The Maldives’ President-elect Mohamed Muizzu, who is preparing for his inauguration on November 17, recently concluded a visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Following his trip, he announced an $80 million investment from the UAE for developing the Maldives’ main international hub, Velana International Airport (VIA). Prior to this, Muizzu met with Saudi Arabian Ambassador Matrek Abdullah Al-Ajalin Aldosari to secure support for fulfilling his campaign promises.
These developments highlight the growing significance the Maldives attaches to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, particularly the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman — and the reciprocal attention they are bestowing on the Maldives. These dynamics are accelerating as the Gulf states are broadening the scope of their engagement in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
Among the GCC, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular exert significant influence in the Maldives, as seen by Male’s backing of Saudi Arabia at the United Nations for their war against the Houthis in Yemen and the Maldives’ position on Qatar during the 2017-2021 GCC crisis. With the Maldives seeking greater economic investment from both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, their influence can be expected to grow.
The Persian Gulf has long-standing connections with the Indian Ocean, with maritime routes from the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca being vital to the global energy trade. Western powers have traditionally viewed the Gulf as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean. This is reflected in the U.S. Central Command’s regional headquarters located in Doha, Qatar, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet’s base in Bahrain.
In recent years, Gulf nations have increasingly sought to reduce their reliance on Western military support for safeguarding critical maritime routes and chokepoints against threats such as terrorism and piracy. These nations are now more inclined to take the initiative in protecting their own interests, with their economies increasingly dependent on growing energy demands from Asia and thus on the stability of Indian Ocean trade routes. In doing so they are steadily establishing themselves as significant middle powers in the region. A prime example of this shift is Saudi Arabia’s recent establishment of a military base in Djibouti.
GCC countries are also increasing their outreach with the wider region, reinforced by enhanced commercial relationships with key Indian Ocean players, including India and China — reciprocated by India’s Look West Policy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative — and participation in regional bodies such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Nations like the UAE and Oman use their IORA membership to champion shared objectives, particularly in maritime security and trade.
The Maldives has maintained long-standing diplomatic relationships with all GCC countries (with the temporary recent exception of Qatar) underpinned by shared Islamic ties, symbolized through mutual membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), as well as by economic interests. Tourists from the GCC form a significant portion of the visitors to the Maldives, a country whose economy is heavily reliant on tourism.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have established a particularly active presence in the Maldives through resident diplomatic embassies, established in 2015 and 2019 respectively, though commercial and diplomatic ties go back much longer. Since 1976, the UAE has been investing in various projects in the Maldives through the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD), with initiatives including airport development and waste-to-energy projects. Successive Maldivian governments have also sought Emirati assistance and investments in key areas such as agriculture, tourism, and the social sector.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia is also a major economic contributor to the Maldives, with its royal family being frequent high-profile visitors to the country. In 2014, then Crown Prince and now King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud reserved three Maldivian resorts for nearly a month prior to his official visit and meeting with then-President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. The next year, the Maldives amended its constitution to allow foreign investors to buy land provided they invested at least $1 billion and reclaimed 70 percent of the land from the sea. Reports subsequently emerged of Saudi interest in purchasing an entire atoll, a claim denied by the Saudi embassy. This amendment was later repealed under the succeeding administration.
Beyond this, Saudi Arabia exerts a powerful cultural sway in Maldives due to its status as the heartland of Islam, home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. A practical aspect of this influence is Saudi Arabia’s discretion in setting Hajj quotas — the number of pilgrims allowed to enter the country each year to perform the Hajj. Domestic pressure to secure a favorable Hajj quota for Maldivians is a key reason for the Maldives’ efforts to maintain strong relations with Riyadh.
At times, these countries have used their economic and cultural sway to influence the Maldives to align with their interests. For instance, the Maldives has been consistent in its diplomatic support for Saudi Arabia’s military intervention against the Houthis in Yemen, even questioning the credibility of UN reports regarding civilian casualties. A further example is from the 2017 GCC crisis, when Saudi Arabia and UAE along with Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen severed diplomatic ties with and imposed a blockade on Qatar due to its independent policies toward Iran and allegations of sponsoring terrorism. In June of that year, following the UAE and Saudi lead, then President Yameen severed ties with Qatar, a country with which the Maldives had previously maintained amicable relations.
This decision was criticized by the opposition at the time, and Yameen’s successor, President Solih, committed to re-establishing ties with Qatar. Yet, normalization was postponed until January 2021, in step with the GCC’s reconciliation and immediately after Saudi Arabia and the UAE resumed their relations with Qatar. The timing of both the severance and restoration of the Maldives’ diplomatic ties with Qatar highlighted the significant leverage that Saudi Arabia and the UAE exerts over the Maldives.
That influence is set to increase. Following his recent electoral victory, President-elect Muizzu has expressed his desire to strengthen connections with Arab Islamic nations, including the Gulf States, and presumably Qatar, now that relations are restored. This interest has been reciprocated, with his requests for economic investments and assistance from both the UAE and Saudi Arabia receiving favorable responses.
The growing influence of the Gulf states in the Maldives is often overlooked in international analyses, which predominantly focus on the dynamics of the India-China rivalry for influence in the country. Yet this oversight neglects a critical aspect shaping the Maldives’ foreign policy choices and constraints. As evidenced above, Gulf states have effectively used their economic investments and cultural influence to align the Maldives with their diplomatic interests. Furthermore, as outlined above Muizzu’s tenure coincides with a period where GCC nations are increasingly asserting themselves as significant geopolitical players in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). How Muizzu will navigate these pressures as president remains a question to be answered.