Remembering Dr Ibrahim Umar Maniku
By David Keen
With the passing of Dr Ibrahim Umar Maniku, on 25 November 2020, Maldives has lost one of its favourite sons. Dr, as everyone knew him, was an anaesthesiologist by training and an entrepreneur in spirit. His contribution to Maldives is immeasurable. And his passion to serve his country and bring wealth, truth and a better lifestyle to the Maldivian people is without question.
To many in the Maldives, Dr was a mentor, a teacher, and a father figure. His loyalty to his team and his leaders could never be doubted. On the night of his passing, I talked to several of his leaders who spoke of losing a father. Dr Maniku was truly loved.
Ibrahim Umar Maniku was born in Male on 18 June 1952 to Ameena Hussain Kaleyfan and Umar Maniku. He studied at Trinity College in Kandy, Sri Lanka where he excelled in academics and was known as a star rugby player.
In 1972, he received a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Leipzig in what was then East Germany, where he first had to learn the language before completing his medical degree. He then worked at the Universitätsklinikum in Halle where he specialised in anaesthesiology. Dr met and married the mother of his two children, Karin, while at university. Sanjay was born in 1977 and Annika in 1980. The family returned to Maldives in 1982 and Dr became the first Maldivian anaesthesiologist at Male Central Hospital. He was integral to modernising the anaesthesiology department and through his connections in Germany, he enabled modern equipment to be donated to the hospital.
While Dr’s passion for medicine prevailed throughout his life, he had a natural entrepreneurial spirit. It was not long after his return to Maldives that Dr combined his scientific knowledge with that commercial yearning and founded the Male Aerated Water Company. I recall Dr sharing the story of how he recognised the immense demand from tourists for carbonated beverages and the expense of importing then Indian commercial labels.
Again, Dr leveraged his relationships in Germany and found a way to import the requisite machinery to create a small factory to produce carbonated beverages. He spent considerable time researching syrups, and shared the complexities and maintenance pitfalls of creating a factory on Icege in Male Atoll. Dr’s perseverance, immense knowledge of chemistry, and extraordinary attention to detail all came to the fore as the company became the franchise bottler for Coca-Cola in 1989.
Dr set up his first resort, Palm Tree Resort on Veligandhu Huraa in South Male Atoll in 1987. This island would eventually become the home of Naladhu and the neighbouring islands became Anantara Dhigu and Veli.
It was not until the next decade that Dr was fully drawn to the family business and Universal Enterprises and Resorts became central to his future. He was asked to take care of both Baros and Full Moon, and unquestionably Baros became his greatest passion and remained so throughout the remainder of his life.
I first met Dr on Baros in about 2004. He and the Universal board had made a shrewd investment in the development of Per AQUUM and its first two resorts; Huvafen Fushi and Dhoni Mighili. Huvafen had arguably changed the course of tourism in Maldives as the first independent island to achieve celebrity status and average room rates that previously were thought only obtainable by global management companies.
In inimitable style, Dr saw a similar opportunity for Baros. Until 2004, Baros was known predominantly as a dive resort. But Dr’s entrepreneurship, compulsive attention to detail, great sense of style and passionate management realised the new Baros, with its signature Lighthouse restaurant, entirely refurbished rooms and over-water villas. Today, Baros is arguably the most awarded resort in the Maldives and will always be Dr’s island.
It was at the 40th anniversary dinner of Baros where Dr’s true pride and love for his island came to the fore. Never have I seen him more proud than in front of his Universal family as well as the island’s closest business associates and its family of staff. At that dinner, Dr gave a speech:
“Baros is a small island… it has its own character. It is about longevity.
We gained real courage from Huvafen’s success. We realised that we too could create a strong, international brand. We could challenge all of the big brands and their considerable marketing armoury with our own small island resort.
And we have done that because we have stayed loyal to our brand—we have never wavered or tried to be something that we are not. We have remained absolutely loyal to our Maldivian roots. Maldives after all is our home and it is the market we at Universal know so well.”
Dr shied away from publicity throughout his career. He never sought the spotlight and always wanted his trusted ‘family’ to take the lead. The speech at this 40th Anniversary dinner was pivotal. He spoke from his heart and it is one of the rare occasions where he shared his pride publicly.
The success of Baros empowered Dr and gave him the confidence to build more resorts. It was Dr who, after selling his resort in Khao Lak, Thailand to the Minor Group, invited its chairman, Bill Heinecke and his team, to Maldives. Together they created a joint venture enabling the Anantara brand and other Minor concepts to proliferate in Maldives.
Dr’s belief and love for Per AQUUM and its philosophy encouraged him to develop Niyama in 2011 and with it the world’s first underwater club and bar. Along with the development of Niyama, Dr also invested in the domestic airport serving Niyama and later in Manta Air, a privately held seaplane operator that began flying in February 2019.
Dr’s passion for ultimate luxury was always his driving force. And in 2016, he opened Milaidhoo as a Universal Resort. I have a very personal memory from Milaidhoo. Dr and I shared, among many things, a love for football. And his love (and constant frustration) with Manchester Utd were the topic of weekly conversations. One weekend on Milaidhoo, Tottenham Hotspur (my team) was playing Utd. Dr asked Shuhan, his trusted cluster general manager, to set up a large screen for us to watch. And there on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Dr, Shuhan and I cheered the game like supporters at Old Trafford.
In 2017, Dr and his beloved Sanjay opened Kandima, an island imagined for a younger audience and one that held equal pride in Dr’s heart.
Dr often confided to me over countless dinners at The Lighthouse that he still believed, in spite of the growth in larger resort projects, that there was room in the market for a quintessential private resort designed for ultra-high-net-worth individuals.
And late in 2016, over long strategy sessions both in Maldives and his favoured Grand Hyatt on Scotts Road in Singapore, The Nautilus was born. A concept envisaged for years by Dr, The Nautilus was a resort with mansion-like villas and extraordinary space. Superbly designed. No detail overlooked. Experiences where time was to stand still for its occupants. Where no request was too much and any guest could ask for anything at any time of day and night.
In 2018, The Nautilus launched. And today it has been recognised and awarded globally. Dr confided that Nautilus would be his swansong. It was to be his final resort. We celebrated Dr’s 66th birthday on the beach at The Nautilus. His smile and his pride were there for the privileged few to see.
Dr Maniku’s legacy is that of a pioneer. A visionary who had the confidence and wherewithal to build where most would say is not possible. He never wavered from his vision and he would never settle for anything less than perfection.
Dr will always be remembered for the change he both imagined and realised in Maldives. But as I mentioned earlier, there are a few of his closest confidants that feel his loss in a much more personal way. To them, Dr was a father figure. He was their guiding light and he trusted them and they him with a familial love that cannot be replicated.
Note: David Keen is the CEO of QUO, a collective of creatives with global hospitality expertise. From its Bangkok headquarters and global offices in Ho Chi Minh, Singapore, New Delhi, the Maldives and Amsterdam, QUO provides branding services that uncover the soul of every organisation we work with.
Cover photo: Dr Ibrahim Umar Maniku (right) and senior members of The Nautilus team. PHOTO: HOTELIER MALDIVES