August 21, 2012, 1:54 pm
Source: CIA World Factbook
Content Cover Image

Malé, capital of Maldives. Source: Shahee Ilyas/Mediawiki Commons

Maldives is a nation composed of 1,190 coral islands grouped into 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean, south-southwest of India. There are 200 inhabited islands with nearly 400,000 people, plus 80 islands with tourist resorts. The island chain extends north-south for approximately 880 km (550 mi).

The Maldives are the exposed top of a long, narrow submarine ridge whose average height is 1 to 2 m (3 to 6 ft) above sea level. Most of the atolls have spacious, deep-water lagoons suitable for ship anchorage.


Source: NASA Visible Earth

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There is growing concern about coral reef and marine life damage because of coral mining (used for building and jewelry making), sand dredging, solid waste pollution, and climate change.

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 been banned in recent years.

In April 1987, high tides swept over the Maldives, inundating much of Male and nearby islands. The December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami inundated a number of islands, contaminating freshwater sources and damaging houses, soil, and groundwater. These events prompted high-level Maldivian interest in global climatic changes, as the country's highest point is about 8 feet (about 2.4 meters) above sea level.

Its major environmental issues include:

  • depletion of freshwater aquifers threatens water supplies; and,
  • global warming and sea level rise (The Maldives is arguably the lowest-lying country in the world, the average elevation is just 1 meter above sea level. Waves triggered by the great tsunami of December 2004 spilled over sea walls to flood Male with sand-clouded water and then swept out just as suddenly. Residents fear this was a foreboding of disasters to come from sea-level rise due to global warming.);
  • coral reef bleaching

The Maldives are susceptible to tsunamis.

It is an archipelago with strategic location astride and along major sea lanes in Indian Ocean.

A sultanate since the 12th century, the Maldives became a British protectorate in 1887. It became a republic in 1968, three years after independence.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom dominated the islands' political scene for 30 years, elected to six successive terms by single-party referendums. Following riots in the capital Male in August 2003, the president and his government pledged to embark upon democratic reforms including a more representative political system and expanded political freedoms. Progress was sluggish, however, and many promised reforms were slow to be realized. Nonetheless, political parties were legalized in 2005.

In June 2008, a constituent assembly - termed the "Special Majlis" - finalized a new constitution, which was ratified by the president in August. The first-ever presidential elections under a multi-candidate, multi-party system were held in October 2008. Gayoom was defeated in a runoff poll by Mohamed Nasheed, a political activist who had been jailed several years earlier by the former regime. President Nasheed faced a number of challenges including strengthening democracy and combating poverty and drug abuse.

In early February 2012, after several weeks of street protests following his sacking of a top judge, Nasheed resigned the presidency and handed over power to Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Maniku.

Maldives officials have played a prominent role in international climate change discussions (due to the islands' low elevation and the threat from sea-level rise) on the United Nations Human Rights Council, and in encouraging regional cooperation, especially between India and Pakistan.


Maldives, Lakshadweep and Chagos are three island groups in the Indian Ocean that together form a vast submarine mountain range, the Chagos-Laccadive Plateau. This volcanic range lies just east of the Mid-Indian Ridge and west of the Mid-Indian Basin. The Vema Fracture Zone lies underwater to the southeast of Chagos. The chain of islands are aligned north to south between 72°-74° E. Altogether, the Maldives-Lakshadweep-Chagos Archipelago comprises the most extensive coral reef and atoll community in the Indian Ocean as well as the largest atoll system in the world.

Location: Southern Asia, group of atolls in the Indian Ocean, south-southwest of India

Geographic Coordinates: 3 15 N, 73 00 E

Area: 298 sq km

Coastline: 644 km

Maritime Claims:

measured from claimed archipelagic straight baselines
territorial sea: 12 nm
contiguous zone: 24 nm
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm

Natural Hazards: tsunamis; low elevation of islands makes them sensitive to sea level rise

Terrain:  flat, with white sandy beaches. The highest point is unnamed location on Viligili in the Addu Atholhu (2.4 m).

Land Use:

arable land: 13.33%
permanent crops: 30%
other: 56.67% (2005)

Climate: tropical; hot, humid; dry, northeast monsoon (November to March); rainy, southwest monsoon (June to August)

Ecology and Biodiversity

Ecologically, the Malvives are included within the Maldives-Lakshadweep-Chagos Archipelago tropical moist forests ecoregion.

The Maldives-Lakshadweep-Chagos Archipelago is composed entirely of low atolls, associated coralline structures, and sandy islands, which have grown upon the crest of the submarine Chagos-Laccadive Ridge. Many islands compose each ring-shaped atoll, and the highest islands reach only 5 m above sea level. Therefore, smaller islands are often washed away or submerged with a small rise in sea level. The Maldivian atolls are a classic example of its kind, containing extensive and largely intact reefs, and comprising perhaps one of the world's most complex reef systems. The Chagos Archipelago has the largest expanse of undisturbed reefs in the Indian Ocean, as well as some of the most diverse. In addition to five atolls, including the Great Chagos Bank, the world's largest atoll in terms of area, there are two areas of raised reef and several large submerged reefs. There are no ancient rocks in the archipelago’s current geological structure. Exposed coral rock erodes into white coral sand that is shallow, alkaline, nutrient-poor, and that has low water retaining capacity. Generally, freshwater occurs about 1-3 m beneath the surface, floating above salt water. Though some of the islands have small lakes, fresh water can be a scarce resource.

The Maldives-Lakshadweep-Chagos Archipelago is an unusual sight viewed from the air. In this region of the Indian Ocean, many thin ring-shaped atolls stand out against blue ocean with their extensive reef system visibly spreading offshore. While it is this reef system that receives the majority of attention from the conservation community, the terrestrial portion of this system of thousands of islands serves as important habitat for several species. Many of the islands are major seabird rookeries and are also important turtle nesting areas. Two fruit bats and a few butterflies are endemic to the archipelago. Once covered in tropical rain forest, almost all native vegetation has been cleared.

People and Society

Population: 394,451 (July 2012 est.)

Ethnic Groups: South Indians, Sinhalese, Arabs

Age Structure:

0-14 years: 21.5% (male 43,332/female 41,642)
15-64 years: 74.4% (male 177,365/female 116,552)
65 years and over: 4.1% (male 7,888/female 8,220) (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: -0.127% (2012 est.)

Birthrate: 15.12 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Death Rate:  3.76 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)

Net Migration Rate: -12.64 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth: 74.69 years

male: 72.44 years
female: 77.05 years (2012 est.)

Total Fertility Rate: 1.79 children born/woman (2012 est.)

Languages: Dhivehi (official, dialect of Sinhala, script derived from Arabic), English (spoken by most government officials)

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write)93.8% (2006 Census)

Investment in Education: The government expenditure for education was 13.5% of GDP in 2011. Literacy in Maldives is high at 98%. Maldives has made great strides over the years in primary and lower secondary education, with 100% enrollment in the primary level (grades 1 to 7) since 2002. Secondary school enrollment has also improved significantly, with about 80% progressing to the secondary level. Lower secondary schools (grades 8 through 10) are located on all inhabited islands except for 5 that have less than 70 students. Only a small proportion of children leave school with a qualification, and "Ordinary level" pass rates (at the completion of grade 10) are low for those who opt to take the examination. Access to higher secondary schools (grades 11 and 12) has improved considerably over the years. In 2011, there were 38 higher secondary schools; at least one in each atoll except for two, and five in Male. Access to tertiary education is more limited. Although there is no gender bias for primary and lower secondary schools, there is a bias in favor of boys for upper secondary and tertiary education.

Urbanization: 40% of total population (2010) growing at an annual rate of change of 4.2% (2010-15 est.)


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. Close community relationships and a strict adherence to Islamic precepts have historically helped keep crime low and under control. However, a growing heroin addiction problem, the emergence of youth gangs, especially in Male, and partisan rifts have increased the crime rate and the incidence of street violence.

The official and common language is Dhivehi, which is 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 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 26, 1965, which is now annually marked as Independence Day. 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.

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, 1975, and again in 2008.

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.

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.

Under Gayoom, the government often prevented opposition rallies from taking place. Following riots in the capital Male in August 2003, the president and his government pledged to embark upon democratic reforms including a more representative political system and expanded political freedoms.

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 2004, 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.

Maldives was badly hit by the Asian tsunami of December 26, 2004, which killed 82 and caused substantial damage to Maldives tourism, housing, and fishing infrastructure. 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.

In June 2005, the members of the People's Majlis unanimously voted to legally recognize political parties. In order of registration the first parties were the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, the Dhivehi Raiyyethunge Party, the Adhaalath (Justice) Party, and the Islamic Democratic Party. More recently, a number of other parties formed, including the Social Liberal Party, the Maldivian National Congress, the Maldives Social Democratic Party, and the Republican Party. Some of these appear to have minimal public backing. In 2011, Gayoom left the DRP over disagreements with its President, Thasmeen Ali, and formed the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM). Throughout 2006, the opposition faced restrictions on freedom of assembly, and the government continued to arrest opposition activists. In March 2006, the government introduced a "Roadmap for Reform" and subsequently introduced several bills in parliament. In August 2007, voters decided via referendum that the Maldives' new constitution should provide for a presidential system of government (vice parliamentary). The special Majlis completed its work and the new constitution took effect in August 2008.

In accordance with the new constitution ratified by President Gayoom on August 7, 2008, the first round of presidential elections was held on October 10, 2008. As no candidate received 50% of the vote, a second round was held on October 29 between President Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed won with 54% of the vote. Members of parliament declared their political affiliations long before the October 2008 multiparty elections. Five opposition leaders were allowed to contest the presidential elections, and the principal opposition candidate was elected. President Nasheed is among the founders of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

President Nasheed, a former Amnesty International "prisoner of conscience," promised to further strengthen democracy and increase media freedom. During his campaign, Nasheed pledged that if elected, he would hold early presidential elections in the middle of his term. Nasheed’s proposals, however, have encountered fierce resistance from opposition parties and he has been unable to advance legislation in the Majlis. Several of his cabinet ministers faced “no confidence” votes.

President Nasheed was inaugurated on November 11, 2008 as head of the executive branch. Nasheed reduced the number of government ministries from 21 to 14, appointed a 14-member cabinet, and replaced the eight Majlis members appointed by his predecessor.

On January 16, 2012, the military detained senior Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed without a court warrant. Opposition parties protested the arbitrary detention of the judge for 22 nights in the capital Male. On February 7, 2012, after several hundred police officers refused orders in the Republic Square, and a hundred military officers joined the police, President Nasheed resigned on live television. Following his resignation, Vice President Dr. Mohamed Waheed was sworn in as president by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Ahmed Faiz in the presence of the Speaker of Parliament, Abdulla Shahid. On February 8, 2012, Nasheed claimed he was deposed in a military-led coup. A rally by the MDP on February 8 included violent confrontations between MDP supporters and the police. Since Nasheed’s resignation, the MDP has organized continuous rallies calling for an immediate presidential election, and blocked parliament for several weeks.

There has been a growing trend in Islamic conservatism since the advent of democracy and free speech.


Government Type: Republic

The current unicameral Majlis, elected in May 2009, is composed of 77 members serving 5-year terms. In February 2009, the Majlis passed legislation that increased the number of seats to 77 from 50. Election results were: DRP 36.8%, MDP 32.9 %, PA 9.2%, DQP 2.6% Republican Party 1.3%, independents 17.1%; seats by party--DRP 28, MDP 26, PA 7, DQP 2, Republican Party 1, independents 13. The next Majlis elections will be held in 2014.

Capital: Male - 120,000 (2009)

Administrative divisions: 7 provinces and 1 municipality*;


  1. Dhekunu (South)
  2. Mathi Dhekunu (Upper South)
  3. Mathi Uthuru (Upper North)
  4. Medhu (Central),
  5. Medhu Dhekunu (South Central)
  6. Medhu Uthuru (North Central)
  7. Uthuru (North)


  • Maale*

Independence Date: 26 July 1965 (from the UK)

Legal System:   The Maldivian legal system--a mixture of traditional Islamic and common-law principles--is administered by an attorney general, prosecutor general, secular officials, a chief justice, and lesser judges on each of the 19 atolls, who are appointed by the president. A new Supreme Court appointed by the previous President, Gayoom, took office in September 2008. Under the laws of the 2008 constitution, however, the judiciary has been subject to review by the Judicial Services Commission, and permanent Supreme Court justices were sworn in on August 10, 2010. High Court judges were appointed on March 27, 2011. Every inhabited island has a magistrate court.

Maldives has not submitted an International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdictiondeclaration; and, is non-party state to the International criminal court (ICCt) jurisdiction

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aerial view over Maldives. Source: Commonwealth Secretariat/Victoria Holdsworth

Aerial view over Maldives. Source: Commonwealth Secretariat/Victoria Holdsworth

Areal view of Male. Source: Commonwealth Secretariat/Victoria Holdsworth

Aerial view over Maldives. Source: Easa Shamih

Resort on Reethi Rah. Source: Sarah Ackerman

Addu Atoll, the southernmost atoll of the Maldives. Source: Nattu

Male. Source: Kalashri


There is growing concern about coral reef and marine life damage because of coral mining (used for building and jewelry making), sand dredging, solid waste pollution, and climate change. 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 been banned in recent years. In April 1987, high tides swept over the Maldives, inundating much of Male and nearby islands. The December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami inundated a number of islands, contaminating freshwater sources and damaging houses, soil, and groundwater. These events prompted high-level Maldivian interest in global climatic changes, as the country's highest point is about 8 feet (about 2.4 meters) above sea level.

International Environmental Agreements

Maldives is party to international agreements on: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer Protection, and Ship Pollution.

Foreign Relations

Maldives follows a nonaligned policy and is committed to maintaining friendly relations with all countries.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the country has a UN Mission in New York, embassies in the United States (the Ambassador to Washington is resident in New York), Sri Lanka, China, the United Kingdom, Bangladesh, India, Japan, Singapore, and Malaysia, as well as diplomatic missions in Geneva and Brussels.

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).

President Nasheed's skilled rhetoric and his consensus-building among smaller island nations brought global attention to Maldives at the December 2009 United Nations climate change conference. In March 2010, Maldives hosted a donor forum that yielded $313 million in pledges to the country from multilateral development banks, the European Union, and many nations including the United States.


Total Renewable Water Resources: 0.03 cu km (1999)

Freshwater Withdrawal:   0.003 cu km/yr (98% domestic, 2% industrial, 0% agricultural)

Per Capita Freshwater Withdrawal: 9 cu m/yr (1987)


The Maldivian economy is based on tourism and fishing. Economic growth has been powered mainly by tourism, the backbone of the economy, and its spinoffs in the transportation, communication, and construction sector. More than 700,000 tourists visit annually. Fishing remains an important part of the economy as well. The Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 devastated many islands. The Maldivian economy made a remarkable recovery, with a rebound in tourism and post-tsunami reconstruction.

Tourism, Maldives' largest economic activity, accounts for 28% of GDP and more than 60% of foreign exchange receipts. Over 90% of government tax revenue comes from import duties and tourism-related taxes.

Fishing is the second leading sector, but the fish catch has dropped sharply in recent years.

Agriculture and manufacturing continue to play a lesser role in the economy, constrained by the limited availability of cultivable land and the shortage of domestic labor. Most staple foods must be imported.

In the last decade, real GDP growth averaged around 6% per year except for 2005, when GDP declined following the Indian Ocean tsunami, and in 2009, when GDP shrank by 3% as tourist arrivals declined and capital flows plunged in the wake of the global financial crisis. Falling tourist arrivals and fish exports, combined with high government spending on social needs, subsidies, and civil servant salaries contributed to a balance of payments crisis, which was eased with a December 2009, $79.3 million dollar IMF standby agreement. However, after the first two disbursements, the IMF withheld subsequent disbursements due to concerns over Maldives' growing budget deficit. Maldives has had chronic budget deficits in recent years and the government's plans to cut expenditures have not progressed well.

A new Goods and Services Tax on Tourism (GST) was introduced in January 2011 and a new Business Profit Tax is to be introduced during the year. These taxes are expected to increase government revenue by about 25%.

The government has privatized the main airport and is partially privatizing the energy sector.

Tourism will remain the engine of the economy.

The Government of the Maldives has aggressively promoted building new island resorts. Due to increasing tourist arrivals, the government expects GDP growth around 4.0% in 2011.

Diversifying the economy beyond tourism and fishing, reforming public finance, and increasing employment opportunities are major challenges facing the government.

Over the longer term Maldivian authorities worry about the impact of erosion and possible global warming on their low-lying country; 80% of the area is 1 meter or less above sea level.

GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $2.754 billion (2011 est.)

GDP: (Official Exchange Rate): $2.1 billion (2011 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $8,400 (2011 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: 5.6%
industry: 16.9%
services: 77.5% (2009 est.)

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 $600 million a year. Tourism and related services contributed 29% of GDP in 2010. But its indirect contribution is much higher. As a result, tourism is the catalyst for growth. Since the first resort was established in 1972, more than 95 islands have been developed, with a total capacity of some 23,600 beds. Maldives has embarked on an ambitious tourism expansion plan; several resorts are under construction. However, resort expansion has not been planned very well. There is a glut of hotel rooms and several half-built resorts. Over 790,000 tourists (mainly from Europe) visited Maldives in 2010. The average occupancy rate is about 70%. Maldives had experienced capacity utilization rates of over 80%--reaching over 95% in the peak winter tourist season--prior to the new resort drive that began in 2008. Average tourist stay is 8 days.

Fishing. This sector employs about 11% of the labor force. The fisheries industry, including fish processing, traditionally contributes about 7% of GDP. Due to a drastic drop in the fish catch, the industry's contribution to GDP was only about 4% in 2008 and 3% in 2009. Fish export earnings were estimated at $80 million in 2009. The use of nets is illegal; all fishing is done by line. Production was about 100,000 metric tons in 2009, most of which was skipjack tuna. More than 40% is exported, largely to Sri Lanka, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and the European Union. Fresh, chilled, frozen, dried, salted, and canned tuna exports account for about 90% of all marine product exports.

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. The December 2004 tsunami inundated several agricultural islands with salt water, contaminating the groundwater. Some of these islands still do not have clean groundwater. Agriculture provides about 2.0% of GDP.

Manufacturing. The manufacturing sector provides less than 7% of GDP. Traditional industry consists of boat building and handicrafts, while modern industry is limited to a few tuna canneries, a bottling plant, and a few enterprises in the capital producing PVC pipe, soap, furniture, and food products. Five garment factories that had exported principally to the United States closed in 2005, following the expiration of the Multi-Fiber Arrangement (MFA) that had set quotas on developing country garment exports to developed countries. The loss of these factories has not proven an insurmountable hurdle, however, as most of the profits were repatriated and most of the labor was expatriate.

Other. The construction sector contributes approximately 6% of GDP.

Agricultural products: coconuts, corn, sweet potatoes; fish

Industries: tourism, fish processing, shipping, boat building, coconut processing, garments, woven mats, rope, handicrafts, coral and sand mining

Currency: Rufiyaa (MVR)




Administration, N., Agency, C., & Department, U. (2012). Maldives. Retrieved from


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