also called Maldive Islands
Archipelago country, north-central Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka.
It is a chain of about 1,200 small coral islands and sandbanks (some
200 of which are inhabited), grouped in clusters, or atolls. Area
(land): 115 sq mi (298 sq km). The islands extend more than 510 mi (820
km) north-south and 80 mi (130 km) east-west. Population (2008 est.):
386,000. Capital: Male (Male’). The population is ethnically mixed;
ancestors include Dravidian and Sinhalese peoples as well as Arabs,
Chinese, and others from surrounding Asian areas. Languages: Dhivehi (or
Maldivian; official), Arabic. Religion: Islam (official; predominantly
Sunni). Currency: rufiyaa. All the islands are low-lying, none rising
more than 6 ft (1.8 m) above sea level. The atolls have sandy beaches,
lagoons, and a luxuriant growth of coconut palms, together with
breadfruit trees and tropical bushes. One of the world’s poorest
countries, the Maldives has a developing economy based on fishing,
tourism, boatbuilding, and boat repairing. It is a republic with one
legislative house; its head of state and government is the president.
The archipelago was settled in the 5th century bce by Buddhists probably
from Sri Lanka and southern India; according to tradition, Islam was
adopted in 1153. The Portuguese held sway in Male in 1558–73. The
islands were a sultanate under the Dutch rulers of Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
during the 17th century. After the British gained control of Ceylon in
1796, the area became a British protectorate, a status formalized in
1887. The islands won full independence from Britain in 1965, and in
1968 a republic was founded and the sultanate abolished. The Maldives
joined the British Commonwealth in 1982. Its economy has gradually
improved, aided by the growth of tourism. In 2004 the archipelago was
damaged by a large tsunami.
Official name Dhivehi Raajjeyge Jumhooriyyaa (Republic of Maldives)
Form of government multiparty republic1 with one legislative house
(People’s Majlis )
Head of state and government President
Official language Dhivehi (Maldivian)
Official religion Islam
Monetary unit rufiyaa (Rf)
Population estimate (2008) 386,0004
Total area (sq mi) 115
Total area (sq km) 298
1New constitution ratified on August 7, 2008; first multiparty election
held in October 2008.
2Also spelled Maale and Male’.
also called Maldive Islands
independent island country consisting of a chain of about 1,200 small
coral islands and sandbanks (some 200 of which are inhabited), grouped
in clusters, or atolls, in the north-central Indian Ocean. The islands
extend more than 510 miles (820 km) from north to south and 80 miles
(130 km) from east to west. The northernmost atoll is about 370 miles
(600 km) south-southwest of the Indian mainland, and the central area,
including the capital island of Male (Male’), is about 400 miles (645
km) southwest of Sri Lanka.
The Maldive Islands are a series of coral atolls built up from
the crowns of a submerged ancient volcanic mountain range. All the
islands are low-lying, none rising to more than 6 feet (1.8 metres)
above sea level. Barrier reefs protect the islands from the destructive
effects of monsoons. The rainy season, from May to August, is brought by
the southwest monsoon; from December to March the northeast monsoon
brings dry and mild winds. The average annual temperature varies from 76
to 86 °F (24 to 30 °C). Rainfall averages about 84 inches (2,130 mm) per
year. The atolls have sandy beaches, lagoons, and a luxuriant growth of
coconut palms, together with breadfruit trees and tropical bushes. Fish
abound in the reefs, lagoons, and seas adjoining the islands; sea
turtles are caught for food and for their oil, a traditional medicine.
The Maldivians are a mixed people, speaking an Indo-European
language called Dhivehi (or Maldivian; the official language); Arabic,
Hindi, and English are also spoken. Islam is the state religion. The
first settlers, it is generally believed, were Dravidian and Sinhalese
peoples from southern India and Sri Lanka. Traders from Arab countries,
Malaya, Madagascar, Indonesia, and China visited the islands through the
centuries. With the exception of those living in Male, the only
relatively large settlement in the country, the inhabitants of the
Maldives live in villages on small islands in scattered atolls. Only
about 20 of the islands have more than 1,000 inhabitants, and the
southern islands are more densely populated than the northern ones. The
birth rate for the Maldives is somewhat higher than the world average,
but the death rate is lower. About one-third of the total population is
under 15 years of age.
One of the poorest countries in the world, the Maldives has a
developing economy based on fishing, tourism, boatbuilding, and boat
repairing. The gross national product (GNP) per capita is among the
lowest in the world. Most of the population subsists outside a money
economy on fishing, coconut collecting, and the growing of vegetables
and melons, roots and tubers (cassava, sweet potatoes, and yams), and
tropical fruits. Cropland, scattered over many small islands, is
minimal, and nearly all of the staple foods must be imported. Fishing,
the traditional base of the economy, continues to be the most important
sector, providing employment for approximately one-fourth of the labour
force as well as accounting for a major portion of the export earnings.
Tuna is the predominant fish caught, mostly by the pole-and-line method,
although a good deal of the fishing fleet has been mechanized. Most of
the fish catch is sold to foreign companies for processing and export.
The Maldives national shipping line forms the basis of one of the
country’s commercial industries. Tourism is a fast-growing sector of the
economy. Resort islands and modern hotels in Male have attracted
increasing numbers of tourists during the winter months. Industries are
largely of the handicraft or cottage type, including the making of coir
(coconut-husk fibre) and coir products, boatbuilding, and construction.
Imports include consumer goods such as food (principally rice),
textiles, medicines, and petroleum products. Fish—mostly dried, frozen,
or canned skipjack tuna—accounts for the bulk of exports. The United
States, Sri Lanka, and Singapore are among the main trading partners.
Boats provide the principal means of transport between the atolls, and
scheduled shipping services link the country with Sri Lanka, Singapore,
and India. There is a national airline, and the airport at Male handles
Government and society
The constitution of the Maldives was adopted in 2008. The head of
state and government is the president, assisted by a vice president and
a cabinet. The president and vice president are directly elected by
universal suffrage to a maximum of two five-year terms. The cabinet
consists of the vice president, government ministers, and the attorney
general. With the exception of the vice president, members of the
cabinet are appointed by the president.
The unicameral legislature, called the People’s Majlis, meets at
least three times per year. Its members are elected to five-year terms
from Male island and from each of the 20 atoll groups into which the
country is divided for administrative purposes. The number of
representatives from each administrative division is determined on the
basis of population, with a minimum of two per division. The 2008
constitution established Islam as the official state religion.
Non-Muslims cannot become citizens, and the People’s Majlis is
prohibited from making any law that contravenes the tenets of Islam.
Other governmental bodies include civil service and human rights
The highest legal authority is the Supreme Court. Its judges are
appointed by the president in consultation with the Judicial Service
Commission, a body of 10 members appointed or elected from various
branches of the government and the general public. The Judicial Service
Commission independently appoints all other judges. There are no
judicial term limits; the mandatory retirement age is 70. All judges
must be Sunni Muslims. The Supreme Court bases decisions upon the
constitution and Maldives law; in cases in which applicable law does not
exist, Sharīʿah (Islamic law) is considered. Other courts are the High
Court and trial courts.
Most Maldivians rely on traditional medical practices when ill; Male
has a small hospital. Major illnesses include gastroenteritis, typhoid,
cholera, and malaria. Life expectancy is about 68 years for men and 67
Three types of formal education are available in the Maldives,
including traditional schools (makthabs) designed to teach the reading
and reciting of the Qurʾān, Dhivehi-language schools, and
English-language primary and secondary schools. The English-language
schools are the only ones that teach a standard curriculum and offer
secondary-level education. Students must go abroad for higher education.
Only about two-thirds of the school-age population is enrolled in
The archipelago was inhabited as early as the 5th century bce by
Buddhist peoples, probably from Sri Lanka and southern India. According
to tradition, Islam was adopted in 1153 ce. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, a notable
North African traveler, resided there during the mid-1340s and described
conditions at that time, remarking disapprovingly on the freedom of the
women—a feature that has been noticeable throughout Maldivian history.
The Portuguese forcibly established themselves in Male from 1558
until their expulsion in 1573. In the 17th century the islands were a
sultanate under the protection of the Dutch rulers of Ceylon (Sri
Lanka), and, after the British took possession of Ceylon in 1796, the
islands became a British protectorate, a status formalized in 1887. In
1932, before which time most of the administrative powers rested with
sultans or sultanas, the first democratic constitution was proclaimed,
the country remaining a sultanate. A republic was proclaimed in 1953,
but later that year the country reverted to a sultanate.
In 1965 the Maldive Islands attained full political independence from
the British, and in 1968 a new republic was inaugurated and the
sultanate abolished. The last British troops left on March 29, 1976, the
date thereafter celebrated in the Maldives as Independence Day. Ibrahim
Nasr, the country’s first president, was succeeded in 1978 by Maumoon
Abdul Gayoom, who was reelected to his sixth consecutive term in 2003.
The Maldives became a member of the Commonwealth in 1982.
In December 2004 the Maldives was damaged by a large tsunami caused
by a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean off Indonesia. Scores of
people were killed, and much property was damaged.
In the first years of the 21st century, Gayoom’s government embarked
on a long-term plan to modernize and democratize the Maldives,
particularly its economy and political system. The plan also identified
the country’s legal system as inadequate. Beginning in 2003,
wide-ranging reforms were instituted to improve human rights and the
system of governance. A multiparty political system was created. In 2008
a new constitution was adopted that established greater governmental
checks and balances, strengthened the powers of the legislature and
judiciary, and allowed women to run for president. The country’s first
multicandidate presidential election was held in October of that year,
and former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed was elected president,
thus ending Gayoom’s 30 years in office. One of Nasheed’s plans was to
obtain a new homeland in the region to which the Maldive islanders could
eventually be resettled, as the low-lying islands were believed to be
under serious threat from rising sea levels.