Now rounding on his 40th year since joining the maritime industry, Captain Abdullah Saeed, the Managing Director of Maldives State Shipping (MSS), is a man unafraid of facing a challenge head-on. In two short years, he has taken MSS from new beginnings to swift evolution into a crucial, timely, and dependable national resource network. He described this best in his own words during our conversation, stating that “In two short years of service, MSS has proven that the Maldives could easily become a successful maritime nation again.”
Capt Saeed began his career in the maritime industry fresh from his O’Levels, at a time when students had to serve a bond to the Government after completing education in a government school. He ended up getting recruited as a Clerk at Maldives Shipping Limited (MSL) and was offered the opportunity to serve on board a ship if he was willing to study. Naturally, Capt Saeed happily took the opportunity. He started with navigation and rose through the ranks, moving on to working at a European shipping company, eventually specialising in LPG and LNG.
“I had the opportunity to command an LPG tanker for the first time in the Maldives,” Capt Saeed reminisced. “Actually it was the only LPG tank that had been in the Maldives; we still don’t have another.”
Capt Saeed decided to switch to a shore after 12 years at sea and went on to study capital markets, this time specialising in corporate bonds or derivatives, first in India and then through the Securities Institute of Australia. He worked on critical projects geared towards national socioeconomic progress, such as his active involvement in setting up the Maldives Stock Exchange and his key role in bringing modern democracy to the Maldives. Capt Saeed was one of the few people who, along with Former President and current Speaker of Parliament, H.E President Nasheed, spearheaded the inception and registration of MDP, the first. and now also the largest political party in the Maldives. In the first democratically elected Government of the Maldives, Capt Saeed served as the Cabinet Secretary at the President’s Office, and then later, running operations of STO Singapore. That second instance was back in 2012; after the coup, he was discharged. After almost 10 years of working abroad, Capt Saeed returned to the Maldives, at first acting in a solely advisory role to the Government. He served as a consultant for State Trading Organisation (STO) towards reviving the old Maldives national shipping.
“I just did a technical report, and one of the recommendations I gave may have triggered the formation of MSS. My thought was that carrying third-party cargo was new to STO, they usually only carry oil. So their experience is their own cargo. When dealing with external cargo, claims will come and they could face a situation where the whole company is litigated. So to avoid that, one way to go about it is to create a subsidiary so the parent company is protected. The board ruminated on this, and I’m sure, many other reasons, and ended up deciding to create MSS as a subsidiary.”
Capt Saeed was appointed to fill the crucial role of Managing Director of MSS, which he accepted readily. The notion that he, along with his exceptional team, could revive the shipping industry in the Maldives, and that we could return to our long-forgotten roots as a maritime nation, was one that Capt Saeed wanted to see to fruition. The rest is a story of triumph unfolding over only a few years.
In two years, we have managed to capture the Maldives-Colombo sector, and we are serving from the Middle East and the Far East too
In one sense, we are the largest fleet now because there is no other fleet. You obviously can’t compare with the status we had earlier, but we are on the right track, I think. MSS managed to make a profit without being dependent on government subsidy, aid, or financing- we are totally independent, and on top of that we acquired assets; two container vessels and 1 bulk carrier.”
The primary goal of MSS right now, according to Capt Saeed, is to serve the needs of the Maldivian people. They are aiming to provide their services to all the industries in the Maldives. Under Capt Saeed’s leadership, the company became a crucial resource for the Maldives during the pandemic, bringing in the PPE, gloves and medical disposables when they were most urgently needed. They successfully delivered the goods in time and the entire country benefited from it greatly. In addition to this, MSS was the company transporting the staples like rice and flour to the Maldives at a time when a shortage of food was, while not a reality, an irrational fear growing stronger within the public. After vaccines were made available, MSS implemented the cold chain by manufacturing specialised refrigerated containers for transport due to a lack of personnel who were familiar with it back in 2020. MSS provided what was needed, even though it may not have technically fallen under their purview, a testament to their dedication to serving the nation.
I am really proud that MSS, even in the most infant stage, played a key role in managing the pandemic.
With all staff working from home, with seafarers stuck at sea in random places all over the world unable to go home, we still managed to serve the whole country. And I am proud of turning this startup into a profitable venture within only two years, despite the difficulties of the pandemic. I would consider these to be major achievements.”
“Since we’re on the subject of the pandemic, depending on one industry, in my opinion, is rather silly, and it’s high time more is done to develop other industries in the Maldives. We have had bad experiences from being solely tourism-dependent a few times already; the 2004 tsunami, the economic crisis, and more recently, the covid pandemic. Why not also increase investment in another sector? Shipping is something we have already had the experience of operating.”
Bringing back the days of old when the Maldives was a key maritime nation is one of his main motivations and the dream that Capt Saeed continues to pursue. He, in fact, credited it as one of the reasons why he was so grateful for the opportunity to try to revive the shipping industry in the Maldives again as the MD of MSS.
“I always believed that with our geography and location, we could become a maritime nation for the benefit of our people, not just for the name. Commercially, the economic impact would be significant. We were the biggest maritime nation in Asia as per historical records. Reliable historians like Pyrard, Bell and Ibn Battuta have all noted that the Maldives had a very vivid maritime history. We were a maritime power, even militarily, at the time.
I’ll give you just a small example. Did you know writers used to describe the Maldives as the ‘toll gate of the Indian ocean’ in old texts?”
According to Capt Saeed, global east-to-west traffic, those travelling from Europe to Asia or from the Persian Gulf to the Far East, all of them went right through the Maldives. “They all used Uligamu as a marker, so if the country had had the foresight to build a port there, we would be like Singapore right now. Instead of looking at something new, we could easily develop Shipping as our second major industry. This is an opportunity waiting to be seized, and offering so many opportunities for young people to build fulfilling and high-paying careers.”
Under Capt Saeed’s guidance, MSS has taken an active role in trying to build human resources for the maritime industry from within the Maldives itself. They educate and encourage young people to learn about the many different career paths available as mariners and workers in the shipping industry. They offer fully-funded scholarships and extremely generous remuneration packages, leagues higher than anything offered in other industries.
“MSS has an incredible team who are all as motivated as I am to see this done. We do a lot of in-house training, and we are looking for school leavers to join our fleet and become officers. We are not looking for people to join lower-level jobs, we want to train them as much as they wish to be trained, and help them progress as far up the ladder as they want to. When I left school and came to know of this career path, I thought it was good and it’s proven to be good. Similarly, I am sure there are students now who haven’t yet decided what to do with their lives. If they can get a chance to understand these prospects as I did, I think we can help them build bright futures.”
He also pointed out that while MSS is aiming to inspire a new generation of young people to take up a career at sea, it’s not the only option. A lot of Maldivians still think that shipping must mean only working on a ship, not quite grasping the broadness of what running a shipping operation means.
“We need a lot more people willing to study and come onboard. When you run a shipping company you don’t just need Captains, you need litigators, lawyers, insurance officers, cargo brokers, documentation officers, and even software developers – all jobs that don’t require working aboard a ship. If you are a young person who loves the environment and wants to actively do something to protect it, that is also an option in the maritime industry. You can come and help us figure out ways to reduce our emissions, clean up the maritime industry, and help make us greener.”
As our conversation neared its end, Capt Saeed moved on to his vision for the future.
I think the scope for MSS is not limited to the Maldives. Shipping is worldwide and you can expand anywhere in the world.
If you’re in tourism and you’re in the Maldives, you are promoting the Maldives. If you set up in say, Colombo, you have to start fresh. But shipping is different, it’s a global industry. You can continue to expand anywhere in the world and you can specialise in any way. What I want to see is for MSS to become a global company where we are serving in many sectors, not limited to Asia or the Maldives.”
My final question for Capt Saeed was a simple one, whether he enjoyed the work he was doing now in trying to return the Maldives to our seafaring origins, and his answer again came without missing a beat.
“I love the sea. I love ships. I love mariners, I am one, after all. I served at sea for more than 20 years. So yes, I love my job. And I believe the Maldives is a maritime nation, and that we should be all proud of that.”