The Washington Diplomat / August 2008
By Larry Luxner
With only 32,000 citizens, wealthy San Marino is the world’s oldest independent republic and one of Europe’s tiniest microstates. Some 4,700 miles to the southeast is the struggling Maldives — Asia’s smallest country and one of the most crowded places on Earth.
Later this year, the two vastly different nations will open embassies in Washington for much the same reason: to improve ties with the United States and raise awareness on a variety of global issues crucial to their respective futures.
Mohamed Hussain Maniku, the Maldives’ newly appointed envoy here, says his Indian Ocean archipelago had an embassy in Washington from 1968 to 1970, but that it was closed for lack of money. The new mission — located on the second floor of an office building at 19th and L Streets, NW — will open in early July.
Even though the Maldives is still strapped for cash, Maniku says “international politics dictates that Washington is the main center of world diplomacy. We are at the stage where we must have a presence in Washington to win our case.”
Maniku’s mission is to convince Congress that global warming must be stopped at all costs. With the Maldives’ highest point topping out at just eight feet above sea level, no nation on earth is more threatened by rising ocean levels. And even an increase of only one or two degrees in the Earth’s temperature will destroy the coral reefs so essential to the Maldivian economy (also see “Global Warming’s Most Vulnerable Nations Prepare for Impending Storm” in February 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“Climate change has become an issue for all political parties here, but the case of the Maldives is an example they can use very well to carry this message forward,” said Maniku, interviewed at his official Georgetown residence. “We’re a small country and we hardly pollute the atmosphere, yet we are the ones who will be hit the hardest.”
The Maldives consists of a string of 1,190 islands grouped in 26 atolls. But only 200 of those islands are inhabited. The entire country covers less than 300 square kilometers, around 1.5 times the size of the District of Columbia. The problem is that nearly a third of the 379,000 Maldivians live on the two-square-kilometer main island of Malé — making Malé the world’s most crowded capital city.
Maniku said his boss, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, has been talking about climate change since 1987 (Gayoom has held power since 1978, when he won his first five-year term under the country’s tightly controlled presidential referendum process). “We’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing we can do is increase awareness — and this we intend to do, by lobbying Congress on climate change issues,” Maniku said.
The Maldives already knows full well the consequence of nature’s fury. In 2004, the chain of 1,200 islands was devastated by the Asian tsunami. Several islands were completely washed away, and the tsunami killed 108 Maldivians and displaced more than 20,000 — the highest loss of life relative to population of any of the countries hit by the tsunami. In addition, according to Maniku, economic damage came to $500 million, a frightening 62 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
But that’s nothing compared to what might be coming down the road. Basically, three things will happen to the Maldives as carbon emissions continue to cause world temperatures to rise. The immediate impact is likely to be an increase in coastal erosion, flooding, sea swells, and the destruction of homes and infrastructure. In the medium term, warmer temperatures would decimate the coral reefs that surround each island and provide 45 percent of the country’s fishing and tourism jobs.
Yet the most serious threat comes from rising sea levels. According to Edward Cameron, senior advisor for the new embassy, 75 percent of the low-lying Maldives is less than one meter above sea level, and scientists are predicting a 90-centimeter rise by the end of this century. That would make the country virtually uninhabitable by 2100.
To prepare for the inevitable, the Maldives government is developing Hulhumalé, a new city being built on reclaimed land slightly higher in elevation than Malé. Last July, the Maldives also initiated a program called the Human Dimension of Climate Change.
“Traditionally, the discussion [on global warming] has been about natural systems,” said Cameron, an Irish citizen who was hired by the Gayoom government thanks to his expertise in the field of climate change. “We led an initiative to focus on human rights and loss of human lives. Our resolution was co-sponsored by 69 countries. Since then, Argentina copied our model and has introduced a resolution at the [Organization of American States], and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has conducted hearings into this.”
Cameron said the new Washington embassy was created to avoid paying high-priced lobbyists. As it is, the mission’s budget is $600,000 a year. “The embassy was set up to expand our diplomatic footprint,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “We are also opening embassies in Brussels, Beijing, Tokyo, Riyadh and Geneva in order to provide an opportunity for Maldivians themselves to present their case in important capitals, as opposed to lobbyists.”
Supervising the new embassy is Maniku, 52, who studied business administration at the American University in Beirut, graduating in 1985. Upon returning home, he worked for the Ministry of Finance, then the Maldives Monetary Authority and finally the State Trading Organization, where he ended his 18-year tenure as managing director before taking up his current post in Washington.
Running a close second to the consequences of climate change is the issue of political reform — the country’s president has been in power for 30 years — but Maniku says the government is making impressive progress in this area.
“For years, we had only one political party. But under our reform program, announced by the president in 2003, we have now completed a new constitution that allows for multiparty functions, including election of the president and members of parliament. That system will allow many institutions to form independent commissions.”
Adds Cameron: “This reform process is taking place in a country that is 100 percent Muslim. This destroys the myth that democracy is not compatible with Islam.” In August 2007, voters in a referendum overwhelmingly chose a presidential rather than a parliamentary form of government, and the Special Majlis — convened by Gayoom in July 2004 — is working toward drafting a new constitution and holding multiparty elections this November.
Yet the Maldives has a long way to go. Freedom House, which gave the country a 5.5 “not free” ranking in 2007, says “freedom of religion is severely restricted by the government’s requirement that all citizens be Sunni Muslims, a legal ban against the practice of other religions, and a constitutional provision making Islam the state religion.”
Even so, that hasn’t stopped the Maldives from attracting well-heeled travelers, particularly scuba divers eager to explore the country’s coral reefs. Last year, tourism accounted for more than 60 percent of the Maldives’ foreign-exchange receipts and helped the country achieve annual per-capita GDP of around $2,680 — the highest in South Asia.
“The structure of tourism keeps our population away from the bad aspects of tourism,” said Maniku. “Each island is a resort, and each resort is basically self-contained and there’s no local population. So guests are completely free to do what they want, and consume all the liquor they want.”
As a result, the Maldives gets over 650,000 tourists a year, including 10,000 Americans. Maniku said he hopes that number will increase, now that Qatar Airways offers a direct connection from Washington to Malé via Doha.
Coincidentally, each year only 10,000 Americans also visit San Marino — an Italian-speaking European microstate that gets about 3 million foreign tourists annually.
“We have to improve this number,” said Paolo Rondelli, the country’s new ambassador to the United States. “Obviously, with the euro as strong as it is, U.S. citizens are not so open to traveling to Europe. But if Americans are visiting Italy, they should set aside one or two days to visit San Marino. It’s on the way between Venice and Rome.”
Rondelli, who presented his credentials to President Bush one year ago, plans to submit a request to the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions for recognition of an Embassy of San Marino, which he hopes to establish by year’s end.
For the last 15 years, San Marino has been represented at the honorary consul level by local author and TV producer Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld. The microstate also has honorary consulates in New York and Detroit, each home to several thousand sammirenesi, the term for San Marino natives.
Rondelli acknowledges the fact that most Americans have never heard of San Marino, which is completely surrounded by Italy and covers a mountainous area about one third the size of Washington, D.C.
“My job is to present my country to U.S. citizens and to attract investors and tourists,” he said. “It’s important to let Americans know that we are a very peaceful and cooperative country. Opening a chancery here is a recognition of the importance of being in the United States and the center of the world in a political sense.”
San Marino already has embassies in Rome, Brussels, Paris, Belgrade and Vienna, and will soon open missions in Athens and Madrid in addition to Washington.
Rondelli, 45, was born and raised in San Marino. An engineer specializing in environmental and sustainable development issues, Rondelli is proud of the fact that his little nation is the oldest republic in the world, dating to 301 A.D. It organized itself into a city-state in the 11th century and survived numerous invasions throughout the Middle Ages.
“In 1810, we were offered land to have an outlet to the sea, but our government refused. This saved us, and it’s why we are still independent,” he said. “The link between San Marino and the U.S. goes back to President Lincoln, who in a speech in 1861 cited us as a model of freedom and justice,” Rondelli added, proudly noting, “A few months later, our parliament decided to give Lincoln honorary citizenship.”
Today, San Marino enjoys a per-capita GDP of around $34,000, considerably higher than Italy’s $30,000. About a third of its economy depends on tourism, while banking, finance, service-related industries and ceramic exports comprise the rest. San Marino is literally a 45-minute bus trip from the Italian beach resort of Rimini.
Wandering the streets and backroads of this country, tourists can easily explore San Marino’s three medieval castles atop Mount Titano, the largest collection of classic Ferrari racing cars in Europe, and a dizzying assortment of wines, spirits and flavored liqueurs.
But the country strives to play a serious role in world affairs as well, taking a keen interest in intercultural dialogue and nuclear non-proliferation issues. During World War II, San Marino remained officially neutral and provided haven to an estimated 100,000 Italian refugees. In 1988, San Marino joined the Council of Europe, chairing the 46-member council’s committee of ministers from November 2006 to May 2007.
And in 1992, it was admitted as a member of the United Nations. Recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the “numerous contributions” made by the tiny nation, which include spearheading a “vibrant” campaign to end violence against women, being among the first to sign a U.N. pact on disability rights, promoting religious peace, and championing U.N. reform.
“San Marino is an excellent example of the indispensable role played by small states,” Ban said. “It is often among them that the United Nations — and the secretary-general — can find the surest and most consistent support.”
Even though it’s not a member of the European Union, San Marino uses the euro as its official currency and has signed double-taxation and investment protection agreements with both EU and non-EU members.
In recent years, says Rondelli, San Marino’s greatest achievement has been getting itself removed from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) blacklist of havens for tax evasion and money laundering. The Paris-based OECD, which as late as 2000 blacklisted 30 jurisdictions for being “uncooperative in the drive for transparency of tax affairs and the effective exchange of information,” today lists only four: Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
“We decided some years ago to get off that OECD list by starting with a new political direction and new laws,” explained Rondelli, distancing San Marino from the other three European microstates still on the list. “If you don’t have clear legislation and the will to fight money laundering, your country can become an open door for international terrorism. San Marino doesn’t need this.”