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The soul of ‘Save Maldives’ now in the sea of silence

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 13 2012 (IPS) - Fathulla Jameel, who passed away after a brief illness in Singapore last week, had the distinction of being Foreign Minister of the Maldives for more than 27 years, second only to his counterpart in Bahrain back in the 1990s. At the U.N. delegate’s lounge, he was once blessed with the title: “Dean of foreign ministers.” And he missed finding a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as “Foreign Minister for Life.”

The sharp-witted Jameel, a former Permanent Representative of the Maldives to the United Nations, was a superlative raconteur with a vibrant sense of humour. Whenever he addressed the General Assembly, he repeatedly singled out the dangers facing his island nation — dependent on tourism and fishing for its economic survival — which was predicted to be wiped off the face of the earth due to rising sea levels.

“The Maldives is like a can of tuna fish,” he once told a journalist, as he chomped on his (Cuban?) cigar, “because it comes with an expiry date”. But Jameel’s own expiry date, at age 69, was way ahead of the environmental doom awaiting his country — if the climatologists are to be believed.

When he made his annual pilgrimage to the United Nations every September he would hold court at the delegate’s lounge regaling his friends with anecdotes he picked up during his visits, mostly to the Middle East. Fluent in Arabic, he built a special rapport with diplomats and Foreign Ministers in the Arab world.

After one of his visits to the Middle East, he recounted the story of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s longtime visions of a pan-Arab Islamic federation — a goal that eluded even Egypt’s charismatic president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

At various times, Gaddafi tried to form Arab federations linking his country with Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Chad and Algeria. But his ambitious plans never got off the ground.

When he visited China in the mid-1980s, as Jameel recounted the story, Gaddafi plucked up courage to ask the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping about a possible federation between Libya and China. China’s supreme leader, who was then presiding over a country with over 900 million people, pondered for a while and asked Gaddafi how big his country was.

Told that Libya’s population at that time was only a paltry three million people, Deng put his arm around Gaddafi and said rather affectionately: “When you next visit Beijing, why don’t you bring them along with you.”

The audience in the delegate’s lounge broke into fits of laughter — mercifully with no Libyan diplomats around.

After an abortive mercenary coup in the Maldives in 1988, Jameel was one of the strongest proponents of a U.N. resolution calling for the “Protection and Security of Small States.” When he addressed the General Assembly in 1994, he said the inherent vulnerability of small states was no more clearly demonstrated than in the case of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

“Who would have indeed thought that a fully sovereign state of the United Nations, economically strong and with powerful friends, would be in a position of being imminently wiped off from the political map of the world?,” he asked. “And if a country such as Kuwait can be thrust into such a precarious position, then where lies the security of much smaller and economically weaker states” (read: Maldives), he declared.

The resolution was adopted unanimously.

Jameel was educated at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and Islamic Studies. A computer buff, he faithfully recorded all his speeches and his travel itinerary in a laptop he carried with him during his travels overseas.

 
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