AHMED SALEEM: Maldives, Pakistan friendship time-tested

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High Commissioner of Maldives talks to Centreline & DNA

ANSAR MAHMOOD BHATTI
Mr. Ahmed Saleem, High Commissioner of Maldives talked exclusively to Centreline and Diplomatic News Agency (DNA) ahead of the Maldives national day to be celebrated in July. Mr. Ahmed Saleem has also served as the Secretary General of SAARC. Being a top SAARC diplomatic Mr. Saleem has a comprehensive understanding of the region. He talked about various regional as well global issues during the interview. Here is the text of his interview.
Let us begin with bilateral relations between Pakistan and Maldives. How would you describe these relations?
From a political perspective, Pakistan and the Maldives have excellent brotherly relations. However, there is work to be done in many fields to fully tap the potential. Economic, education and cultural relations need further improvement. This is underway and it is progressing. Cultural exchange programs, engaging both the countries through tourism, are in progress. Maldives having some history and experience in the field of tourism and hospitality, we could perhaps share that experience through exchange programs. Pakistan, with its greenery, hills, valleys and the mountain range, acquires its beauty for tourist attraction. Hence, I believe with the sharing of information and experiences in this vital field, this area could be enhanced. I see bright future for even a stronger relationship between our two brotherly countries.
Maldives and Pakistan have always enjoyed close and cordial relations. In fact, it is a special relationship based on bonds of common religion, mutual trust, confidence and affinity between the peoples of our two countries that serve as an example in respecting one another and serving the cause of two brotherly nations, working in conjunction for their mutual benefit and that of the region as a whole. Both countries, founding members of SAARC, have always supported each other at regional and international fora. Both share many things in common, including our vision of global peace and regional stability. Maldives is grateful to Pakistan for its unconditional support to Maldives in times of difficulties and need.
Apart from political and economic relations, cultural and educational relations also contribute greatly towards cementing of people to people contacts. If you could share with us your vision in this regard?
I have been in Pakistan now for more than a year now and that has been a wonderful period of my life. It is such a delightful experience to get to know the most hospitable and brotherly people of Pakistan and to learn from them so much about the beauty, culture and traditions of Pakistan. Maldives and Pakistan are very friendly two countries that have enormous respect for each other and have so much in common and are always willing to help each other at all times. I think we are an example of two neighboring countries that are determined and willing to coexist in peace and harmony for the mutual benefit of the people of our two counties and the region.
Tourism is yet another sector where both countries can benefit from each other’s experience. Do you agree?
Tourism is one sector in which both countries can cooperate in a big way. Both are beautiful countries in their own way and all we need is an effort in promoting one another. While I have met many Pakistanis who have already visited the Maldives, I am sure there will be many who are interested in visiting Maldives too. I think there is a lot of room for peoples of both countries to invest in this vital sector. I believe there is more to do for further development of the tourism sector, trade and investment. However, connectivity has to be enhanced between Maldives and Pakistan. I remember PIA used to fly to the Maldives some years ago but it stopped operations after a while. I think our national airline ‘the Maldivian’ will start flying to Pakistan if there is enough tourism and trade between us. No one including Pakistanis needs a visa to visit Maldives.
If you could share with us the key factors that led to fast development of Maldives. Do you think the 2008 reforms in Maldives had anything to do with this?
2008 reforms culminated in Maldives becoming a full-fledged democracy for the first time in its history. I think it was tourism, which began in the Maldives in 1972 that changed the whole complexion of the country. Although Maldives is now a major tourist attraction, it was a struggle in the beginning. It took years for us to establish ourselves as a major tourism destination. With tourism, many things changed in the Maldives. Fisheries was our mainstay until tourism began and fisheries is now our second most revenue earning industry.
Having vast experience of SAARC, as the last Secretary-General, what according to you are the failures and successes of SAARC?
The biggest achievement of SAARC, perhaps, is its very existence as an organization for the last 30 years. I believe that SAARC is the only vehicle that can promote not only intra-regional trade but also to maintain peace and harmony in the region. There is also no alternative to SAARC for promoting and improving the quality of life of the people of SAARC region.
South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), which plays a major role in promoting intra-regional trade; SAARC Development Fund (SDF), which is the umbrella funding mechanism; SAF (South Asia Forum), which provides for a common platform for discussion and debate on the development of South Asia; and South Asian University (SAU), a world-class academic institution, are some of the gains SAARC should be proud of. We should all collectively work to make SAARC a success because I believe it is the best thing that has happened in this region and there is no alternative to it.
In order for SAARC to work more effectively and responsively to address the needs of its members and 1.6 billion people in this vast region of ours, there have to be improvements in the way SAARC and the Secretary-General work. But it can be done only by Member States. That too if they are determined to make SAARC a more effective and successful vehicle than it has been for the past 3 decades.
During my tenure as Secretary-General, for the first time in the history of SAARC, a Comprehensive Study to Strengthen SAARC Mechanisms, including the Secretariat, 11 Regional Centres and SAARC Socialized Bodies, was conducted. Some important recommendations of that Study, such as reducing 11 regional institutions to just five, and holding of Summits on a biannual basis, have now been implemented. But member countries should be courageous and bold enough to implement the other recommendations in it, if they are genuinely concerned about changing SAARC to a more meaningful and productive institution. More also needs to be done to strengthen the hands of the Secretary-General and the functioning of the Secretariat itself.
It is often said that SAARC cannot work effectively because of Pakistan, India tensions. Is that true?
Let me refer to Article 10 of the SAARC Charter, which excludes any possibility of bringing bilateral contentious issues on the discussion table. Cooperation within the framework of the Association is based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and mutual benefit. So, naturally, no issues concerning any contentious bilateral issues of any member country, is discussed in SAARC meetings.
The conclusion of SAFTA, implementation of SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme, establishment of South Asian University and establishment of SAARC Development Fund, have not only brought both Pakistan and India but also all Member States closer. These are the pointers towards a South Asian Economic and Social Union (SAESU), which could play a major role in solving the many problems faced by SAARC member states.
Pakistan has hosted two SAARC Summits so far – 4th Summit in 1988 and 12th Summit in 2004. Like so many others, I am vey excited that the 19th SAARC Summit will take place in Pakistan in November this year. It is a good time for well wishes of SAARC to look forward to good things to happen during this period. It will be an opportunity for SAACR leaders to meet and make decisions that will benefit not only the member countries of SAARC but also the 1.6 billion people of our vast region. I am quite sure that the government of Pakistan will do everything possible to make the summit a success.
How can we make SAARC a vibrant and effective body?

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Economic cooperation among member countries of SAARC is the key to success in SAARC.
South Asia is at a historic moment of transforming the economic conditions of its people and playing a leadership role in the global economy. For the first time in the last three centuries, the global economy is undergoing a shift in its center of gravity from the continents of Europe and North America to Asia. We should enhance regional cooperation under SAARC umbrella in the fields of trade, connectivity, energy, food security, and counter terrorism, poverty alleviation, among others. That way we will not only improve lives of people living in SAARC countries but it will also transform SAARC into an extremely effective body. Eight member states of SAARC have a huge responsibility to make it a more vibrant and effective body and that can be done only if we overcome the differences that have been hampering our progress and development for so many years. If Germany and France have found a way to set aside their differences and make EU the most successful regional grouping in the world, I do not see any reason why we in this region cannot do it ourselves. After all, there are more similarities than dissimilarities among our countries. We only need determination and willingness to overcome those barriers and nothing will stop us achieving the objectives for which SAARC was created three decades ago.
How do you see Pakistan’s role in war on terror?
I think Pakistan has done an extremely effective job in fighting terrorism. It is not an easy thing to do but I am sure it will succeed with the government’s determination to rid the country of this dangerous menace.
Anything you would like to add:
On this auspicious occasion of Maldives completing 51 years of independence and 50 years of bilateral relations between the Republic of Maldives and Islamic Republic of Pakistan, I wish to extend my sincere felicitations and best wishes to all Maldivians and the people of Pakistan. I also like to take this opportunity to wish Pakistan all the success in holding the next SAARC summit here.