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As rising seas threaten Maldives, island nation opens DC embassy

As rising seas threaten Maldives, island nation opens DC embassy
Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid inaugurates his country's new DC embassy on June 15, as Ambassador Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed and other dignitaries look on. (Photo courtesy of Embassy of Maldives)

The newest embassy in Washington belongs to a tropical paradise that could soon be doomed by climate change.

The Republic of Maldives is an Indian Ocean archipelago of 1,192 coral atolls, 80% of which sit less than one meter above sea level—a fact that already threatens the predominantly Muslim nation, warns its ambassador, Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed.

“Will the Maldives be the first country to disappear under the sea? We hope not,” Ghafoor recently told The Washington Diplomat.

For the 570,000 Maldivians who call this country their home, the issue couldn’t be more crucial. More than half the population is crammed onto one single island, Malé, prompting national authorities years ago to begin construction of a nearby artificial island, Hulhumalé, which will someday accommodate 200,000 people.

Adding urgency to the situation was the news that Tuesday, July 6, was Earth’s hottest day in possibly 125,000 years. On that day, according to the US Centers for National Environmental Prediction, the world’s average temperature reached 63.01 degrees Fahrenheit (17.23 degrees Celsius), due to a dangerous combination of climate change, the return of the El Niño phenomenon and the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere.

Spectacular aerial view of seven Maldivian islands as seen during a flight from Malé to Meedhupparu, in the Raa atoll. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“I don’t think you can find a solution to climate change without the United States,” Ghafoor said. “Without US engagement, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find viable solutions to addressing climate change. In that sense, we were very happy and encouraged by the fact that the US went back to the Paris accords. That gives us hope.”

The new embassy, located on the second floor of an office building at 11th and H Street NW, was inaugurated June 15 by Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid. Many top US officials attended the ribbon-cutting, including Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu as well as journalists, think-tank officials and members of the small Maldivian diaspora.

“We have been covering the US from New York ever since we became independent in 1967,” he told us right before the inauguration. “We are mindful of the importance of having diplomatic representation in the United States, which is why it was important to establish our presence here. But for a small country like ours, this is an extremely expensive undertaking. At this stage, we’re trying to keep our expenses to a minimum, given the financial constraints our country is facing.”

Ghafoor, who arrived in December 2022, was formerly his country’s foreign secretary, and had served as ambassador-at-large since May 2022.

Colorful fishing boats in the harbor at K.Huraa island. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Born in 1959, he graduated from Australia’s University of Tasmania in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He received a master’s in international relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School in 1988.

Ghafoor began his career as a program officer in 1983. After a three-year stint with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Ghafoor became director-general at the Foreign Ministry in 2000, and was later promoted to assistant executive director in 2005, and then executive director in 2007.

Ghafoor, who’s served in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, was his country’s permanent representative to the World Trade Organization (2008) and the United Nations (2009), concurrently accredited as New York-based ambassador to both the US and Canada. He and his wife, Mariyam Khalida, have a son and a daughter.

The Maldives currently maintains 16 embassies overseas, as well as two consulates: one in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and the other in Trivendrum, India.  

Ambassadort Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed of the Maldives at his country’s newly opened embassy in Washington. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

“In 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Maldives and announced that the US would be opening an embassy there. We had previously been covered from Colombo [Sri Lanka],” he said. “We felt that, given the increasing engagement between our two countries, it was also time for us to have an embassy in Washington and widen our footprint. With organizations like the World Bank and the IMF, this is a place where almost all countries have embassies.”

Nearly all, in fact. The opening of the Maldivian Embassy now leaves only nine countries whose UN missions in New York serve as their de facto embassies to the United States: Andorra, Bhutan, Comoros, Nauru, Samoa, San Marino, Seychelles, Solomon Islands and Tonga.

Six of those nine are small island states that worry very much about rising seas triggered by temperature extremes that have triggered massive wildfires in Canada, a deadly heat wave in China, and famine in northern Africa.

“The current international focus on trying to minimize warming by 1.5C is very important to us, as with other small-island developing nations,” Ghafoor said. “But it seems more and more likely to increase beyond 2C. This is why we must also talk about adaptation and mitigation.”

Modern office buildings cram the waterfront of Malé, overcrowded capital of the Maldives. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Ghafoor said he hopes delegates to the upcoming COP28 climate summit in Dubai will formalize new commitments towards limiting greenhouse gases. Some may remember a highly publicized stunt in 2009—on the eve of COP15 in Copenhagen—when then-President Mohamed Nasheed and 11 ministers, decked in scuba gear, held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting.   

“Following the 2004 tsunami, we came up with the concept of safe islands and reclaimed lands. Hulhumalé is completely artificial and sits at 3 meters above sea level,” said the ambassador. “That’s still not high enough, and we have sea walls. One can argue it also helped paid for itself, because the land is sold at very high prices and is in high demand, especially now given that there’s a land bridge between Malé and Hulhumalé that was built with the help of the Chinese.”

The operation, which required dredging around six million cubic meters of sand from the surrounding seabed and pumping it onto Hulhumalé, is being financed by revenues from tourism, the Maldives’ major source of income.

Maldivian Air Taxi settles down to an amphibious landing on the resort island of Meedhupparu, in the Raa atoll. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Tourism arrivals, which suffered dramatically during COVID-19, have returned to pre-pandemic levels.

The top 10 sources of tourists in 2022 were India, Russia, Britain, Germany, Italy, United States, France, Spain, South Korea and Switzerland. So far this year through May 17, the Maldives received 757,992 tourists. In 2022, the country welcomed nearly 1.7 million tourists, up from 1.3 million in 2021.

“Things are very much back to normal,” said the ambassador. “Our tourism industry has burst back very vigorously, and we’re hoping for between 1.8 and 1.9 million tourists this year. The US market has been quite attractive. In 2022, they were the sixth-largest.”

Meanwhile, Ghafoor said rising sea levels are  in the back of everyone’s minds back home.

Corrugated zinc shacks are the main form of housing in this makeshift refugee camp on the island of Meedhoo, in the Raa atoll. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“We will continue to adapt ourselves to the changing situation,” he said. “I myself don’t see Maldivians immigrating to other countries. We will find ways of adapting.” Asked how he would feel if the Republicans took back the White House in 2024 and abandoned commitments towards reducing greenhouse gases, the ambassador said: “Whichever government is in in power, we’ll continue to press on the US the importance of being engaged.”

He added: “Our government has never bought land elsewhere. We don’t envision moving to another country at any time. Maldivians want to live in their own country.”

But, we asked, what if that’s not an option?

“We will make it an option,” he replied.

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.