The Maldives is an archipelago state of around 370,000 inhabitants located in the Indian Ocean. The republic of Maldives, with its beautiful white palm beaches and high-end resorts, is the smallest Muslim country in the world. The government prohibits practicing religion other then Islam and does not grant citizenship for non-Muslims.

This Saturday (September 28th), the second round of the presidential elections will be held between Mohamed Nasheed, who received 45 percent of the votes in the first round, but failed to achieve the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff against Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Maldives’ former autocrat.

Mohamed Nasheed was the first democratically elected president after decades of autocracy. However, on February 2012 he was forced to resign against his will, after only three and half years in power instead of a five year term, as stipulated in the constitution.

The upcoming elections are important for South Asia since New Delhi does not want any of the Maldives’ sprawling 1,200 islands to serve as sites for Muslin extremists to launch terrorist attacks, and are important for Jerusalem since Nasheed is considered pro-Israel.

The Republic of Maldives and the state of Israel have enjoyed diplomatic relations since 1965. According to the Israeli MFA, Israel was the third state to recognize the Muslim island nation. Although the relations between the two countries were suspended in 1974, strains did not persist; the autocratic leadership did not support the calls for expulsion of Israel from the U.N. Moreover, despite being an Islamic autocracy with no official relations with Israel, the Maldives co-sponsored in 2005 the U.N. resolution on designating an annual international day of remembrance of the holocaust, and joined as a co-sponsor for the U.S.-led U.N. resolution condemning any denial of the holocaust.

After 30 years of autocratic rule, bilateral relations began to improve under the government of Mohamed Nasheed (2008-2012); Israel and the Maldives declared they maintain relations of appreciation and friendship, agreements have been signed in the fields of health, tourism and education, and an official visit to Israel by the Maldives’ foreign minister was conducted in May 2011.

The international community, including the United States and India, is closely watching developments in the Maldives and hoping that political stability and democracy will return to the Maldives after the presidential elections. In light of the first round results, and as long as the vote is free, fair and peaceful, Nasheed is likely to get the upper hand, even if the remaining candidates will unite against him. However, a survey conducted by the anti-corruption organization Transparency International has shown that the parliament, parties and the judiciary, which are the pillars of democracy, are the most corrupt institutions of Maldives.

In case the secularist politician, Mohamed Nasheed, will accumulate the majority of the votes from the Sunni Muslim population, the Israeli government should:

(a) Congratulate the strong commitment of the people of Maldives to democratic government and invite Nasheed for an official state visit in Jerusalem – Prime Minister Netanyahu should seek to advance Israel’s relations with Muslim countries, especially with those who are marked by cooperation and competition between New Delhi, Beijing and Washington.

(b) Enhance foreign aid – in 2010, a delegation of Israeli eye doctors visited the Maldives and performed eye operations. Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV) needs to develop new ways of assistance to the Maldives. This aid should aim to improve the bilateral relations and not just try to “gain credit” in order that the Maldives would abstain or vote against a Palestinian state at the United Nations.

(c)    Promote bilateral trade – Just last week, the current president of Maldives launched the Economic Diversification Strategy. Israel should learn the report and work to increase export to Maldives, such as agriculture commodities.