In September 2021, when the Maldives was just about shrugging off the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the appointment of its Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid to the helm of the United Nations General Assembly resembled a historic point in its journey through the landscape of international politics.

One of the country's most experienced and distinguished diplomats, Shahid as the President of the UNGA meant that the tiny nation of Maldives has now been given the opportunity to make its voice heard in the international arena.

A thought unfathomable even a few years back.

The Press had the delightful opportunity to interview the Minister who had skillfully played his dual roles leaving his international colleagues more than content, his local supporters beaming with pride, and his adversaries silent.

Challenges when Shahid first took over the UNGA

When asked if he faced any challenges taking up his responsibilities because he came from such a tiny nation like the Maldives, Minister Shahid noted that there is sometimes a tendency to define your capabilities by the size of your country, or the might of your country.

Minister Shahid being applauded at the UN/Photo: Foreign Ministry

But Shahid highlighted that the Maldives was lucky that the UN membership trusted it with such an immense responsibility. He also believed that it was because the country in its quest for the UNGA presidency had presented a compelling vision- a vision of hope with priorities in tune with the current challenges in the international community.

The former President of the UNGA was quick to thank his team at the UN saying that he also believed that you need to surround yourself with the best people and was grateful to be able to put together a team from many countries that would help him in achieving his goals at the UNGA.

Gender Equality, a cornerstone for Shahid's UNGA Presidency

While leading the 76th GA, Minister Shahid paid special attention to the issue of gender equality by demonstrating that it can be eradicated. He said that it was important for him to sit in panels that are gender balanced, ensure his cabinet is gender balanced, and why he convened a Women Leaders Meeting on the first day of the high-level week of the General Assembly and held a special event on ending violence against women in politics on the margins of the Commission on the Status of Women.

Shahid at the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda/Photo: Foreign Ministry

Shahid added that it was to underscore and show that women are equal in skill, influence, and knowledge. But he concedes that the world was still years behind in fully overcoming the issue.

- It is equally important that we create tailored policies to address specific gender requirements in workplace. The refurbishing and renovation of lactation rooms and the availability of free sanitary napkins is to promote gender parity in the workplace and to remove taboos surrounding women’s natural body functions. Meeting women and girls in all my travels abroad, ensuring their voices are heard and reflected is to redress decades of erasure of women’s achievements in science, diplomacy, arts, and politics.
Foreign Minister Shahid, Former President of the UNGA

Shahid thinks that the world must take action at an individual, national and international level, to address century-old hindrances to gender equality.

The work against climate change and global warming is slow, but with good reason

When asked about the effects of global warming, Minister Shahid aptly labeled it as one of – if not the – biggest threat we face today. He pointed out the recent floods in Pakistan, more ferocious and intense than that country has seen before. He highlighted that adverse weather incidents are slowly becoming norms and are now threatening our livelihoods and lives.

UNGA President Shahid at the Oceans Conference/Photo: Foreign Ministry

Minister Shahid noted that the progress on the action against global warming has been slow. But he also noted that when the kind of changes that have to be brought to the way we consume, produce, and live are many and big, there will be hesitance, and difficulties, especially for developing countries, which are already struggling with financial resources.

Hope for a stronger, more effective, efficient, transparent, and accountable UN

The former President of the UNGA Shahid has always been a strong advocate for a better UN, a more understanding UN, and a more balanced UN.

Shahid said that he believed that a stronger, more effective, efficient, transparent, and accountable United Nations is needed to build a resilient world and to be able to deliver for its people, the planet, and prosperity.

Shahid believes in the hope for a better UN/Photo: Foreign Ministry

Shahid said that the world body needs to keep its commitment and continue the efforts to strengthen and build a more representative and more inclusive Security Council, which reflects the realities of the 21st century.

The Minister noted that during his time at the UNGA, he did his utmost efforts to provide platforms to facilitate Member States’ continuous dialogues on finding the solution towards this end.

Shahid believes that the UN will have to continue to explore these new emerging areas and support Member States in addressing new and emerging challenges to peace, security, and development, to remain relevant.

Last year showed what Countries like the Maldives can bring to the table

While his appointment to the Presidency of the UNGA was met with mostly warm wishes from back home, there were a few who questioned the need for a sitting cabinet Minister to go for dual responsibilities.

Minister Shahid greets the Duke of Sussex Prince Harry as his wife Meghan Markle looks on/Photo: Foreign Ministry

But Shahid reiterates that the Maldives has immensely benefitted from his experience at the UNGA. He said that Following years of international isolationism, the Government of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih promised to re-engage with the international community which was why it decided to put forward a candidate for the election of the President of the UN General Assembly.

We wanted to demonstrate that we are back as a responsible member of the international community. Executing the duties of one of the highest offices in the international system is perhaps the biggest demonstration that we have fulfilled our pledge.
Foreign Minister Shahid

Minister Shahid said that the past year has shown what small island developing States such as the Maldives, can bring to the table when afforded the opportunity. He said that it does not have to be limited to just environmental issues but to being a confident mediator, negotiator and facilitator too.

Shahid shared that diplomacy is about relationships and added that the relationships the country has cultivated over the past year in this role, will be beneficial for the conduct of Maldives' foreign policy in the long run.

No shortcomings or neglect

While Minister Shahid spent most of his time as the President of UNGA in New York, America, there were questions on whether or not he was neglecting his duties as the Foreign Minister of the Maldives.

But Minister Shahid assured that there had been no shortcomings nor neglect on his part and emphasized that he was a firm believer that nothing is a 'one-man show. He humbly accepted that the successes and achievements throughout the past year are largely down to his teams. He shared that he was able to execute his duties as the Foreign Minister of Maldives and President of the General Assembly, without neglecting either, thanks to both his teams.

Minister Shahid sits with some key members of his team/Photo: Twitter

Shahid described how he would start his day with a briefing from the Ministry and how he would make himself available to do anything to fulfill his role as Foreign Minister. He shared that he was as involved as ever in the day-to-day running of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Some parting words

Minister Shahid, who had also held the title of the Speaker of the Parliament in his much-decorated political and diplomatic career believes his year as President of the General Assembly has given the Maldives a lot of international exposure. He said that it has and will continue to open many doors for the Maldivian people.

With the country gearing up for an exciting and unpredictable Presidential Election next year, Shahid insists that he has always been a humble and dedicated servant of the people of the Maldives for many years – since he was a young foreign service officer and that he would continue to do so.

When asked if would be seen as the running mate of a presidential candidate, Minister Shahid answered that he would not shy away from any opportunity to serve the betterment of humanity.