An interview with H.E Ahmed Latheef, the ambassador of the Maldives in Berlin
“Maldives pays particular attention to not only showcase the picture- perfect islands, but also to promote our culture to the rest of the world”October 06th, 2021
On Wednesday, the 6th of October, Lobke Vermeiren, Francesca Cartanì and Athanasios Apotas had the opportunity to conduct an interview with the Ambassador of Maldives, Ahmed Latheef.
You have been Ambassador since 2019, how have you enjoyed your position so far, and what have been the main challenges and difficulties you have encountered, especially with covid times?
I would say that I am extremely fortunate to take up my post in Berlin at a time when relations between Maldives and Europe began to prosper, following the change of our government in 2018. The new government of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, had quickly made a U turn from the previous government’s foreign policy approach; to foster relations and develop friendship and cooperation with the whole world and not to remain isolated and depend only on a few friends. Consequently, the government and the people of Germany embraced the new Government’s approach and its declared adherence to democratic values, rule of law and respect of human rights. Therefore, this had made my task easier and my experience so far, most fulfilling.
I would also say that Germany has treated me well, especially Berlin, until of course, the COVID-19 pandemic stuck us. During my first year, I was fortunate to travel a bit around Germany and experience the rich and varied history and culture of this great country. Also it provided us an opportunity to expand our outreach both at a professional and personal level.
During the pandemic, I would say, we were luckier than most countries for most part, as we did not have to endure the kind of strict lockdown that were imposed in our neighbourhood for example. Working from home took time for us to adjust, but then, it had its advantages too. We were able to organize meetings online and meet with people whom we probably would not at physical meetings.
What are the Embassy’s main priorities here in Berlin?
The Mission of the Embassy is to maximize our international engagement and secure the interest of Maldives by leading the Government of Maldives’ efforts to promote human rights, strengthen democracy and good governance, and to take appropriate action on climate change.
Germany, as a leading nation in Europe and a key member of the EU, is well suited to assist small developing countries like the Maldives in its efforts to address critical issues like the climate crisis and the challenges we face in expanding the export of our marine products, due to high tariffs in the EU market.
As the Maldives, like most other small island countries, strive to recover from the COVID-19 global pandemic and build back better, stronger, greener, and blue, we are counting on the support and cooperation of Germany, from the public and private sector to address environmental protection and sustainable development issues, including waste management and renewable energy power generation.
Also, we are of course, mindful of the enormous potential of Germany as a source market for Maldives tourism and this is also an area of particular importance and priority for us. Since we started tourism exactly 50 years ago, we German tourists account for a significant percentage of arrivals in the Maldives.
Concerning your last webinar on the 27th of January ‘Investing in the Maldives’, we would like to know more about the Maldives’ concern to deal with climate change: do you think this discussion has been able to make any progress in this project?
We are pleased with the online investment webinar that we had organized early this year. It helped us to share up-to-date information relating to investment opportunities in the Maldives and participants were able to seek answers to their queries. We were also able to provide them the right connections and links. Since the seminar, there have also been a number of important policy changes in the Maldives that have made investment in the Maldives even more lucrative.
As you can imagine, investing in the tourism sector in the Maldives is a surefire success given the universal popularity of the country and the immense potential for the growth of the tourism industry. Maldives was awarded the prestigious “World’s Leading Destination” Award in 2020, a clear testimony of this, despite the massive challenges we faced due to the complete lockdown we had the same year. We are expecting to bypass the pre-pandemic number of arrivals and reach record levels by the end of this year.
During the seminar, we also focused on investment in clean energy projects in the Maldives. We are seeing interest from some private sector companies in Germany now, to venture into this area, which clearly has a lot of potential too.
Are there any areas where you would like to see the Maldives-Germany cooperation improve?
Maldives and Germany both have a shared vision to address the climate crisis. As President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in his recent statement at the 76th UNGA (UN General Assembly) session said “Addressing the climate emergency crisis requires a break from the lacklustre business as usual practices that currently dominate the global climate change regime. It requires countries to adopt more stringent measures to halt their emissions. It needs the world’s wealthy nations to help smaller nations receive the support in the form of capacity building, technology transfers and financial resources to ramp up their defenses in the climate fight”
Climate change is an existential threat to the Maldives. We are experiencing and living through the impact it has on our everyday life. We would like to see further cooperation between Maldives and Germany specifically in the areas of Climate adaptation and Mitigation. Germany has in the past supported the Climate Neutrality Strategy of the Maldives and we look forward to projects aiming to promote renewable energy options in the Maldives. Germany could assist through bilateral and multilateral channels.
Now, more in terms of Cultural Diplomacy, we would like to know what it means to you, and how efficient you think this concept is, to strengthen the relations between German and Maldivian people?
Culture is a very important part of any society and in the case of Maldives it is directly related to our mainstay of the economy, which is tourism. As a nation dependent on its tourism industry, Maldives pays particular attention to not only showcase the natural beauty of the picture- perfect islands of the Maldives, but also to promote our culture to the rest of the world. Here in Germany, our main cultural activity is held every year during the ITB Berlin fair. This attracts large numbers of visitors who get to witness our cultural music, dance, handicraft and artisans at work. We have been actively involved in showcasing this for several decades now. Sadly, the Fair could not be held due to the COVID-19 pandemic during the last two years, but we hope that it will happen in 2022 and we are keenly looking forward to the big event.
Speaking about culture, it is fair to say that Maldivians are slowly but steadily embracing sports as a way of life and integrating it as part of their culture. Sports is also a vehicle that brings people together; at the national, regional and international level. We have demonstrated our love for sports through organizing the first Diplomats Table Tennis Tournament here in Berlin in 2019. This was well received by the diplomatic community with a high level of participation and acknowledged as a great sporting event with significant social benefits and cultural flavour.
We have also played an active role to promote Maldivian culture through documentary films and German television dramas as well.
Are there any important issues that the Maldives is committed to and is eager to be able to put in light here in Berlin?
As you may be aware, one of the main industries of the Maldives is the fishing industry. It directly benefits thousands of Maldivians and in turn their families and their dependents. The on-going COVID-19 pandemic has had a heavy toll on our fishermen. They are among the most severely impacted in the Maldives due to the pandemic.
Due to this, the issue of tariffs on Maldivian fish exports to the EU is of serious concern to the Maldives. The elimination of the 24% tariff levied against Maldivian fish exports to the EU is a serious and difficult obstacle for the Maldives to overcome at a time when our economy is just recovering from a global pandemic.
The Government of Maldives is currently developing plans for long term recovery from the economic crisis stemming from the pandemic, including diversifying the country’s economy. However, the issue of the tariff on Maldivian fisheries remains an important focus for the Government.
Fishing in the Maldives has a long history and is an integral part of the country's culture and economy. Maldivian fishermen have been practicing sustainable fisheries even traditionally by using the “pole and line” method. This is a method that reduces unwanted bycatch and harm to other marine life and is deemed the most environmentally friendly and socially responsible techniques.
Following the graduation from an LDC to a Middle-Income Country (MIC) in 2011, Maldives was granted a three-year transition period by the European Union (EU), in which we continued to export our fishery products to the EU at preferential rates, under the EU-GSP scheme. However, after the end of this 3-year transition period, which ended on 1st January 2014, Maldives is no longer eligible for any of the EU trade concessions. Since then, fish exports from the Maldives, were subjected to the 24% EU Common External Tariff.
As tariffs and duty impact the fisheries industry, Maldives would like to advocate that our tuna caught on sustainable methods as per the domestic legislation should be granted a waiver from external tariff policies in the UK as well in Europe.
This is an important issue that we are discussing with EU member countries including Germany and we hope that our pleas will fall in sympathetic ears.
What are the key programmes, events, and initiatives that the embassy is currently hosting in order to promote Maldivian culture?
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic the Embassy has participated in several events which promoted the Maldivian culture and tourism, most importantly as mentioned the main earlier during the ITB Fair in Berlin.
It has been a common practice in some capitals around the world, for us to observe our SAARC Charter Day, by organising cultural programmes. It is the anniversary of our regional organization, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which falls on 8 December. I am not aware if such an event had been held in Berlin, but this is something that our South Asian Ambassadors could look into and a magazine like Berlin Global could play a key role in coordinating such an event. This is food for thought for BG.
I thank Berlin Global and Institution for Cultural Diplomacy for this opportunity to share some insights on the Maldives, on its priorities, challenges and focus on its culture.