Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid has been elected as the 76th president of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). His election is significant; he is the first Maldivian and only the sixth person from the 52-member Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to hold the prestigious post. Shahid’s rise to the top post in the UNGA will boost the stature of Maldives in global affairs and provide focus to issues like climate change and sustainable development.
Shahid won the UNGA presidency by a large margin. Of the total 191 votes cast in the election, he secured 143 votes, while his only rival, the former foreign minister of Afghanistan, Dr. Zalmai Rassoul, got 48 votes.
India has welcomed Shahid’s victory. It was among the first countries to endorse his candidature. Not only did New Delhi vote for him, but it also canvassed for him.
An Indian Ocean archipelago of around 1,192 islands that are strewn across the Equator, Maldives is known for its sandy beaches. It is a tourist paradise. Increasingly, its location near international sea lanes through which much of the world’s oil is transported has drawn attention to the archipelago’s immense strategic value.
Relations between India and Maldives have been traditionally warm. However, during Abdulla Yameen’s presidency (2013-18), bilateral relations frayed, especially with Maldives’ economic and strategic relations with China growing rapidly.
It was with the Maldivian Democratic Party’s return to power in late 2018 that India-Maldives relations warmed again, especially in the field of defense.
India’s strong support to Shahid’s candidature indicates how much ties have improved over the last couple of recent years.
Back in July 2018, when Maldives and Indonesia were vying for the non-permanent member seat from the Asia-Pacific group in the United Nations Security Council, India refrained from backing the Maldivian candidate, although it had promised to do so in 2008. Yameen’s close relationship with China prompted India to vote for the Indonesian candidate instead.
The new MDP government announced Shahid as its candidate for the UNGA presidency in November 2018. Subsequently, India announced its support to Shahid.
In January 2021, the Afghan government announced Rassoul’s name as its candidate for the post of UNGA president. India was caught in a dilemma as both Maldives and Afghanistan are its close friends and of strategic significance too.
However, since India had endorsed the Maldivian candidate earlier, as had other countries, it went along with that decision.
Shahid’s one-year term will begin on September 14. He is reported to have asked for an Indian diplomat, India’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the U.N. K Nagaraj Naidu, to join his office as chief of staff.
India will be relieved to see Shahid at the helm of the UNGA.
The past year has not been easy for it in the UNGA with Turkish diplomat and politician, Volkan Bozkir, at the helm. Turkey has close relations with Pakistan and this impacted Bozkir’s position on India-Pakistan issues.
In late May, for instance, during his visit to Islamabad, the UNGA president said that it was Pakistan’s “duty” to raise the Jammu and Kashmir dispute in the United Nations “more strongly.” That ruffled feathers in New Delhi.
India has been strongly opposed to a third party, including the U.N., playing a role in resolving or even commenting on the Kashmir issue.
“When an incumbent President of the U.N. General Assembly makes misleading and prejudiced remarks, he does great disservice to the office he occupies,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in response to Bozkir’s remark. Not only was his “behavior” “truly regrettable” but also he “diminishes his standing on the global platform” with such a comment, it said.
India may not have to endure hectoring on the Kashmir issue from UNGA President-elect Shahid. However, it will need to tread carefully and not be seen to be influencing Shahid’s agenda or pressuring him over his positions on contentious issues.
Although the present Maldivian government is close to India and has been sympathetic on issues of concern to New Delhi, anti-India sentiment in the archipelago is rising and New Delhi cannot afford to fuel this by playing ‘big brother’ to Shahid.
Maldivians are proud of their sovereignty and will be keen to see Shahid play an independent and influential role as UNGA president. India will end up undermining its stature in the eyes of Maldivians should it influence his term at the helm.