Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is the only South Asian leader who has attended all 14 SAARC summits so far and is justifiably proud of this singular achievement.
"I am the only leader present here who has attended all the 14 summits," Gayoom said to ringing applause from SAARC leaders and an audience of diplomats, politicians and officials at the opening session of the two-day 14th SAARC summit that began here on Tuesday.
For a man who has seen it all right from the first SAARC summit in Dhaka in 1985, and the period of big talk and little action for over two decades, Gayoom was surprisingly optimistic about the brave new future of SAARC.
"SAARC is now on the threshold of a new dawn, which opens up new vistas of closer integration, global partnerships and a more robust regional identity," Gayoom said.
Gayoom, Asia's longest-serving leader who has shepherded his country for nearly three decades, underlined a "market plus approach" to regional cooperation that would entail greater networking among private enterprises of the region.
Most importantly, Gayoom vigorously espoused "a people-centric SAARC" based on accelerated physical, economic and mental connectivity.
"Consolidation must go hand in hand with renewal. SAARC must become more dynamic and forward-looking. It must become less of a monopoly of governments and belong more to the people," he said.
"SAARC belongs to over 1.4 billion people. It must have a people-centric foundation," he said while pushing Maldives' idea of a social charter to achieve this objective.
Gayoom, a poet and an Islamic scholar, couldn't resist quoting from the Quran. "Never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change themselves," he told South Asian leaders.