The short answer is sort of yes. The atoll in question is Faafu which is a sparsely populated atoll with lots of beautiful islands. Total population of Faafu atoll is around 5000 will in all likelihood will be resettled in Hulhumale under the proposed deal. The deal is rumored to be worth 10 billion and the atoll will be reclaimed and enlarged to build a mega tourist city. The rationale for the business idea around the project involves Saudi’s desire to diversify economic interests to counter whatever may appear after demand for fossil fuel becomes low.
In all likelihood the deal is likely to proceed with current government having super majority in parliament, significant control in judiciary, curbs on media and doing their 100% to stay credible after huge corruption scandal which landed the vice president Adheeb in jail.In president Yameen’s estimate this deal if sealed will produce same amount of revenue for the country as that of the whole tourism sector.
And then there is also significant opposition to the deal from opposition political parties who are also suffering the blame for voting for a bill in parliament which paved the way for private ownership of land in Maldives.
For the average citizens this just political posturing as there is little difference between 99 year long term lease of islands and outright buying of the islands. Given the average life span of a Maldivian being 77 years, its very unlikely a Maldivian who lives today will see the day when existing long term leased islands lease expires.
The only real danger Maldivians will face with selling islands may not be that one day all the islands will be bought by billionaires but that these deals will be tainted with corruption and invaluable pieces of beauty will be sold for knockdown prices. Maldives is already reeling from the biggest corruption scandal in history with the same administration in power. Several islands, lagoons and sandbanks were traded unashamedly by corrupt politicians and things got so bad that tourism ministry even announced any party who have purchased any island or lagoon to get in contact with the ministry with proof of purchase to register the transaction! The corruption saga was never fully inspected and case looks all but closed after jailing 4 individuals including former vice president.
The business case for developing a huge resort island might be sound but the Saudi’s will be well advised not to alienate the opposition who might be not very cooperative if the current regime fails to win the election in 2018. The opposition lacks funding, clear sense of direction and leadership. The current regime almost lacks legitimacy and trust. Trust will never be won with money or power.