U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Maldives, June 1996
Released by the Bureau of Public Affairs
Official Name: Republic of Maldives
Area: 298 sq. km. (115 sq. mi.), over 1,200 islands; twice the size of
Cities: Capital--Male (pop. 62,000).
Terrain: Flat islands.
Climate: Hot and humid.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Maldivian(s).
Population growth rate: 3.3%.
Ethnic groups: South Indians, Sinhalese, Arabs.
Religion: Sunni Islam.
Languages: Dhivehi (official); many government officials speak
Education: Years compulsory--none. Attendance--primary 90%;
secondary 35%. Literacy--93%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--55/1000. Life expectancy--62 yrs.
Work force: Fishing--20%. Manufacturing--15%. Tourism--11%.
Independence: July 26, 1965 (formerly a British protectorate).
Constitution: November 11, 1968.
Branches: Executive--president, cabinet. Legislative--unicameral
Majlis (parliament). Judicial--High Court, eight lower courts, 19 atoll
Administrative subdivisions: 19 atolls and capital city.
Political parties: None.
Suffrage: Universal at age 21.
GDP (1995): $238 million.
GDP growth rate: 6.5%.
Per capita GDP: $940.
Percentages of GDP (1994): Distribution--19%. Tourism--18%.
Fishing--12%. Construction--9%. Government--9%. Agriculture--8%.
Trade (1994): Exports--$55 million: fish products, garments. Major
markets--Sri Lanka, U.K., U.S. Imports--$257 million: mineral
products, machinery, food including vegetables, textiles. Major
suppliers--Singapore, Sri Lanka, India, Hong Kong.
Official exchange rate: 11.67 rufiyaas=U.S.$1.
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 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.
U.S. contributions to economic development in Maldives have been
made principally though 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
Some 25 U.S. citizens are resident in Maldives; about 2,000 Americans
visit Maldives annually. Maldives welcomes foreign investment,
although the general lack of codified law acts as somewhat of a damper
to it. 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 Officials
Ambassador--A. Peter Burleigh (resident in Colombo, Sri Lanka)
The U.S. embassy in Sri Lanka is at 210 Galle Road, Colombo 3; tel:
94-1-448007; fax: 94-1-437345 or 94-1-446013.
Historical and Cultural Highlights
Maldives comprises some 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean. The
earliest settlers were probably from southern India, and they were
followed by Indo-European speakers 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
Originally Buddhists, Maldivians were converted to Sunni Islam in the
mid-12th century. Islam is the official religion of nearly the entire
population. Strict adherence to Islamic precepts and close community
relationships have helped keep crime under control.
The official and common 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 alphabets are
different. English is used widely in commerce and increasingly as the
medium of instruction in government schools.
Some social stratification exits on the islands. It is not rigid, since
is based on varied factors, including occupation, wealth, Islamic
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
Although governed as an independent Islamic sultanate for most of its
history from 1153 to 1968, Maldives was a British protectorate from
1887 until July 25, 1965. In 1953, there was a brief, abortive attempt
a republican form of government, after which the sultanate was
Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued
to operate for another three years. On November 11, 1968, it was
abolished and replaced by a republic, and the country assumed its
The Maldivian economy is predominantly based on tourism and
fishing. Of Maldives' 1,200 islands, only 198 are inhabited. The
population is scattered throughout the country, and the greatest
concentration is 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 also used to improve technology in the
GDP in 1995 totaled some $238 million, or about $940 per capita.
Inflation accelerated to 20% in 1993, but is now declining toward 10%.
Real GDP growth averaged about 10% in the 1980s. It expanded by an
exceptional 16.2% in 1990, declined to 4% in 1993, and has since
bounced back to the 6% to 7% range.
The merchandise trade deficit widened in 1994 to $202 million as
imports increased by 45% to $257 million and exports increased 4.3%
to $55 million.
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
Over the years, Maldives has received economic assistance from
multinational development organizations, including the UN
Development Program and the World Bank. Individual donors--
including Japan, India, Australia, and European and Arab countries--
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
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 $180 million a year and
contributed 18% of GDP in 1994.
Since the first resort was established in 1972, more than 70 islands
have been developed, with a total capacity of some 10,000 beds. The
number of tourists (mainly from Europe) visiting the Maldives
increased from 1,100 in 1972 to 280,000 in 1994. The hotel occupancy
rate is 68%, with the average tourist staying eight or nine days and
spending about $650.
Fishing. This sector employs about 20% of the labor force and
contributes 12% of GDP. The use of nets is illegal, so all fishing is
done by line. Production was about 104,000 metric tons in 1994, most
of which was skipjack tuna. About 80% is exported, largely to
Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Singapore. About 28% of the catch is dried or
canned, and another 5% is frozen; 54% of fresh fish is exported. Total
export proceeds from fish were about $40 million in 1994. The fishing
fleet consists of some 1,550 small, flat-bottomed boats (dhonis). Since
the dhonis have shifted from sails to outboard motors, the annual tuna
catch per fisherman has risen from 1.4 metric tons in 1983 to 4.5 in
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. Agriculture provides about 8% of GDP.
Industry. The industrial sector provides only about 6% 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
PVC pipe, soap, furniture, and food products.
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.
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, including the "greenhouse effect."
Investment in Education
The government expenditure for education was 18% of the budget in
1993, with 2,598 employees--1,900 of them teachers, and 450
expatriates. In 1993, there were 78,639 students in 265 institutions,
mainly primary schools.
Both formal and non-formal 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. There are only two public high schools in the
archipelago, one in Male and the other on the southern most island of
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 Nastier, Prime Minister under the pre-1968 sultanate, became
President and held office from 1968 to 1978. He was succeeded by
Mumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was elected President in 1978 and
reelected in 1983, 1988, and 1993.
The president heads the executive branch and appoints the cabinet.
Nominated to a five-year term by a secret ballot of the Majlis
(parliament), the president must be confirmed by a national
The unicameral Majlis is composed of 48 members serving five-year
terms. Two members from each atoll and Male are elected directly by
universal suffrage. Eight are appointed by the president.
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
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.
Maldives follows a nonaligned policy and is committed to maintaining
friendly relations with all countries. The country has a UN Mission in
New York and an embassy in Sri Lanka and trade representatives in
London and Singapore. India, Pakistan, 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 UNICEF and WHO. Like the
U.S., many countries have nonresident ambassadors accredited to the
Maldives, most of them based in Sri Lanka or India.
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program
provides Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel
Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that
Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Consular Information
Sheets exist for all countries and include information on immigration
practices, currency regulations, health conditions, areas of
crime and security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the
posts in the subject country. They can be obtained by telephone at
(202) 647-5225 or by fax at (202) 647-3000. To access the Consular
Affairs Bulletin Board by computer, dial (202) 647-9225, via a modem
with standard settings. Bureau of Consular Affairs' publications on
obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad are available from
the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may
be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202)
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at
(404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health advisories, immunization
recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking
water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health
Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-
95-8280, price $14.00) is available from the U.S. Government Printing
Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and
customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to
travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's
embassy and/or consulates in the U.S.
Upon their arrival in a country, U.S. citizens are encouraged to
at the U.S. embassy (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials" listing in
this publication). This may help family members contact you in case of
Further Electronic Information:
Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). Available by modem, the
CABB provides Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and
helpful information for travelers. Access at (202) 647-9225 is free of
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telecommunications software, and a telephone line.
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U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on a quarterly
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Priced at $80 ($100 foreign), one-year subscriptions include four discs
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or fax (202) 512-2250.
Federal Bulletin Board (BBS). A broad range of foreign policy
information also is carried on the BBS, operated by the U.S.
Government Printing Office (GPO). By modem, dial (202) 512-1387.
For general BBS information, call (202) 512-1530.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department
of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related
information, including Country Commercial Guides. It is available on
the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB
Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for more information.
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