Maldives to Worsen Relations with Israel

Maldives, an Islamic Republic archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean, sustains its economy with tourism. The country, which boasts a comparatively higher living standards in South Asia and attracts a large number of tourists from all over the world, is making headlines with its strong reactions against Israel’s Gaza attack. Unlike government-level actions in the past, the Maldives has now decided to close its doors to Israeli citizens by implementing passport controls. Such action from the ruling Muizzu government, as a result of increased protests against Israel and as part of global Muslim solidarity, may worsen the country’s relationship with the West and thereby affect its economy.

President Mohamed Muizzu has decided to impose a ban on Israeli passports without providing details on when the new law will take effect. Israelis love to visit the coral islands and luxurious resorts of the Maldives, but the Maldivian government does not share this interest. The offering of direct flights was denied by the Maldivian Transport Ministry. However, nearly 11,000 Israelis visited the Maldives in 2023. Official data showed that the number of Israelis visiting the Maldives dropped to 528 in the first four months of this year amid the tensions, down 88% compared to the same period last year.

As a country with Islamic fundamentalism, the Maldives has always sought to uphold its Islamic character. Although they welcomed tourists from Western countries and India in large numbers due to a lack of other sources of income. And tourism has significantly improved the country’s income and quality of life. However, in recent years, both inside and outside parliament, there have been numerous events emphasizing its Islamic importance, which could impact the tourism sector. Hatred towards Israeli tourists and Jews is prevalent in the government and society, which advocates for Palestine. Last year, Maldivians held protests to stop Israeli tourism in the Maldives, showing solidarity with Palestinians. Maldivian MP Saud Hussain submitted a resolution to parliament to ban Israeli passport holders from entering the country, and Maldivians increasingly called for a boycott of Israel-linked companies. Opposition parties and government allies in the Maldives have been pressuring Muizzu to ban Israelis as a protest against the Gaza war. Following these events, in 2024, Maldivian MP Meekail Ahmed Naseem submitted a bill to parliament calling for a ban on entry for Israeli passport holders, which was promptly accepted, and the country has started implementing that law. The president’s office announced on Sunday that the cabinet decided to change the laws to prevent Israeli passport holders from entering the country and to establish a subcommittee to oversee the process. Muizzu also introduced a national fundraising campaign named ‘Maldivians in Solidarity with Palestine’.

The Maldives has a complex relationship with Israel. The Maldives had lifted a previous ban on Israeli tourists in the early 1990s and moved to restore relations in the 2010s. According to the rulers of the country, this decision will change. The countries had good diplomatic relations from 1965 to 1974. From 2012 to 2017, they maintained cooperation agreements but did not restore full diplomatic relations. There were reports during the time of Mohammed Nasheed, who overthrew long-ruling Gayoom, that there were attempts at normalization. However, normalization attempts were scuttled after the toppling of then-president Mohamed Nasheed in February 2012. While Gulf countries normalized relationships, there were also talks, but the ruling politicians denied it. The Maldives maintains its stance in international venues too. The Maldives condemned the Israeli attacks on Rafah and called on Israel to abide by the International Court of Justice’s ruling.

Israel’s foreign ministry urged Israeli citizens on Sunday to refrain from traveling to the Maldives. The ministry clarified that this advisory extended to Israelis with dual citizenship. “For Israeli citizens already in the country, it is recommended to consider leaving, because if they find themselves in distress for any reason, it will be difficult for us to assist”, the ministry said in a statement. And if Israel raises safety concerns, it will influence other western countries. 

The travel ban to the islands will not matter much for Israel but is a self-destructive move for the Maldives. The country’s erratic politicians have already deterred Indian tourists by making silly comments about the nation, including racist remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The immature political decisions have worsened tourist’s interest in the country, even though the country aims to attract more Chinese and Islamic tourists. Recent actions, such as the ban on Israelis, will undoubtedly damage the country’s reputation among the western population. Ultimately it’s all affecting the already strained economy, burdened by Chinese debt. It appears that politicians excel at triggering self-destructive outcomes.