Background Notes: Maldives

PA/PC Source: Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs Date: Feb 15, 19902/15/90 Category: Country Data Region: South Asia Country: Maldives Subject: Cultural Exchange, Resource Management, Military Affairs, History, International Organizations, Trade/Economics [TEXT] Official Name: Republic of Maldives


Area: 298 sq. km. (115 sq. mi.) spread over 1,200 islands; twice the size of Washington, D.C. Cities: Capital-Male (pop. 52,000). Terrain: Flat islands. Climate: Hot and humid. People Nationality: Noun and adjective-Maldivian(s). Population (1988): 200,000. Annual growth rate (1977-85): 3.2%. Density: About 664 per sq. km. (1,721 per sq. mi.). Ethnic groups: South Indians, Sinhalese, Arabs. Religion: Sunni Islam. Languages: Dhivehi; many government officials speak English. Education: Years compulsory- none. Attendance-primary, 61%; secondary, 19%. Literacy-93%. Health: Infant mortality rate-108/1,000. Life expectancy-53 yrs. Work force (60,000): Agriculture, fishing, manufacturing-60%. Services and government-40%.
Type: Republic. Constitution: June 4, 1964. Independence: July 26, 1965. Branches: Executive-president, cabinet. Legislative-unicameral Majlis. Judicial-High Court, 8 lower courts, 19 atoll courts. Administrative subdivisions: 19 atolls and capital city. Political parties: None. Suffrage: Universal adult. Central government budget (1987): 39% of GDP. Flag: A white crescent centered in a green rectangle on a red field.
GDP (1987): $95 million. Annual growth rate (1987): 9%. Per capita GDP (1987): $494. Inflation (1987): 23%. Domestic economy (1987): Tourism (17% of GDP); fishing (16% of GDP); agriculture (11% of GDP); industry (6% of GNP). Trade (1987): Exports-$35 million: fish products, garments. Major markets-U.S., Thailand, Sri Lanka. Imports-$74 million: manufactured goods, machinery and equipment, food products. Major suppliers-Singapore, Thailand, India. Official exchange rate (1988): 8.6 rufiyaas=U.S.$1. Fiscal year: Calendar year. Aid received (1987): $13 million. Primary donors-World Bank, UN Development Program, Saudi und, Kuwaiti Fund, Japan, Norway. U.S. aid (1987)-$500,000.
Membership in International Organizations:
UN and some of its specialized and related agencies, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Colombo Plan, Commonwealth, Group of 77, Nonaligned Movement, Islamic League, Asian Development Bank, Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).


The Republic of Maldives is located in the northern Indian Ocean. Its capital, Male, is an island about 2.6 square kilometers (1 sq. mi.), 670 kilometers (415 mi.) southwest of Sri Lanka. The Maldives are a chain of 19 atolls extending 764 kilometers (502 mi.) from north to south. The archipelago is 120 kilometers (74 mi.) wide at its widest point. Its southern tip is 644 kilometers (400 mi.) from Diego Garcia. The atolls comprise 1,200 coral islands, which seldom exceed an elevation of 2 meters (6 ft.) above sea level. No island is larger than 13 square kilometers (5 sq. mi.). Tropical vegetation varies from grass and scrub to dense groves of fruit trees and coconut palms. The climate is equatorial, hot and humid, with little daily variation. The average temperature is 27 C (80 F), with a relative humidity of 80%. Most of the area is subject to the "wet" southwest monsoon (May-October) and the "dry" northwest monsoon (December-March). Annual rainfall averages 254 centimeters (100 in.) in the north and 281 centimeters (150 in.) in the south. PEOPLE Of the 1,200 islands, 202 are inhabited. The population is scattered throughout the country, with the greatest concentration on the capital island, Male. Only four islands have a population of more than 3,000. Although most islands are uninhabited, absence of potable water and arable land limits population expansion. The earliest settlers were probably from southern India, speaking languages of the Dravidian family. They were followed by Indo-European speakers from Sri Lanka in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. In the 12th century, sailors from Arab countries and East Africa came to the islands. Today, Maldivian ethnic consciousness is a strong 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 and that of the entire population. Strict adherence to Islamic precepts and close community relationships have kept crime under control. The official language is Dhivehi, an Indo-European language related to Sinhala, the language of Sri Lanka. The writing system, like Arabic, is from right to left, although the alphabets are different. Vocabulary is overwhelmingly Maldivian. Some social stratification exists on the islands. It is not rigid, since rank is based on varied factors, including occupation, wealth, 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. The islands were governed as a sultanate from 1153 to 1968 with only two exceptions-15 years of Portuguese rule in the 16th century and a short-lived republican government in 1953. Over the centuries, the islands were visited and 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 islands were plagued by Portuguese raiders, who eventually were driven away by the warrior-patriot Muhammad Thakurufar Al-Azan. Although independent for most of its history, Maldives was ruled by Portugal from 1558 to 1573 and were a British protectorate from 1887 until July 26, 1965. On November 11, 1968, the sultanate was abolished, and the country assumed its present name. Ibrahim Nassir, prime minister under the sultanate, was president from 1968 to 1978. He was succeeded by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was elected president in 1978, 1983, and 1988. A 1956 bilateral agreement gave the United Kingdom the use, for 20 years, of Gan (in Addu Atoll) in the far south as an air facility in return for British aid. The agreement ended in 1976, shortly after the British closed the Gan air station. In April 1987, high tides that swept over Maldives, destroying much of Male and nearby islands, prompted high-level Maldivian interest in global climactic changes, including the "greenhouse effect." On November 3, 1988, Maldives was rocked when Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries attempted to overthrow the government. At President Gayoom's request, the Indian military suppressed the coup attempt within 24 hours. In early 1989, 68 mercenaries and 6 Maldivians implicated in the attempt were tried.


A 1968 referendum approved the work of a special parliament, and Maldives became a republic with executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The constitution was amended in 1970, 1972, and 1975, and has been under revision since 1981. The president presides over 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 Majlis member can be elected in the middle of a session and complete the 5-year term in the following session. 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 is administered by an atoll chief, appointed by the president, who 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.
Principal Government Officials
President; Minister of Defense and National Security; Minister of Finance-Maumoon Abdul Gayoom Ministers Atolls Administration-Abdulla Hameed Education-Muhammad Zahir Hussain Fisheries and Agriculture-Abdulla Jameel Foreign Affairs-Fathulla Jameel Health and Welfare-Abdul Sattar Moosa Didi Home Affairs and Sports-Umar Zahir Justice-Muhammad Rasheed Ibrahim Planning and Environment-vacant Public Works and Labor-Abdulla Kamaludeen Tourism-Ahmed Mujathaba Trade and Industries-Ilyas Ibrahim Transport and Shipping-Abbas Ibrahim Attorney General-Ahmed Zaki


`The Maldivian economy is based on tourism and fishing. Poor soil and unavailable arable land limit agriculture to a few subsistence crops. Traditional industry consists of boatbuilding and handicrafts, while modern industry is restricted to a cannery and a few garment factories and consumer products. Fishing employs about one-third of the labor force. Production was more than 60,000 metric tons in 1988, most of which was skipjack and yellowfin tuna. More than one-half of the annual harvest is frozen, canned, or dried and exported to Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other countries. In recent years, Maldives successfully has marketed its natural assets for tourism - beautiful beaches on small coral islands, blue waters abundant with tropical fish, and glorious sunsets. Since the first resort was established in 1972, 58 resort hotels have been developed-each on its own island-with a capacity of about 7,300 beds. The number of tourists-mainly from Europe and Japan-visiting the Maldives increased from 1,100 in 1972 to 155,758 in 1988. To facilitate tourism, Male International Airport has been expanded to accommodate wide-bodied aircraft. In early 1989, six international airlines-as well as charter companies- serviced Male. Maldivians traditionally have been good sailors. The national carrier, Maldives National Ship Management Ltd., operates a fleet of about 13 vessels-down from nearly 40 in the early 1980s-serving many worldwide destinations. In 1987, Maldives had a balance-of-trade deficit of $39 million. Because of large earnings from tourism, however, the current account was in balanced. Import duties, taxes on tourism, and foreign grants are Maldives' largest sources of revenue. Inflation was high, at 23%, chiefly because a major currency devaluation in 1987 led to increased import prices. Preliminary data for 1988 show the cost of living declining. Four factories-three on the site of the former Royal Air Force Base on Gan Island-export apparel to the United States. A fish canning factory also has become a source of foreign exchange. Over the years, Maldives has received economic assistance from multinational development organizations, including the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank. Individual donors, including Japan and European and Arab countries, also have contributed. The United States has furnished assistance through the PL 480 program, most recently in 1987.


Maldives follows a nonaligned policy and is committed to maintaining friendly relations with all countries. Maldives has a UN mission in New York and an embassy in Sri Lanka. India, Sri Lanka, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Pakistan currently maintain resident embassies in Male. The United States, West Germany, Bangladesh, and France have consular agencies in Male under the supervision of their embassies in Colombo. The UNDP has a representative resident in Male. Many countries have nonresident ambassadors accredited to the Maldives, most of them based in Sri Lanka or India.


The United States has friendly relations with the Republic of Maldives. The U.S. Ambassador and most embassy staff in Sri Lanka are accredited to Maldives and make periodic visits. The U.S. consular agent in Male provides limited consular assistance to U.S. visitors. 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. U.S. contributions to economic development in Maldives have been made principally through international organization programs. Although no aid agreement exists between the two countries, the United States has indirectly funded training for Maldivian civilians abroad. The United States also trains a small number of Maldivian military personnel annually. The United States provided $2.75 million in wheat through the PL 480 Program from 1985 to 1987 and donated $25,000 in disaster relief during April 1987 high tides. The U.S. Consular Agency in Male is located at Mahdu Edurage, 20-05 Violet Magu, Henveru, Male (tel. 322581, telex 66028).


Customs: Visas are not required of foreigners who stay up to 30 days. Unlimited amounts of foreign currency may be taken into or out of the country. Visitors wishing to convert rufiyaas into dollars upon departure must have proof that the rufiyaas were obtained for dollars. The import of pork and alcohol is prohibited. Health: Medical facilities are adequate by Third World standards. Male has a modern 48-bed hospital, and there are medical rescue services in the atolls. Valid immunizations against yellow fever may be required; check latest information. All islands except Male pose a malaria risk. Telecommunications: International telephone, telegraph, and telex services generally are reliable. Telephone service within Male is adequate, but the service connecting Male to the resort islands is sometimes erratic. Male is 10 hours ahead of eastern standard time. Transportation: Six airlines service the Maldives. Boats are the primary means of transport between the islands. Limited taxi service is available in Male. Tourist attractions: Maldives have some of the world's most beautiful beaches, excellent snorkling, scuba diving, wind surfing, and fishing.
Further Information
These titles are provided as a general indication of material published on this country. The Department of State does not endorse unofficial publications. Hockly, Thomas William. The Two Thousand Isles-A Short Account of the People, History, and Customs of the Maldive Archipelago. London: 1935. Maldives Ministry of External Affairs. The Maldive Islands. Colombo: Gunasena, 1952. Maloney, Clarence. People of the Maldives Islands. Bombay: Longman Orient, 1980. Maldives Ministry of Planning and Development. Statistical Year Book of Maldives (annual). Male: Government of the Maldives. Heyerdhal, Thor. The Maldives Mystery. Bethesda, Md.: Adler ∧ Adler, 1986. Available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. American University. Indian Ocean: Five Island Countries. Area Handbook Series, 1983. Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington, D.C.-- February 1990 Editor: Juanita Adams Department of State Publication 8026-- Background Notes Series -- This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402 (###)