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 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 2015 Maldives' GDP was US$3.1 billion. Islam is the state religion. As a widespread island chain, the Maldives has an Exclusive Economic Zone just over 900,000 square kilometres in size. The Maldives has a relatively young population with almost 41 percent under 15 years of age and around 3 percent over 65 years of age.

Political overview

The 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 remained a member of the Commonwealth until 2016. Ibrahim Nasir, a former Prime Minister during the late sultanate period, was 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.

A Special Majlis (Constitutional Assembly) was formed in 2004 and political parties were legalised in 2005. In 2008, the Special Majlis finalised the Constitution, ratified by then President Gayoom. 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 presidential candidate and Mohamed Waheed as vice-presidential candidate. The first multi-party parliamentary elections were held in May 2009.

President Mohamed Nasheed resigned in 2012 under disputed circumstances and Vice-President Waheed was sworn in as President. Nasheed later claimed he was forced to resign. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) expressed concern about the risks to the Maldives' young democracy and called on all sides to work together peacefully to resolve political problems.

The 2013 Presidential election in the Maldives was won by Abdulla Yameen (Progressive Party of the Maldives). The following legislative election (People's Majlis) was held on 22 March 2014 and President Yameen's Progressive Coalition won a resounding victory over former President Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party.  A Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) monitored both elections. Whilst the COG reported that the legislative election was 'peaceful and credible', they noted concerns including the Supreme Court's dismissal of the chair and vice chair of the Electoral Commission leading up to the election.

The political situation in the Maldives has become increasingly volatile since 2015.  In March 2015, former President Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment on terrorism charges. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) identified 'serious due process irregularities' in Mr Nasheed's case (Opinion No 33/2015), a finding which the Maldivian Government rejected. Several other high profile opposition political figures have been arrested or detained.

In February 2016, CMAG expressed concern regarding the state of democratic institutions and culture in the Maldives and called for meaningful progress in six priority areas. In September, CMAG agreed to place the country on its formal agenda. The Maldives renounced its membership of the Commonwealth on 13 October 2016.

On 17 October 2016, the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives formally split into two factions, one led by President Yameen and the other by his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the country until 2008.

United Nations Special Envoy to Maldives, Tamrat Samuel, has been working to facilitate all-party talks in the Maldives since April 2016, at the invitation of Government.

Economy

The Maldives graduated from the UN's Least Developed Country (LDC) designation to Middle Income Country status in 2011 and Upper Middle Income Status in 2013. Tourism and commercial fisheries form the basis of Maldives' economy.

Tourism is the Maldives' largest economic activity and accounted for 28 per cent of GDP and more than 60 per cent of foreign exchange receipts in 2014. Revenue from the sector accounts for 38 percent of government revenue, derived from tourism-related duties and lease of islands. Due to a slowdown in tourist arrivals, especially from Russia and China, tourism growth declined from 6.5 per cent in 2014 to an estimated 1.9 per cent in 2015.

The construction sector has become a major driver of growth, fuelled by a surge in public and private investments. Fishing is also an important sector, being a large source of employment and a major source of food supply for the local market. 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.

Annual GDP growth in the Maldives averaged 5.4 per cent between 2005 and 2013, reaching $2.3 billion in 2013. GDP growth slowed sharply from 6.5 per cent in 2014 to 1.5 per cent in 2015. Diversifying the economy beyond tourism and fishing, reforming public finance and increasing employment opportunities remain major economic challenges for the government.

The 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. The Maldives is concerned about the threat posed by climate change and has been active internationally to bring attention to the issue.

Bilateral relations

Australia and the Maldives have a limited but constructive relationship, with links in trade, security and transnational crime, education and development cooperation. Bilateral relations were established in 1974.

We continue to engage in dialogue on several shared interests, including human rights, terrorism and building democratic institutions. Australia and the Maldives cooperate well in multilateral and regional forums on irregular migration and climate change.

In October 2016, Australia expressed its disappointment with Maldives’ decision to leave the Commonwealth; and encouraged the Maldives to work with all parties toward a peaceful resolution of its current political circumstances and commit to Commonwealth values of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, free speech and tolerance.

Australia–Maldives bilateral trade has remained steady over the past decade. Total bilateral trade was $36 million in 2015, of which $35 million was Australian exports. The bulk of bilateral trade is Australian food and beverage exports to the Maldivian tourism industry. Australia was the Maldives' 9th largest source of imports in 2014.

Development assistance

Australia will provide an estimated $5.3 million in Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to the Maldives in 2016-17, mainly focused on building democratic institutions and human resources development.

Australia has provided over AUD 1.3 million (2012-18) to a UNDP-led Integrated Governance Program. The program aims to strengthen the transparency and accountability of public institutions, promote equitable access to justice and respect for human rights, and strengthen the voice of civil society organisations.

The Australian Government is funding the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to improve maritime search capabilities in Maldives. The $2.6 million program (also including Sri Lanka and Mauritius) will focus on training, development of operational procedures, and implementation of better systems to enable countries to communicate and coordinate more effectively with each other on search and rescue operations.

In 2016-17 we will offer 13 Australia Awards Scholarships for study at Australian universities.

More information on development assistance to Maldives

Last Updated: 24 November 2016