Background Notes: Maldives

Contributed By RealAdventures

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 language.

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 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.

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, 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 reimposed.

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 present name.

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 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 referendum.

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 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.

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 agricultural sector.

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 Management Ltd.

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 return for British aid. The agreement ended in 1976, shortly after the British closed the Gan air station.

Economic Sectors

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 1993.

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 producing PVC pipe, soap, furniture, and food products.

Environmental Concerns

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 Gan.

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.

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 annually.

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.

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.

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