Mr. Deen, A True Pioneer

Maldives Promotion House – We are all in our own unique ways, gifted. We are the agents of our own destiny. In our hands we hold the brush that can paint our dreams and desires. Those who embrace the difficulties of life and master its art, bloom to become pioneers, leaders and talents. Mr. Mohamed Waheed Deen, more famously known as Mr. Deen, is one of the pioneers of the hospitality industry in Maldives. While many have surely benefited from his wisdom, there are those who can still learn much from his life. Recently Mr. Deen spared us some of his precious time to tell us his story.

Mr. Deen’s story is remarkable in many ways because despite the fact that he is one of the pioneers deeply associated with the industry, he did not really choose to begin in the industry. “In fact very honestly I did not start in the industry. What happened was I was obliged to come into the industry when the government of President Ibrahim Nasir changed, and President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom became president,” Mr. Deen said, during an exclusive interview with Maldives Promotion House.

“There wasn’t anyone in the industry with enough experience, but at the time fortunately I was working for Mr. Naseem, for Bandos Island Resort and Kurumba Village. I was working for about 12 resorts as an airport representative. So because I had that experience and because I was also working in Bandos the government decided that they would appoint me as the general manager. I worked as general manager for more than four and a half years and that is how I came to be in this post,” he added.

Mr Deen also told us how he had gotten his first job in the industry. “My first job was a public relations job. It was entertainment. I had to entertain the guests. I had to talk to them and that was the job Mr. Naseem gave me,” he said. “He said I would be very good at it. Thought at the time I didn’t really believe him, fortunately it turned out alright. Afterwards Ibrahim Nooruddeen who was at the airport working as an airport rep, had to go to Australia for his education. So I started working at the airport and that is the beginning,” Mr. Deen noted.

“But I would say the true beginning of my career is because of the opportunity President Maumoon’s government at that time gave me, to work as a general manager of Bandos. I would also thank the State Bank of India. The general manager of the bank at the time gave me, if I’m not mistaken, about 200 to 300 thousand US Dollars of over draft facilities. Without even any guarantees, without any collateral,” Mr. Deen told us.

“But there was a bit of a complication about how I could use the money to run Bandos, because I was working for the government. That was the beginning of my career. With that I was able to bring Bandos to a better level and also to create a running capital of about 300 to 350 thousand US Dollars. So I made a total of about USD 600,000.”

When Mr. Deen was first introduced to the industry unlike most other hoteliers, he was not very young. “Actually I wasn’t very young when I was started,” he said. He went on to tell us his story. “I was exiled to Meemu Mulee and when I came back I was pardoned by President Ibrahim Nasir. You must understand that I was not sentenced for any political reasons. I was working for the oil people and I had USD 5,000 of their money because I was working for them.”

“But the ministry of Information and Broadcasting wanted me to give them the money. I refused and told them that I would not give the money to them because it belongs to the oil people, and that I would give it to the Elf-Aquitaine men. They said that in that case they would have to sentence me for stealing the money. So I was sentenced for four years and six months.”

During the beginning of tourism, Maldives was relatively inaccessible, and thus the pioneers or earlier hoteliers had to face a lot of challenges. “The biggest challenges were finding proper facilities and services, for the guests as well as the staff,” Mr. Deen said. “I realised that if the staff is not satisfied they will not be able to give a good service to the guests. That was a challenge. I didn’t have a lot of other challenges because the travel agents were very corporative and the State Bank of India was extremely corporative and very friendly.”

According to Mr. Deen they also had to import much of the required food and had to stock them for about a month. “Basically we had to bring in enough supplies for a month and store them. That was a challenge too. Those days there were no huge construction companies, so we had to do everything ourselves. I remember I had to go to Thailand for toiletries. What was funny was that the supplier that I found in Thailand was Singaporean. I think his name was Victor. And he used to supply things for us. It wasn’t easy, and it was challenging.”

Despite the difficulties Mr. Deen is a man who enjoys his work. “I enjoyed the trips for ITB and World Travel Market. I thoroughly enjoyed the trips to Europe and I also enjoyed myself on my trips to buy supplies. There was another big challenge because all the generators in Bandos for example were all different brands. So you can imagine I had to go to all these companies to buy spare parts. But slowly we changed them to a single brand,” he said.

Mr. Deen also told us about some of the resorts he pioneered. “Some of the resorts such as Hudhuveli, we started with totally Maldivian culture and style. Then Four Seasons wanted to come to Maldives when we started Kuda Huraa. We had the same concept; I remember the architect was the famous Kurahaa Sappe. I told him that the island must be a 100 percent Maldivian. The ambience. The atmosphere.”

“Also one more thing I was very careful about when I was building the resorts was to spare the trees. Therefore in Thulhaagiri you can find even the coconut palms going through the waiting rooms. We had to build the roof around the tree. We would tell the architects, ‘please draw what we tell you to draw’. The architects at the time did a good job. They would take our ideas and mix it with their architectural ideas and produced great results.”

Mr. Deen has experience in almost every aspect of the industry. “I was involved in marketing, construction, running the hotel, purchasing, and human resources. I remember the first time I went to ITB in Berlin. It was a first time we had an exhibit at ITB and the government said that it should look like a Maldivian exhibit. So I remember we took sand, hammers and even the nails. We took rope and even a carpenter, Saleem from Kelaa.

“We took all this on the flight. And even the Customs asked us why we were bringing a hammer into Berlin. That is how we were back then. The worst part was we had to work in the cold ITB hall, because they only heated the place just before the opening time. So we had to work for three days, in very low temperatures. That is the level that we got involved.”

“You must understand, back than we were hands-on the job, we weren’t proud of being general managers. We could go down to the level of eating and joking with the staff and fooling around. And we never felt any different from the local ordinary staff as well, because even we came through that same door. We were like them once before,” Mr. Deen noted.

One of the most important challenges Mr. Deen faced was the unfavourable public opinion due to international and foreign investment. “Public opinion was that our country was going into foreigner’s hands. You must understand that was indeed a problem, because the country did not have proper laws and regulations. I believe that it is a very dangerous thing to have foreign investments in the country unless you have proper laws and regulations to protect the rights of the citizens and businessmen. So if you don’t have such laws you could say it is better not to have foreign investments,” Mr. Deen went on.

“But then again without foreign investments the country cannot prosper. Locals and the local banks don’t carry that much money so the money has to come as assets and capital investments from foreigners. These foreigners did not own the properties even then. Depending on their arrangement they might get a percentage of profits or even a management fee. So bringing in foreigners is not a bad thing at all, if we have the required laws and regulations.”

“Plus bringing in international brands have standardised the tourism industry in Maldives. Bringing in foreign hoteliers to Maldives will also provide more opportunities for Maldivians to work in international hotel chains. For example a Maldivian working in Four Seasons Kuda Huraa might get a chance to work in Four Seasons France or Four Seasons Italy or Qatar,” Mr. Deen said.

Mr. Deen believes in a bright future for the industry. “I would say the future is very bright, but I will also say that we have to be very cautious when we release the islands. When the construction doesn’t take place for two or three years, this will cause serious problems so I think the government should understand what the problem is and why the islands are not being constructed. If it is due to financial difficulties I believe the government can arrange a certain amount of funds,” Mr. Deen said.

“You know it is funny that though the government has its own bank it doesn’t have an investment wing, because that is what encourages younger entrepreneurs to go into the business. They should support them, and the government should understand that investment banks will create more businessmen. In turn they can tax more business men, and if more people are paying tax the government becomes very rich.”

Mr. Deen also expressed his concerns about the small number of people leading the industry. “The government also should be concerned because now there are very few people in the tourism industry. Thus the power of the entire industry is in the hands of a few people. This is a very dangerous thing for any government to have the commercial power in the hands of a few businessmen,” Mr. Deen said.

“Because whether you accept it or not business men will, to a large extend, have influence on the votes, the public and the people. So if the government doesn’t want to be controlled by one or two businessmen what they should do is create more young entrepreneurs.  As the people prosper the country and the government will share their prosperity.”

When asked about the new taxation policy Mr. Deen said that there are aspects of it that he indeed highly supports. However he also stressed that the matter should be seriously judged by economists. “I support the tax bill but I do not support introducing all taxes at once. I’m not an economist, but I believe that there should be a balance. So when I say I support the tax bill, it does not mean that I support them to tax in everything and every direction immediately. Even last month Bandos paid some USD 46,000 in tax,” he noted.

“So the government is getting a fairly good amount of money, but how is the govt using the money? I believe the government should be very transparent. I believe that the people should have a right to question. So once the government starts to tax, I believe every businessmen and every citizen should have the legal right to quest the government.”

“Perhaps all these years people didn’t really care much about what the government did is because they didn’t really pay direct taxes. So government borrowed money internationally from organisations like WHO UNDP and they survived. So the people weren’t directly involved in this. But once the government begins to run on tax money, the government should be very cautious and more careful about how they spend the money,” Mr. Deen said.

Mr. Deen is also a man who thinks very highly of NGOs. In fact Mr. Deen also said that if he was not involved in the hospitality industry he would be involved in an NGO. “If I wasn’t working in this industry I think I would be involved in some NGO. Like Transparency Maldives, JCI, Democracy Network, Democracy House or some charitable NGO. NGOs play a very important role in society. They must not take part in politics and they shouldn’t side with any govt. They are the people who should directly work for the citizens. They should educate the people. I have made an NGO myself, the Institute of Governance and Development, which is educating the people in the islands.”

Mr. Deen also speaks very highly of his colleagues. “The real pioneers of the industry I would say are Mr. Naseem, ‘Champa’ Afeef, ‘MU’ Manik, and obviously George Corbin and Dr. Samad. These people took the risks, and Dr. Samad is who introduced Mr. Naseem to George Corbin. Because of the exile and all that, I came into the picture some two years later. When I came back Mr. Naseem saw me at the jetty, and he asked, ‘you’re free? Shall we go to Kurumba Village?’ And that is how it all started. So I’m really grateful for Mr. Naseem for introducing me to the industry,” Mr. Deen said.

Mr. Deen has shown us that we can’t let blunders hold us down. He has shown us that there is a genius hiding inside every person. From the carpenter who constructed the exhibit, to the architect of Bandos, these are all important people, without whom the story cannot be concluded. We, at Maldives Promotion House, praise and thank Mr. Mohamed Waheed Deen for his services to the nation and the wise words he has shared with us.

We all feel the need to achieve something in our life. We walk through time, opening a thousand doors in search of some sort of meaning, to make sense of our lives. That is what gives birth to our passions and desires. Everyone has those hopes and dreams, and sometimes we wish we were someone else. Its natural, we are human after all. Yet what we should learn from Mr. Deen is to never give up, and to embrace our own uniqueness and talents. After all we are all gifted in our own way.

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