For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
Republic of Maldives
Area: 298 sq. km. (115 sq. mi.), over 1,100 islands; twice the size of Washington, DC.
Cities: Capital--Male' (pop. 70,000).
Terrain: Flat islands.
Climate: Hot and humid.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Maldivian(s).
Population (mid-year 2002): 280,000 (plus 31,000 expatriate laborers who are not counted in the census).
Population growth rate: 1.66%. Population growth rate has dropped dramatically in recent years.
Ethnic groups: South Indians, Sinhalese, Arabs.
Religion: Sunni Islam.
Languages: Dhivehi (official); many government officials speak English.
Education: Years compulsory--none. Attendance--primary (grades 1-5) 99%; secondary: (grades 6-10) 51%, (grades 11-12) 5%. Literacy--98%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--18/1,000. Life expectancy--73 years male; 74 years female.
Resident work force: Community, social and personal services--21%; manufacturing--13%; fishing--11%; tourism--11%; transport, storage, and communication--9%; other--35%.
Independence: July 26, 1965 (formerly a British protectorate).
Constitution: November 11, 1968.
Branches: Executive--president, cabinet. Legislative--unicameral Majlis (parliament). Judicial--High Court, Civil Court, Criminal Court, Family and Juvenile Court, and 204 general courts.
Administrative subdivisions: 19 atolls and capital city.
Political parties: None.
Suffrage: Universal at age 21.
GDP (2002): $639.5 million.
GDP growth rate: 6.0%.
Per capita GDP: About $2,279.
Inflation (2002): 0.9%.
Percentages of GDP (2002): Tourism--31%; distribution--14%; government--12%; manufacturing--9%; real estate--8%. fishing--7%; construction--3%; agriculture--3%; other--13%.
Trade (2002): Exports--$91 million: fish products, garments. Major markets--U.S., Sri Lanka, EU, Thailand, Japan (source: Maldives Customs Service). Imports--$393 million: oil, textiles and yarn, rice, cigarettes, cement, engines for boats, televisions, aircraft parts, prefabricated buildings, vegetables. Major suppliers--Singapore, Sri Lanka, EU, India, Malaysia, U.A.E.
PEOPLE, HISTORY, AND CULTURE
Maldives comprises 1,191 islands in the Indian Ocean. The earliest settlers were probably from southern India. Indo-European speakers followed them from Sri Lanka in the fourth and fifth centuries BC. In the 12th century AD, sailors from East Africa and Arab countries came to the islands. Today, the Maldivian ethnic identity is a blend of these cultures, reinforced by religion and language.
Originally Buddhists, Maldivians were converted to Sunni Islam in the mid-12th century. Islam is the official religion of the entire population. Strict adherence to Islamic precepts and close community relationships have helped keep crime low and under control.
The official and common language is Dhivehi, an Indo-European language related to Sinhala, a language of Sri Lanka. The writing system is from right to left. English is used widely in commerce and increasingly as the medium of instruction in government schools.
Some social stratification exists on the islands. It is not rigid, since rank is based on varied factors, including occupation, wealth, perceived Islamic virtue, and family ties. Members of the social elite are concentrated in Male'.
The early history of the Maldives is obscure. According to Maldivian legend, a Sinhalese prince named KoiMale was stranded with his bride--daughter of the king of Sri Lanka--in a Maldivian lagoon and stayed on to rule as the first sultan.
Over the centuries, the islands have been visited and their development influenced by sailors from countries on the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean littorals. Mopla pirates from the Malabar Coast--present-day Kerala state in India--harassed the islands. In the 16th century, the Portuguese subjugated and ruled the islands for 15 years (1558-73) before being driven away by the warrior-patriot Muhammad Thakurufar Al-Azam.
Although governed as an independent Islamic sultanate for most of its history from 1153 to 1968, the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 until July 25, 1965. In 1953, there was a brief, abortive attempt at a republican form of government, after which the sultanate was re-imposed. Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued to operate for another 3 years. On November 11, 1968, it was abolished and replaced by a republic, and the country assumed its present name.
There is growing concern about coral reef and marine life damage because of coral mining (used for building and jewelry making), sand dredging, and solid waste pollution. Mining of sand and coral have removed the natural coral reef that protected several important islands, making them highly susceptible to the erosive effects of the sea. The practices have recently been banned. In April 1987, high tides swept over the Maldives, inundating much of Male' and nearby islands. That event prompted high-level Maldivian interest in global climatic changes, as its highest point is about 8 feet above sea level. The Asian Brown Cloud, a U.S.-sized area of pollution over the Indian Ocean, has the potential of wreaking havoc on the tourism- and fishery-based Maldivian economy.
Investment in Education
The government expenditure for education was 18% of the budget in 2002. Both formal and nonformal education have made remarkable strides in the last decade. Unique to Maldives, modern and traditional schools exist side by side. The traditional schools are staffed by community-paid teachers without formal training and provide basic numeracy and literacy skills in addition to religious instruction.
The modern schools, run by both the government and private sector, provide primary and secondary education. As the modern English-medium school system expands, the traditional system is gradually being upgraded. By early 2003, every inhabited island was equipped to provide primary school education up through grade five. Fewer islands have secondary schools for grades 6 through 10, and the only high school (grades 11 and 12) in the Maldives is in Male'. Only around 5% of students go to high school, but literacy is high at 98%.
Seven post-secondary technical training institutes provide opportunities for youth to gain skills that are in demand. The World Bank has already committed $17 million for education development in 2000-04, and plans to commit further $15 million for human development and distance learning during this period. Over 2001-03, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) committed $7 million to support post-secondary education development in Maldives.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
A 1968 referendum approved the constitution, making Maldives a republic with executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The constitution was amended in 1970, 1972, and 1975 and is again under revision.
Ibrahim Nasir, Prime Minister under the pre-1968 sultanate, became President and held office from 1968 to 1978. He was succeeded by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was elected President in 1978 and reelected in 1983, 1988, 1993, 1998, and again in October 2003. The president heads the executive branch and appoints the cabinet. Nominated to a 5-year term by a secret ballot of the Majlis (Parliament), the president must be confirmed by a national referendum.
The unicameral Majlis is composed of 48 members serving 5-year terms. Two members from each atoll and Male' are elected directly by universal suffrage. Eight are appointed by the president. A special Majlis session began meeting in mid-2004 to review constitutional reform issues. Regularly scheduled Majlis elections are expected to take place in late 2004, although the exact date has not yet been finalized.
The Maldivian legal system--derived mainly from traditional Islamic law--is administered by secular officials, a chief justice, and lesser judges on each of the 19 atolls, who are appointed by the president and function under the Ministry of Justice. There also is an attorney general. Each inhabited island within an atoll has a chief who is responsible for law and order. Every atoll chief, appointed by the president, functions as a district officer in the British South Asian tradition.
Maldives has no organized political parties. Candidates for elective office run as independents on the basis of personal qualifications. On November 8, 1988, Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries tried to overthrow the Maldivian Government. At President Gayoom's request, the Indian military suppressed the coup attempt within 24 hours. In September 2003, following the death of an inmate, a brief prison riot broke out on an island near the capital Male'. Three other inmates were killed during the incident. In response to the killings of the inmates, brief rioting took place on the streets of Male'. In February 2004, the government prevented an opposition rally from taking place. Several people were arrested but they were all reportedly released later. The government also keeps a tight rein on any expression of Islamic extremism.
President Gayoom's commitment to introduce political reforms in June 2004 was widely welcomed. A human rights commission was established, and a Special Majlis or parliament was convened to consider changes in the constitution, including the legalization of political parties. In August, however, a demonstration in the capital turned violent and the government declared an emergency and arrested a large number said to be connected to the protest. Some of those arrested were prominent in the reform movement, including several members of the Special Majlis. Most were released a few months later.
The Maldives were badly hit by the Asian tsunami of December 26, 2004, which killed 82 and caused substantial damage to Maldives tourism, housing, and fishing infrastructure. The U.S. provided $1.6 million in immediate relief assistance. Despite the disaster, the Government of the Maldives held parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for December 31, on January 22, 2005. Reform candidates performed strongly. Following the poll, President Gayoom announced plans to establish multiparty democracy within a year.
Principal Government Officials
President--Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
Minister of Defense and National Security--Ismail Shafeeu
Minister of Finance and Treasury--Mohamed Jaleel
Minister of Home Affairs--Umar Zahir
Foreign Secretary--Hameed Zakariyya
The Maldivian economy is based on tourism and fishing. Of the Maldives' 1,191 islands, only 200 are inhabited. The population is scattered throughout the country, with the greatest concentration on the capital island, Male'. Limitations on potable water and arable land constrain expansion.
Development has been centered upon the tourism industry and its complementary service sectors, transport, distribution, real estate, construction, and government. Taxes on the tourist industry have been plowed into infrastructure and used to improve technology in the agricultural sector.
GDP in 2002 totaled $640 million or about $2,200 per capita. The Maldives has experienced relatively low inflation in recent years. Real GDP growth averaged about 10% in the 1980s. It expanded by an exceptional 16.2% in 1990, declined to 4% in 1993, grew to 10% in 1998 and has since leveled to the 5% to 7% range.
The Maldives has been running a merchandise trade deficit in the range of $200 to $260 million since 1997. The trade deficit declined to $208 million in 2002 from $233 million in 2001.
International shipping to and from the Maldives is mainly operated by the private sector with only a small fraction of the tonnage carried on vessels operated by the national carrier, Maldives Shipping Management Ltd. Over the years, the Maldives has received economic assistance from multilateral development organizations, including the UN Development Program (UNDP), Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank. Individual donors--including Japan, India, Australia, and European and Arab countries (including Islamic Development Bank and the Kuwaiti Fund)--also have contributed.
A 1956 bilateral agreement gave the United Kingdom the use of Gan--in Addu Atoll in the far south--for 20 years as an air facility in return for British aid. The agreement ended in 1976, shortly after the British closed the Gan air station.
Tourism. In recent years, Maldives has successfully marketed its natural assets for tourism--beautiful, unpolluted beaches on small coral islands, diving in blue waters abundant with tropical fish, and glorious sunsets. Tourism now brings in about $198 million a year. Tourism and related services contributed 31% of GDP in 2002.
Since the first resort was established in 1972, more than 87 islands have been developed, with a total capacity of some 19,000 beds. The number of tourists (mainly from Europe) visiting the Maldives increased from 1,100 in 1972 to 280,000 in 1994. In 2000, the number of tourist arrivals exceeded 466,000; although final figures are not yet available, the number is expected to top 500,000 for 2003. The average occupancy rate is 69%, with the average tourist staying 8 days and spending about $396.
Fishing. This sector employs about 11% of the labor force and contributes 7% of GDP or 10%, including fish preparation. The use of nets is illegal, so all fishing is done by line. Production was about 164,003 metric tons in 2002, most of which was skipjack tuna. About 50% is exported, largely to Sri Lanka, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and the European Union. Fresh, chilled, frozen, dried, salted, and canned tuna exports accounted for 84% of all marine product exports, split fairly evenly between the products. Total export proceeds from fish were about $56 million in 2002. The fishing fleet consists of some 1,647 small, flat-bottomed boats (dhonis). Since the dhonis shifted from sails to outboard motors, the annual tuna catch per fisherman rose from 1.4 metric tons in 1983 to 15.9 metric tons in 2002.
Agriculture. Poor soil and scarce arable land have historically limited agriculture to a few subsistence crops, such as coconut, banana, breadfruit, papayas, mangoes, taro, betel, chilies, sweet potatoes, and onions. Almost all food, including staples, has to be imported. Agriculture provides about 3% of GDP.
Industry and manufacturing. The industrial sector provides only about 9% of GDP. Traditional industry consists of boat building and handicrafts, while modern industry is limited to a few tuna canneries, five garment factories, a bottling plant, and a few enterprises in the capital producing PVC pipe, soap, furniture, and food products. The vast majority of Maldivian exports to the United States are garment products.
Maldives follows a nonaligned policy and is committed to maintaining friendly relations with all countries. The country has a UN Mission in New York, with the Permanent Representative to the UN in New York also accredited as Ambassador to the United States, an embassy in Sri Lanka and in the United Kingdom, a trade representative in Singapore, and a Tourist Information Bureau in Germany. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka maintain resident embassies in Male'. Denmark, Norway, the U.K., Germany, Turkey, and Sweden have consular agencies in Male' under the supervision of their embassies in Sri Lanka and India. The UNDP has a representative resident in Male', as do the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Like the United States, many countries have nonresident ambassadors accredited to the Maldives, most of them based in Sri Lanka or India. The Maldives is a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
U.S. MALDIVIAN RELATIONS
The United States has friendly relations with the Republic of Maldives. The U.S. Ambassador and some Embassy staff in Sri Lanka are accredited to the Maldives and make periodic visits. The United States supports Maldivian independence and territorial integrity and publicly endorsed India's timely intervention on behalf of the Maldivian Government during the November 1988 coup attempt. U.S. Naval vessels have regularly called at Male' in recent years. The Maldives extended strong support to U.S. efforts to combat terrorism and terrorist financing in 2001-02.
U.S. contributions to economic development in the Maldives have been made principally through international organization programs. Although no bilateral aid agreement exists between the two countries, the United States has directly funded training in airport management and narcotics interdiction and provided desktop computers for Maldivian customs, immigration, and drug-control efforts in recent years. The United States also trains a small number of Maldivian military personnel annually. About 10 U.S. citizens are resident in the Maldives; some 5,000 Americans visit the Maldives annually. The Maldives welcomes foreign investment, although the ambiguity of codified law acts as somewhat of a damper. Areas of opportunity for U.S. businesses include tourism, construction, and simple export-oriented manufacturing, such as garments and electrical appliance assembly. There is a shortage of local skilled labor, and most industrial labor has to be imported from Sri Lanka or elsewhere.
Principal U.S. Embassy Official
The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka is at 210 Galle Road, Colombo 3; tel: +94 (1) 244-8007; fax: +94 (1) 2437-345.