No activity at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport here on Wednesday indicates that it is amid a political storm that will hit the island-airport in hardly 48 hours. Employees go about their jobs, scheduled flights carrying — largely — Chinese tourists make their landing on the appointed time through the day. Customs officials make enquires with the infrequent south Asians arriving amid a sea of Chinese tourists.
Come Friday midnight, and the airport’s operator, India-based multinational, GMR, will have to handover the airport to Maldives Airports Company. GMR has dug its heels in and has said it can’t do as directed. Either way, GMR will not be able to operate the airport after 23:59 on December 6 as the Civil Aviation Authority will revoke the aerodrome license from then.
Representatives of two airlines and a tour operator said they were not tensed, but still were watching the situation carefully. As of now, there are no mass cancellations, one tour operator said. But the stand off would affect the peak season, a local journalist said.
The dispute, which has been simmering since February 2012, led to arbitration proceedings in Singapore – as provided for in the contract – and the Singapore High Court had stayed the government move to take over. A defiant government has refused to accept the order and has said it will retake the airport, regardless of the consequences. A combination of misplaced egos, political expediency and bad judgement means that there is not even a negotiating table in sight.
Despite its professed and publicly-declared intention of throwing out GMR, the Maldives government — in a strange move — has appealed against Singapore High Court order. Sources familiar with the development said the Singapore Supreme Court is expected to take up the case on Thursday, barely a day ahead of the December 7 deadline.
While the war of nerves continues at one level, there is a surprising calmness that seems surreal. For instance, many tourists were unaware of what the GMR issue was. Work on refurbishing the airport goes on all over the airport and the scaffoldings cover most parts of the airport. The boats in the wharfs nearby, the only mode of transport to the nearby capital city of Male, ferry passengers to nearby destinations.
But scratch the surface and the reality emerges. “We don’t know what will happen,” said an airport hand, a Maldivian, who did not want to be named. It seems that the government’s assurance that he will not lose his job has no effect. Hotels have seen a dip in business, but that has more to do with the political uncertainty than with the GMR-government tussle.