waters, so I feel like abandoning them would be very regrettable. I think you should cease the moving plan, use those expenses to build embankments like in the Netherlands, reclaim land, or build more artificial islands like Hulhumale Island. Wouldn’t it be better to have a policy of maintaining the nation in its current location? If undersea resources could be added to your current tourist attractions and fishing industry, perhaps the Maldives ? which has roughly 400,000 people ? could become the world’s top country in terms of per capita affluence.
Khaleel The migration idea is not serious; our former president spoke about it only to emphasize the danger of the country being annihilated. We Maldives love our current country and don’t want to leave it.
Motoya I’m glad to hear that (laughs).
Khaleel Eighty-two people died in the tsunami caused by the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake in 2004. We keenly realize the importance of disaster prevention to protect our land today.
Motoya After the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, I proposed that six-story disaster prevention condominiums be constructed as a way to revive the coastal areas in Tohoku. Evacuation towers, high embankments, and other structures are only useful when a tsunami occurs, so they are wasteful in many ways. Condominiums that can be used as daily residences are exceedingly effective. People can evacuate to the roof if a tsunami approaches ? six stories are high enough to withstand any tsunami. The same applies in the Maldives. I think it would be a good idea to construct one disaster prevention condominium per island.
Khaleel In the early 1990s a sea wall was built around the Capital Island, Male, with assistance from Japan. At that time many people were opposed to it because they feared that it would block the view of the ocean and spoil the scenery, but thanks to the sea wall, nobody in Male died during the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake. Since then, there have been many discussions about sea walls in the Maldives to guard against tsunamis, but I think your disaster prevention condominiums can prove to be a better idea.
Motoya If you are stressing the importance of scenery because of tourism, you could plant tall trees near the disaster prevention condominiums to conceal them from view. Of course, the natural environment should also be considered; there are no resorts that lack ocean views. Sea walls would ruin the precious tourism resource of ocean coastlines.
Khaleel I agree. I invite you to make a visit to the Maldives to see for yourself the beautiful nature of our tiny country and to understand properly the immense challenges facing the country due to global climate change. During the visit you can meet with our president and other senior government officials and propose the idea of the disaster prevention condominiums at that time. I am sure the president would be most delighted to appear on Big Talk if the opportunity presents itself.
Motoya I understand. The Maldives is a nation with three resources ? tourism (including its scenery), the fishing industry, and undersea resources ? and I think you should especially prize your scenery. Population growth is causing strife in many countries such as public order and immigration-related issues. The Maldives, which has these resources yet is home to a small population, is like an earthly paradise. I believe the role of politics is to protect this environment and make it so that citizens can fully enjoy this richness. I hope you will build disaster prevention condominiums together with hotels to create a balance between safety and tourism. And I feel that island development should be carried out individually according to the characteristics of each island. That would lead to more repeat visitors who want to see different islands each time.
Khaleel I agree entirely, and President Yameen’s policies on tourism and sustainable development focus on those aspects as well. He visited Japan in April of last year and met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to confirm that bilateral relations will be further strengthened. At that time, they spoke about the fact that more Japanese people would visit the Maldives if there were a Japanese- brand resort hotel. APA Hotel & Resort is a perfect candidate, so I hope you will come visit the Maldives.
Motoya I recently went to Brazil and Argentina, bringing my total number of countries visited to 81. I would like to make the Maldives number 82. When is the best season to go?
Khaleel The period from January to April is dry without much rain, so it’s very comfortable. The temperature is from 28 to 32 degrees, but due to the dryness it feels very refreshing.
Motoya I definitely want to go. Japan must emulate the Maldives to become a tourism-focused nation. Japan is safe, has a wide variety of clean restaurants, its transportation facilities are operated according to schedule, and people keep their promises. It also features a spirit of hospitality. No other countries across the world are like Japan. Japanese people are used to this so they don’t notice how good we have it.
Khaleel That’s true.
Motoya I would like to ask you something personal. Have you always been a diplomat, or were you appointed to your position as ambassador from another field?
Khaleel I am a career diplomat. I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a very young age. I was first educated in the Maldives, went to study in Pakistan, and then studied at Oxford University in England. A good part of my career was in the field of multilateral diplomacy in New York at the Permanent Mission of the Maldives to the United Nations. I came to Japan in 2006 to set up the embassy. After 11 months in Japan, I was once again transferred to New York as the ambassador, a post I held until the middle of 2009. I was appointed as the second ambassador of the Maldives to Japan in December 2009. I have already served in this post for five years.
Motoya What are your impressions of Japan?
Khaleel I was very lucky to become the ambassador to Japan, which has been an important appointment in my diplomatic experience. As I have mentioned, before I was posted to Japan I was a UN government representative for 19 years. As you could imagine the UN can be a very challenging place for small countries like the Maldives. No one listens to small countries, which was really dissatisfying. On the other hand, here in Tokyo I deal only with the Japanese government and everyone else listens to what I have to say. Japan provides various types of support for the Maldives, and I am shouldering part of this responsibility and have been able to create results. It is a good feeling to see and know that the work I do here in Japan is benefiting our people and country.
Motoya That’s great. As for the UN, 70 years have passed since the end of World War II so I think now is the time to alter this structure that is centered on the victorious nations. The first thing is the abolishment of the enemy nation clause in the UN Charter. Even though a resolution for its removal was adopted at the UN General Assembly, it hasn’t been ratified by each country so it has yet to be truly abolished.
Khaleel As you say, the individual countries should quickly complete these removal procedures. The Maldives has long supported Japan at the UN, and approves it becoming a standing member-nation of the UN Security Council. Of course, we also supported the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Motoya Thank you very much. Japan’s mission is to gather support by fully considering benefits even for small countries, and stopping the oppression by major countries. I hope the Maldives will respond resolutely to small violations like Palau did, and protect its three wonderful resources so that Japanese people and other tourists can visit with peace of mind at any time.
Khaleel I understand.
Motoya At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
Khaleel I want to say just one thing to young people: you should think about the changes happening in the global environment. Climate change has no borders and it does not discriminate. Perhaps there are few impacts in large nations, but small countries like the Maldives are the first to be affected by global warming. We all need to work together in order to make a difference.
Motoya APA Hotel is currently making direct efforts related to environmental issues. We are advocating for “new urban hotels” that are high quality, highly functional, and environmentally friendly. For example, the latest APA Hotels’ carbon emissions per square meter are one third that of regular city hotels. In the bathrooms we made the bathtubs oval shaped, which maintains a spacious feeling while reducing the amount of hot water needed. We also incorporate air in our water-saving showers that use less hot water yet are still fully useable, as well as insulated shower curtains. The room lighting is also all LED lights. They should become a model for new hotels in Japan.
Khaleel Is that so?
Motoya Today is the era of eco vehicles ? a Prius instead of a Cadillac, a 787 instead of a jumbo let (laughs). Based on our concept of the “new urban hotel,” in September of this year we will open APA Hotel Shinjuku-Kabukicho-Tower followed by APA Hotel Shinagawa-Sengakuji-Ekimae in October, APA Hotel Sugamo-Ekimae in July 2016, and APA Hotel Hiroshima-Ekimae-Ohashi in September 2016. These four hotels will have a total of 2,422 rooms.
Khaleel That’s a fantastic business and concept. I hope that many young Japanese people will learn about the importance of the global environment through hotels of this type.
Motoya Me too. Thank you for joining me today.
Born in 1963. Graduated from the Majeediyya School in the Maldives in 1980 and then joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After completing the Diplomat Training Program at the Diplomat Training School in Pakistan in 1984, he completed the Foreign Service Programme at Oxford University in 1992. After working at the UN and in the Maldives, in 2006 he helped set up the Embassy of the Maldives in Japan as the charge d’affairs a.i. He worked as an ambassador at the UN Permanent Mission from 2007, and became the ambassador in 2009.