Mauritius: Controversy - Soodhun's curious diplomacy with the Saudi Kingdom

The foreign ministry is in the eye of a new storm: the diplomatic status of Showkutally Soodhun. The confusion stems from the fact that earlier this week, foreign minister Alan Ganoo told parliament, in response to questions about Soodhun's diplomatic status, that the latter was ambassador to Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

But on Thursday, the ministry rushed a communique stating that Soodhun was also still ambassador to Saudi Arabia. This, however is not the first time that the foreign ministry and the government have been caught scrambling in response to Soodhun's curious brand of diplomacy with Riyadh.

The road to Riyadh

Showkutally Soodhun's love for Saudi Arabia took a circuitous route. He cut his political teeth in the MMMSP, founded by one of MMM's co-founders Dev Virahsawmy after he broke with the MMM in 1973. The two men worked together in the by-election in Triolet in 1970, the first seat ever won by the MMM since independence.

"After I was released from prison in 1972, some friends told me that Soodhun was openly saying that he was supporting my position", Virahsawmy tells l'express. Soodhun (known as 'Toolia' back then) also supported the MMMSP in the 1976 elections and stood as its candidate in constituency No. 5. He did not win a seat. "After that he did help set up the union federation, FTU", Virahsawmy explains.

The FTU was founded by Virahsawmy, Peter Craig, Alan Ganoo, Alain Laridon and Soodhun to push for better wages and conditions in the special economic zones. But then, he found the MSM led by Anerood Jugnauth. "Already in 1982, it was becoming clear that Paul Bérenger would not be able to work under anyone else, there was an incident where Bérenger simply snatched the microphone while Anerood Jugnauth, his senior at the time, was still speaking. That showed a lack of respect for institutions, so to teach him a lesson, I joined with Anerood Jugnauth and Gaetan Duval in the 1983 elections", explains Virahsawmy.

As culture advisor to the new MSM government, Virahsawmy says that his policy of promoting Kreol as a national language was not being backed by the government, so Virahsawmy left, but Soodhun stayed.

So began Soodhun's rise within the MSM. "Soodhun became quite active as an ethnic politician representing the Muslim community for the MSM", Virahsawmy points out.

The affection for Saudi Arabia was to emerge much later. "The first politician in Mauritius to look to Saudi Arabia was actually Cehl Meeah of the FSM", Virahsawmy points out.

As the FSM rose into prominence as from the 1990s - winning a parliamentary seat in 2010 - the lesson was not lost on Soodhun. "I am sure that Soodhun was influenced by that", he adds, "he realized he could use his Muslim identity to grow close to the Saudis and become the link man between Mauritius and Saudi Arabia".

But it was not until after the 2014 election, when the MSM emerged as a dominant ruling party, unchecked by other powerful allies, that Soodhun put his new diplomacy to work.

After the fall...

It seemed that Soodhun's forays into foreign policy would come to an end when in November 2017, he was forced to step down after a video surfaced of him making communal remarks about NHDC housing allocations in Bassin.

Although in September 2019 the Intermediate Court acquitted Soodhun arguing that since the NHDC is an independent body, Soodhun was in no position to make such promises to allocate social housing to one ethnic group. But just because Soodhun has lost his seat as housing minister, it did not mean that he gave up on attempting to keep his political career going by looking to Saudi Arabia.

In 2018, he reached back to an old argument. In an official event at the Islamic Cultural Centre in the capital Port Louis, he announced that the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had offered him a job as the kingdom's 'goodwill ambassador' to Africa, reportedly with a monthly salary of Rs17 million.

Before 2014, Soodhun had made claims of similar (though markedly less lucrative) job offers from the International Labour Organization. Soodhun explained that he had turned down the impressive job offer from bin Salman.

Then in August that same year, in an event in Goodlands, Soodhun slammed his replacement on the government's front bench, Fazila Jeewa-Daureeawoo as an inadequate representative of Mauritius' Muslim community. He was still courting Saudi Arabia.

In July 2019, he gave interviews with gulf news outlets praising Mohammed bin Salman, slamming Iran for supporting 'terrorist groups' and drone strikes by Yemen's Houthis, the target of Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. None of this was official Mauritian foreign policy.

"I think that Mauritius has a funny way of conducting diplomacy, we are a nation of immigrants but politicians who rise often try to place the ethnic card to establish or deepen links with other states, don't forget that when Paul Bérenger became prime minister, his first visit was to France, and Navin Ramgoolam and the Jugnauth's do that with India as well", argues Virahsawmy.

"There are others who try to do that too", says Makhan, "but they tend to be more discreet, the problem is that Soodhun was doing it so blatantly".

In January 2020, Soodhun's politics came full circle when he was officially named Mauritius' representative in Saudi Arabia. Here too, he brought his strange brand of diplomacy. After the then-leader of the opposition Arvin Boolell made some remarks about Saudi Arabia during debates on the 2020-2021 budget, Soodhun came out swinging. Attacking Boolell, Soodhun said that a meeting between him and officials from the oil giant ARAMCO had been cancelled following Boolell's remarks, with Soodhun reminding everyone that Riyadh had helped finance an eye hospital, a cancer hospital, social housing, provided grants, financed drain construction and import facilities.

Although sensitivities over criticising certain states are rife in Mauritius, usually this is done by politicians bottom-feeding to chase ethnic votes. Not sitting ambassadors pontificating from overseas. "The way that he was behaving I had to ask myself whether he was Mauritius' ambassador to Saudi Arabia or Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Mauritius?" asks Makhan.

The years in power

In power as minister of housing and lands, Soodhun circumvented the foreign ministry and his own government to try to decide Mauritian policy towards Saudi Arabia. And the signs of his growing proximity to the house of Saud roiled Mauritian politics domestically.

In 2016, Soodhun said that he fell ill during a mission to Saudi Arabia, looking for funding for government projects, and that Mohammed Bin Salman, the rising power within the kingdom, had given his private jet to fly Soodhun back to Mauritius.

Then, in July 2017, during a public ceremony in Flacq, Soodhun threatened to shoot the then-leader of the opposition Xavier-Luc Duval for criticising Saudi Arabia. The first such threat by a sitting minister against a leader of the opposition in Mauritian history.

But it was outside Mauritius where Soodhun's peculiar diplomacy with the Gulf Kingdom was making waves. In 2016, Saudi press started labelling Soodhun as Mauritius' 'Minister of Islamic Affairs'. No such post exists in Mauritius.

That however, is not unique to Soodhun. In the late 1980s, the then-commissioner of police Raj Dayal earned a rebuke from the government for introducing himself as a 'lieutenant general' during official visits to India. The government at the time pointed out that Mauritius had no army. And therefore, by implication, no generals.

That message however, did not seem to reach all quarters. In 2016, the Saudis organized a mammoth military exercise dubbed 'Northern Thunder' involving 150,000 troops from 20 states and aimed at militarily deterring Saudi Arabia's rival in the Middle East, Iran.

The lack of an army did not stop the Saudis from listing Mauritius as one of the countries taking part in the military exercise, nor Soodhun from being listed as one of the attendees of the closing ceremony of the military exercise. No official rebuke came from the government.

Emboldened by the free rein he was given, Soodhun proceeded to plunge Mauritius into a deeper international crisis. In 2017, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf moved to cut all diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in a move to isolate it. On 5 June 2017, Soodhun's ministry of housing and lands using the official government letterhead, issued a communique announcing that Mauritius too was joining the Saudiled blockade of Qatar.

The news was picked up internationally. The next day, the foreign ministry, then led by Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo, simply released its own communique stating that Mauritius "favours dialogue between the countries involved in the interest of peace and stability in the region and in the world".

Normally, former foreign secretary and deputy secretary general of the AU Vijay Makhan tells l'express, "it is just the prime minister or the foreign minister that is responsible for foreign policy, so when anybody else talks about it, it is generally assumed that they must have been given directives from their government".

What Soodhun did, Makhan maintains, "was turn us into a laughingstock in diplomatic circles, Soodhun should have been pulled out as minister there and then, but no sanction was taken against him. In the meantime, obviously, we had to douse the flames that Soodhun had lit, Qatar is an important economic hub for investments".

What that meant in practice was that on 7 June 2017, the foreign ministry had to rush a letter to Qatar's head of state, Shiekh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani assuring Doha that Mauritius intended to continue maintaining its ties with Qatar.

On 11 June 2017, the foreign ministry had to contact the international news network Al Jazeera and on 20 June 2017, the French publication Le Monde to explain Mauritius' actual position.

The United Nations Mauritius' permanent representative there had to rush to meet states being canvassed for the upcoming Mauritian offensive over the Chagos in the UN to reassure them that Mauritius had not suddenly changed its foreign policy. In a subsequent media interview Soodhun simply denied that he had released any such communique about cutting ties with Qatar.

Soodhun's diplomacy has been high stakes but it was not unique. Mauritius suffering from a combination of a lack of a sufficiently empowered foreign policy cadre, a stream of political appointees and an insular public discourse, has seen its share of frilly diplomatic episodes far from home.

During the 1970s, Mauritius' top diplomat at the UN Radha Ramphul often raised criticisms for overstepping Mauritian foreign policy at the UN (when it came to resolutions over Korea, Namibia and Zimbabwe) Ramphul would often try to out-radical the African states, often in contradiction with stated Mauritian foreign policy. And often to the ire of the then-foreign minister Harold Walter.

"There is obviously no comparison between Soodhun and Ramphul, who was an accomplished diplomat and back then we had we had just become independent and had no career diplomats or ambassadors", Makhan points out.

Then, in the late 2000s, a Mauritian representative to the AU declared in Rabat that Mauritius was reviewing its recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which was eagerly picked up by the Moroccan press and angered Algeria, a key backer of the SADR. Although Mauritius briefly did de-recognize the SADR between January 2014 and November 2015, this was done by the government of Mauritius itself, not unilaterally by a functionary.

All this is to say that the Soodhun's diplomatic gaffes were embarrassing to be sure, but in the politicised foreign policy establishment of Mauritius, not unique.

The exit that never was

On Tuesday 24th March, in the National Assembly when asked about whether or not Soodhun has been pulled out of Saudi Arabia as ambassador, the foreign minister Alan Ganoo merely stated that Soodhun was Mauritius' roving ambassador to Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

This came after an open letter from Soodhun himself posted on social media (once again, something quite unprecedented in Mauritian diplomacy) where Soodhun demanding that Labour MP Patrick Assirvaden apologise to Soodhun as well as the Saudi government for asking whether or not Soodhun had been declared persona non grata: "I am still the accredited Ambassador of Mauritius to Saudi Arabia and is inter alia mandated to represent and promote the interests of Mauritius in Saudi Arabia and other countries to which I am accredited" (sic).

A lot of the confusion stemmed from the fact that when asked point-blank whether or not the government planned to replace Soodhun in Riyadh, Ganoo did not answer the question directly, leading to another confusing episode in Mauritian diplomacy.

That was just the latest such episode in the long-running series of gaffes characterising Soodhun's special brand of diplomacy with Riyadh which has left the foreign ministry looking poorly as a result. This is a serious problem given the growing relative importance of Saudi Arabia to the Mauritian economy. Aside from a major source of grants and aid funds, until Covid-19 hit, it was also one of the fastest growing tourism markets for Mauritius. According to government figures, the number of Saudi tourists coming to Mauritius has grown from 5,142 in 2017 to 22,788 in 2019.

If Soodhun sought to position himself as the conduit for Saudi money coming into Mauritius, questions still remain about the actual fruit of those efforts. "Before the 2019 election, Soodhun had made statements in public meetings that he was getting $6 million (Rs240 million) from Saudi Arabia to refurbish mosques and for fishermen", explains opposition MP Osman Mahomed.

According to the government, these funds would be given out by a foundation set up by the Islamic Cultural Centre in the capital. "In July last year I asked Bodha (then foreign minister -ed.) a question about this money in parliament", says Mahomed.

On 21 July 2020, the government said that the finance ministry was working with the Waqf board and registered mosques on setting up that foundation and that an MoU between Port Louis and Riyadh was being worked out on how that money would be spent.

According to Bodha's reply in the National Assembly, on 10 July 2020 the Saudi government asked for a translation of the MoU into Arabic. When asked on when the money negotiated by Soodhun with the Saudis would be given out within Mauritius, Bodha in July last year responded, "In fact, things should have moved faster, but because of the Covid-19, as regard to the fishers, the Memorandum of Understanding is here, it will be submitted to Cabinet in the weeks to come. As regards the main Memorandum of Understanding, we are sending the Arabic version very soon."

Now nearly two years after Soodhun's announcement, nothing seems to have happened. "We know that the Saudis are generous in terms of funding, in my own constituency they are financing drain construction in Tranquebar, so how is it that two years down the road we still have not heard anything about that money? And what has the government been doing all this time?" asks Mahomed.

Although in July last year, Bodha said that the MoU regarding the part of the $6 million destined for the fishermen was ready and would shortly be submitted to cabinet, this week in parliament Sudheer Maudhoo said that no agreement had been signed yet.

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