Flag of the Maldives

Maldives country brief

Introduction

The Republic of Maldives is an archipelago of 1,192 coral islands located 400km south-west of India in the Indian Ocean. The islands form 26 natural atolls that are grouped into 19 administrative units. The Republic of Maldives has a population of approximately 394 ,000 living on 200 of these islands, although this figure includes a sizeable number of expatriate workers. In 2012 Maldives' GDP was US$2 .2 billion. Islam is the state religion. As a widespread island chain Maldives has an Exclusive Economic Zone just over 900,000 square kilometres in size.

Political overview

Maldives was an independent Islamic sultanate from 1153 until first Dutch and then British protectorates were established in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively. It became a republic in 1968, three years after independence, but remains a member of the Commonwealth. Ibrahim Nasir, a former Prime Minister during the late sultanate period, became President for the first ten years after independence. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ruled for 30 years from 1978, elected to six successive terms by single-party referendums. In August 2004, the President and his government pledged to embark upon democratic reforms including a more representative political system and expanded political freedoms.

Political parties were legalised in 2005. In March 2006, the Government launched its Roadmap for Reform, which set out a two-year timeline to implement a number of reforms (for example, bills on freedom of assembly, the judiciary, police powers and the Human Rights Commission). A Special Majlis (Constitutional Assembly) was formed in July 2004 and charged with drafting a modern, liberal constitution. In June 2008, the Special Majlis finalised a new constitution, which was ratified by then President Gayoom that August. The first-ever presidential elections under a multi-candidate, multi-party system were held in October 2008. Gayoom was defeated by the newly formed Maldivian Democratic Party-Itthihaad alliance with Mohamed Nasheed as the Presidential candidate and Mohamed Waheed as the Vice-Presidential candidate. The first multi-party parliamentary elections were held in May 2009. In the People's Majlis (Parliament) there are 77 seats: members are elected by direct vote to serve five-year terms.

President Mohamed Nasheed resigned on 7 February 2012 under disputed circumstances and Vice-President Waheed was sworn in as President. Nasheed later claimed he was forced to resign. Following the transfer of power on 7 February the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) sent a fact-finding mission (17-19 February) to investigate the circumstances surrounding Nasheed's resignation and Waheed's assumption of the Presidency. CMAG expressed concern about the risks to Maldives' young democracy and called on all sides to work together peacefully to resolve political problems. The Commonwealth Secretary-General's Special Envoy to the Maldives, Sir Donald McKinnon, has visited Maldives on a number of occasions and facilitated the formation of a Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) to look into the events surrounding the transfer of power. The CoNI report, released in August 2012, found that the change of President on 7 February was legal and constitutional.  It called for investigations into allegations of police brutality on 6-8 February 2012, and encouraged support for democratic structures in Maldives. CMAG removed Maldives from its agenda in March 2013. Sir Donald McKinnon continues to monitor the situation in Maldives and engage with the Maldives Government and other stakeholders.  Presidential elections are scheduled for 7 September 2013.

Climate change challenges

Maldives is the lowest-lying country in the world, with its highest natural ground height of only 2.4 metres and 80 per cent of the landmass at 1 metre or less above sea level. Maldives is very concerned about the threat posed by climate change and has been active internationally to bring attention to the issue. Due to the islands' low elevation and the threat from sea-level rise, Maldives' officials have been prominent participants in international climate change talks.

Maldives belongs to the Cartagena group, a coalition of developed and developing countries working to advance a progressive agenda on climate change issues, convened in Copenhagen by then Prime Minister Rudd and former UK Prime Minister Brown. The first meeting was held on 25-26 March 2010 in Cartagena, Colombia. Maldives hosted the second meeting on 17-18 July 2010 in Malé, with Australian co-operation. The meeting focused on the transition to low-emission economic growth, in particular for developing countries.

Economy

Maldives graduated from the UN's Least Developed Country (LDC) designation to Middle Income Country status on 1 January 2011. Tourism and commercial fisheries form the basis of Maldives' economy.

Tourism is Maldives' largest economic activity and accounts for 30 per cent of GDP and more than 60 per cent of foreign exchange receipts. Tourism has largely recovered following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which led to a protracted period of negative economic growth. Over 90 per cent of government tax revenue comes from import duties and tourism-related taxes. Fishing is the second-largest sector, contributing about 15 per cent of annual GDP. Agriculture and manufacturing play a lesser role in the economy, constrained by the limited availability of cultivable land and the shortage of domestic labour. Most staple foods must be imported.

From 2000-2010, real GDP growth averaged over 6 per cent per year except for the period following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and in 2009 (GDP contracted by 4.7 per cent)due to the global recession.

Annual GDP growth in Maldives has averaged over 7 per cent over the past 10 years, and was $2.2 billion (PPP terms) in 2012 , due to improved tourist arrival numbers in the post global recession environment. Diversifying the economy beyond tourism and fishing, reforming public finance and increasing employment opportunities remain major economic challenges for the government.

Bilateral relations

Australia and the Maldives share a warm and productive relationship, with good links in trade and investment, education, development cooperation and through the Commonwealth. Bilateral relations were established in 1974.

Engagement has increased in recent years, with a focus on democracy building, climate change and other environmental issues. Australia and Maldives cooperate well in multilateral and regional forums on climate change issues, and other issues affecting small-island states.

Australia–Maldives bilateral trade has remained steady over the past decade. Total bilateral trade was $27 million in 2012, of which $25 million was Australian exports. The bulk of bilateral trade is Australian food and beverage exports to the Maldivian tourism industry. Australia was Maldives' 8 th largest source of imports in 2012 . Australia is a significant supplier of aircraft, parts and fresh produce for the Maldives' tourist industry. Australia sees room to broaden ties in the areas of development assistance and co-operation in climate change, counter-terrorism, maritime security and transnational crime.

Then President Mohamed Nasheed visited Canberra and Sydney during a Guest of Government visit on 2-4 June 2010 and Perth for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on 28-30 October 2011. Then Prime Minister Rudd also met then President Nasheed twice in 2009 — in Copenhagen (COP15) and in Trinidad and Tobago during CHOGM. Then President Nasheed's visit to Australia provided a valuable opportunity to increase collaboration on key international and regional matters including on climate change and security, as well as to discuss new opportunities for closer co-operation.

Maldives was represented at an Australian-led counter-piracy conference held in Perth from 15-17 July 2012. As an island nation in the Indian Ocean, Maldives shares Australia's concerns on the threat posed by piracy to maritime security, trade and tourism.

Development assistance

Australia has a targeted long-standing program of development assistance to Maldives. Australia's development co-operation program to Maldives focuses mainly on Australia Awards (the Australian Government’s scholarships program) for Maldivians to study in Australia in priority areas such as health, education, environment, fisheries and agriculture. Australian assistance has included around 200 scholarships in the last 10 years.

Australia provided $10 million in Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to Maldives in 2012-13. A large portion of this allocation went towards the Australia Awards program (including Australian Development Scholarships and Australian Leadership Awards), providing 45 Australia Awards to Maldives in 2012. Australia also supported partners working on increasing climate resilience, public administration and judicial reform and education sector volunteers.

More information on Australia's development assistance to Maldives

Updated January 2014