India might be faced with another security challenge in its neighbourhood with a controversy erupting in the Maldives over Abdulla Yameen government’s plan to give control of an entire atoll to Saudi Arabia.

Members of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) told TOI that the decision to “sell” Faafu – one of the 26 natural atolls in Maldives – to Saudi Arabia would aggravate creeping Wahabism in the country. According to some international estimates, the archipelago already accounts for one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters in Syria in terms of per capita.

Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud will soon be travelling to Maldives as part of his ongoing tour of Asia. Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering building a special economic zone on the atoll.

Speaking to TOI, senior MDP leader and former foreign minister Ahmed Naseem said the Yameeen government did not bother to take the consent of the people before committing the atoll to Saudi Arabia. “In the old days, selling land, which is scarce‎ in Maldives, to foreigners would have been seen as high treason punishable by death,” said Naseem.

Maldives remains the only country in India’s neighbourhood which PM Narendra Modi has avoided visiting. ‎India has been unwilling to be seen as obtruding upon the internal affairs of Maldives, especially those related to political instability.

However, it may soon be required to take a position with elections likely next year in the strategically located country in the Indian Ocean.

MDP leader and former president Mohamed Nasheed, who is currently living in exile in London, has already announced ‎that he wants to contest the elections. He told TOI last month that India had a moral obligation to ensure free and fair elections in the country. MoS M J Akbar recently visited Male and reiterated India’s support for a “stable, democratic, peaceful and prosperous Maldives fulfilling the aspirations of its citizens”. ‎

Radicalisation in the Maldives ‎though adds another layer to India’s security concerns in the Indian Ocean, as it seeks to keep pace with growing presence of Chinese navy and Beijing’s infrastructure-building activities in the region.

According to MDP leaders, the decision to cede control of the atoll should be seen in the context of ‎propagation of Wahabism in the Maldives for decades now and also Male’s decision to sever its 41-year-old ties with Iran last year at the behest of Saudi Arabia.

“Saudis fund scholarships for more than 300 students every year. I would assume 70 per cent of Maldivian‎ population already subscribes to the Wahabi sect,” said a senior MDP official.

“There is a plan by Yameen to bring in Islamic teachers for schools from Saudi Arabia this year. This will effectively turn these schools to madrasas such as the ones they have in Pakistan financed by the Saudis,” he added.

The MDP parliamentary group, as it said in a statement last week, wants to overturn a constitutional amendment passed in 2015 which allows foreigners to own land in the Maldives.

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