Far From the Tourist Areas, Maldivians Live a Markedly Different Existence

Life on the ‘local’ islands is very different from that on the ‘resort’ islands in Asia’s smallest country

Far From the Tourist Areas, Maldivians Live a Markedly Different Existence
A hotel employee prepares coconut husks for recycling at the luxury Soneva Fushi island resort in the Maldives. (Amal Jayasinghe/AFP via Getty Images)

The shores of Hulhumale stretch out like a cat on a sundeck, curling in unexpected pliability. As my plane begins its descent onto the Maldives’ main airport, I am caught with a sudden fear of drowning, weighed down by tons of mangled aircraft aluminum. The plane skirts to a thin, barely there runway of terra firma — all else in sight is the Indian Ocean, frothing in unending eeriness.

The Maldives are a mere 100 or so square miles of land, split among 1,300 islands dispersed across 35,000 square miles of nautical territory. In land, it is less than half the size of New York City but boasts 13 domestic and five international airports. Asia’s smallest country and one of the world’s most geographically dispersed states, the Maldives in the public imagination is little more than a playground for the global bourgeoisie.

With thousand-dollar-a-night hotel rooms and Instagram accounts dedicated to secluded water villas, it is not an unwarranted tag. But the archipelagic nation is home to a resilient people and a complicated national narrative. Life in the country is divided into two spheres — the “resort” islands and the “local” islands. It is on the “local” islands where you see the real state of the Maldives.

In the mid-1970s, the Maldivian government began leasing out uninhabited islands for the development of resorts and hotel chains, attracting foreign tourists. What began as an attempt to boost a fishing-reliant economy turned the barely known locale into a dream holiday destination. According to recent figures, there are 8,000 guest house beds and over 30,500 other places for visitor accommodations in the Maldives. By allowing visa-free access to passport holders from all countries, the nation has turned itself around. But this has meant that life for locals is riddled with legislative hypocrisy.

Maldivian citizens are held to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, yet resort islands have their own set of regulations that are different and often in direct contradiction with the laws for locals. While wine flows freely on the glitzy decks of the Ritz-Carlon on the Fari Islands and the Marriott on Shaviyani Atoll flies in charcuterie specialists, pork and alcohol are haram (illegal) on the local islands.

While a visitor cannot carry any intoxicants into the country, with border control agents seizing and destroying any duty-free booze they find, guests are likely to be greeted with a glass of bubbly as soon as they set foot onto a “resort island.”

There is nary a cafe on any local islands (barring the capital, Male), while Michelin-star-chef-designed menus are a staple for resort island restaurants. While there are no laws preventing restaurants or cafes from popping up, populations of less than 100 on some islands and the tendency of young people to migrate mitigate against setting up eateries. The economic logic just isn’t there.

The Maldives calls itself a “100% Sunni Muslim Country,” in a bizarre claim to statistical totality, but this tag is less about religious beliefs and more about optics. The claim is repeated in online forums and foreign relation documents, as well as on websites advising visitors to be cautious on local islands.

Islam was established as the country’s national religion in 2008, but in the five years before that, from 2003 to 2007, the Maldives had experienced violent periods of civil unrest targeted against then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He had held power for over three decades when he was ousted by constitutional reforms and the country’s first multiparty election in 2008. Gayoom maintained a remarkable cult of personality. Even after his retirement from active politics in 2010, he was declared the “Zaeem,” or honorary leader, of the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party. Since 2017, he has been part of the opposition against his half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, who served as president from 2013 to 2018.

The end of Gayoom’s stable if violent autocracy led to a lacuna in the country’s national identity. The constitution that was ratified following his ouster formalized and centralized the role of Islam in the Maldives, with supporters hoping to create a binding national narrative for the geographically splintered country. The jury is still out on the success of this effort.

In the years that have followed, the country has gone from one political crisis to another — from protests against high-profile arrests to corruption scandals to assassination attempts to the tiny island nation’s endeavor to maintain favor with the region’s clashing giants, India and China — all masked by the gorgeous cerulean ocean.

The Maldives’ young people have come of age in the shadow of this transition and unrest. They have seen their country as a liminal space, perpetually shifting, in which their own identities have had to morph depending on the mood of the day. A political tug-of-war between the previous president and the incumbent government adds to this shape-shifting national character.

Since 2007, there has been a staggering rise in Islamic extremism in the country. While neither the previous government nor the current one can be characterized as secular, Abdul Gayoom’s faction was more focused on nation-building and a program of capitalist development than the governments that took over after.

“Six years ago, no one wore niqabs — now it looks like we are trying to copy Saudi,” says Faiza, a local “fixer” for an international NGO, when I comment on the odd looks my loosely covered hair is attracting on Kihaadoo, a local island with a population of less than 200. From 2013 to 2018, the Maldives pursued close ties with Saudi Arabia, explaining some of the religious influences that have lingered. The current government, led by Ibrahim Solih, has attempted to move to a more moderate position but has been criticized by some as being “anti-Islamic” and “puppets” of a “Hindu India.”

Faiza is 30 years old and has seen the Maldives change before her eyes. With every election, a new fad or political fervor takes hold. With elections set for September 2023, the frequent violence and fiery speeches are exhausting, but nothing new. The biggest shift has been the turn to a tourism-based economy. In recent decades, tourism has become the country’s largest sector. Most Maldivians are employed by it in one form or another. Others move to Male, the financial, industrial and political capital, which has a population density of about 160,000 per square mile. This is a staggering density when compared with other metropolises, especially for a country with a recorded total population of 515,122: New York’s population density is close to 30,000 per square mile; Mumbai’s is about 50,000 per square mile.

But neither moving to Male nor working at a resort tempts Faiza much. Helping NGOs and multinational corporations make sense of the local islands is an agreeable occupation. She gets to live with her family and travel around the country — and she gets paid in American dollars. She’s happy with her everyday life, but she does wish she were married. Most young men, she complains, either work in the resorts or move away to Sri Lanka or India.

Much like Faiza, “S” too wants love in her life. S was in her mid-20s and wore a men’s T-shirt over jeans when I met her for the first time. She had not studied beyond sixth grade but, like most young Maldivians, spoke perfect English (courtesy of the resort life and copious consumption of American cinema). We met on a jetty off the island of Dharavandoo, where I tried to make sense of this unique country.

S and I bonded over our recent heartbreaks, though she was initially reluctant to share any details. I had nothing to lose, I realized, by being open about matters of the heart, as a heterosexual foreigner with a return ticket to London. For S, as a queer woman, being upfront about even the name of her lover could mean up to eight years in prison.

The Maldives not only criminalizes homosexuality but also actively prosecutes citizens it suspects of “immorality.” Since the establishment of the 2008, religion-focused constitution, the law and locals in the Maldives have become more conservative. In August 2022, the Maldivian police arrested four men for “same-sex sexual activity” over leaked tapes containing explicit content. Over 38 men were linked to the case, and 18 passports were seized following media reports. While some activists have said that the arrests (including that of a police officer) were politically motivated, it is enough to frighten many people like S into living a double life. For her, the resorts, where she works as a blue-collar employee, are a way to have some semblance of a normal youth.

Resort managers, she says, are more forgiving than parents and politicians.

During my time in the country, I happened to witness a “Maali Hingun” (monster parade) as part of Maldivian Eid al-Adha celebrations. As a bystander explained to me, Maldivians dress up as ghouls and monsters to draw attention to social ills and broken government promises. Monster costumes bedecked with dollar bills (inflation), plastic bottles (water pollution) and black plastic bags (public littering) are common. It is one of the few traditional practices that have not been pushed away for the sake of religious homogeneity. But parades that try to be too contrarian or push for a more secular Maldives are quickly shut down.

A previous year’s Maali Hingun that attempted to double as a pride parade faced severe backlash, making organizers careful to ensure that the Maali Hinguns remain socially acceptable.

Dissent, says Ahmed Azaan, a local journalist, is not welcome in the Maldives. Newspapers like his (Dhiyares Media) that are critical of the government find it hard to get funding or circulation, he adds. But it’s not just a question of money: In the last decade, dissenting Maldivian journalists have been targeted and, in some instances, assassinated.

A version of the Maali Hingun held at the resort island where I stayed was considerably toned down. An Indian hotel staffer described the ghoulish makeup as a “local Halloween-type event” to a baffled European guest.

The guest’s precocious daughter, a 5-year-old with striking blond pigtails, squealed at the parade as it passed through the “guest area,” joining in the colorful display of political frustration by furiously pulling at the palm-leaf skirt of a young man dressed as deforestation.

“Kids, am I right?” the father shrugged, making a half-hearted attempt to stop the child’s effort to ravage the palm-leaf costume.

Young guests are a privileged lot in the Maldives, with resorts competing to attract families. Dolphins that swim close to shore and a night sky that offers a rare view of constellations across the two hemispheres mean that the country can advertise itself as a natural amusement park. Soneva Fushi, the resort where I was stationed for most of my visit, boasts the largest children’s playground in South Asia. Locals working in the resorts try to make the most of the opportunities presented by the constant upgrades to keep up with trends and attract more visitors. Most young people are keen to learn on the job, with diplomas and degrees holding little attraction.

The Maldives established its first university in 2011 and struggles with low enrollment in higher education. Those who want to get on an academic trajectory don’t see any merit in staying in the country and look to catch the first ship out. For Yusuf, a young diving and marine research aide, the university has nothing to offer. He loves working at the resorts and the autonomy that having an income separate from his father’s gives him. Having a degree would make no difference to his paycheck.

In the resort hierarchy, he shrugs, only experience and connections matter. Luckily, at 16, he has got a solid head start on his peers with his spotting skills when it comes to manta rays — the ocean’s elusive giant.

Maldivians operate within a shaky political system and, for many, leaving the country for good is the only worthwhile ambition.

There is little to tempt you to come back home once you’ve been out, elaborates Nia, a seasonal worker at a Baa Atoll resort who is waiting to hear back on a worker’s visa application for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is frustrating for her to see the life she cannot have. It’s not the guests she envies but the expat staffers, who can drink what they want, eat what they want and — when they have had their fill of the precarious island paradise — leave.

The senior staff at resorts are often expats. During my time at Soneva Fushi, the general manager was Singaporean, the head gardener was Bangladeshi and most chefs and sommeliers were European. This isn’t to say that the Maldivians aren’t hired, but they have to work their way up the ladder, without the boost a hotel management degree gives many young professionals. And even then, they continue to be held to a different set of rules. At Holuhashi, the staff bar I frequented at the resort, large posters proclaimed: “It is against the law to serve a Maldivian citizen alcohol. Maldivians caught intoxicated are liable for disciplinary and legal action in accordance with national law.”

A resort staffer told me a story of getting into a scuffle with his roommate. The first thing he did, after they had been stopped from raining blows on each other, was to go to resort security and get a breathalyzer test. As a Maldivian, a malicious accusation that he was drunk could be the end of his career. He wasn’t going to take any chances, he sighed.

This means that the relationship between some Maldivian staffers and their expat counterparts is occasionally difficult. A steady narrative of Indians coming into the Maldives and stealing jobs makes the rounds on local social media. Distrust of the monolithic next-door neighbor and growing fondness for Chinese investors amongst opposition leaders are hot-button election issues for the country.

The hashtag #IndiaOut trended locally on Maldivian Independence Day. A fiery speech by capital city politicians trumpeted how a people who had survived the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British could easily banish the Indians. As the tide turns, so does the favor of the government between the neighborhood giants. But politics are mostly the domain of local islands. While there may be occasional disagreements between staff, like in any workplace, for a resort all guests are made equal, says the same staffer. Geopolitical squabbles and tensions between politicians don’t matter, as long as they don’t hurt the bottom line.

Several Maldivian resorts have a profit-sharing model, which means that, on top of their set salary, workers earn a percentage of the year’s profit. Any ebbs in business impact all rungs of workers.

Losing three years of Chinese tourism because of Beijing’s long, drawn-out lockdown was especially bad for business, the resort staffer adds — and he really doesn’t want the Maldivian government to get in the middle of the Russian frenzy. Russians are key tourists and big tippers, he shrugs. The local attitudes are reflected in foreign policy. Reuters reported that the Maldives was sheltering the yachts of sanctioned Russian billionaires and the country was unlikely to confiscate the yachts due to fears of losing out on Russian tourism.

Earlier this year, the first direct flight in three years carrying tourists from Beijing to Male was welcomed with a water cannon salute, gift pack and flowers from a delegation that included officials from the Embassy of China in the Maldives and the Maldivian Ministry of Tourism. The Maldivian government has few qualms about being chummy with Russia or China. Having faced multiple charges of human rights violations, Maldivian policy has primarily focused on leveraging its key position in the Indian Ocean and maintaining a steady flow of foreign cash inland.

As my time in the Maldives wound down, I tried looking for ethnographies of the country and its culture. I was hard-pressed to find any recent scholarship. Most works focused on its climate change struggles, or the Beijing-Delhi tug-of-war of which it has been a part. There were some journalistic mutters about its political violence, but the reportage on everyday Maldivian lives seemed to be missing.

The Maldives is far from a key player in international politics. Most of the attention it garners is during the COPs (U.N. climate change conferences), as a small, developing island nation likely to be pummeled by the climate crisis. Scientists have sounded the alarm that, if sea levels continue to rise, the island nation will be uninhabitable by the end of this century. But aside from its land and poetic waxings about dying corals, attention to the locals remains limited. Most local journalism is in Dhivehi, a language spoken by fewer than 382,800 people. That’s the total number of Maldivian locals, according to the country’s latest census. With a single available Dhivehi-to-English dictionary published by Routledge in 2003, it isn’t an international lingua franca by any definition.

It is easier to romanticize the country as some sort of modern-day Agrabah, home to fantasy and barbarism, than to see it as a small yet significant state in Asia. As Faiza put it melancholically, “for tourists, Maldives is some paradise they can come into and leave when they are done with it. But for us? It’s home. Where are we supposed to go when things go bad?”

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