Maldives country brief

Introduction

The Republic of Maldives is an archipelago of 1,192 coral islands located in the Indian Ocean, 400km south-west of India. The islands form 26 natural atolls. The Maldives has a population of approximately 418,000 living on 200 of these islands, although this figure includes a sizeable number of expatriate workers.  The Maldives has a relatively young population with almost 23 per cent under 15 years of age and around 4 per cent over 65 years of age. The capital of Maldives is Male. Islam is the state religion.

In 2016, Maldives' GDP was US$3.6 billion. As a widespread island chain, the Maldives has an Exclusive Economic Zone just over 900,000 square kilometres in size.

Political overview

The Maldives was an independent Islamic sultanate from 1153 until the Dutch established a colony in the 17th century.  Dutch control over the Maldives ended when the British established a protectorate in the18th century. It achieved independence in 1965, becoming a republic three years later.  The Maldives was a member of the Commonwealth until 2016. Following independence, former Prime Minister, Ibrahim Nasir, was elected President. In 1978, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom took power, ruling for 30 years, and elected to six successive terms by single-party referendums.

The Maldives started a political and constitutional reform process in 2004, following growing anti-government sentiment.  The Government undertook a series of legislative and political reforms, including establishing a Special Majlis (Constitutional Assembly) in 2004 and allowing opposition political parties in 2005.

Mohamed Nasheed (Maldivian Democratic Party) was elected president in 2008, winning the first multi-candidate, multi-party elections held in the Maldives. Gayoom’s defeat also marked the Maldives first peaceful transition of power. The Maldives held its first multi-party parliamentary elections in May 2009.  

Rising political instability and protests led President Mohamed Nasheed to resign in 2012 under disputed circumstances. Nasheed later claimed he was forced to resign.  His Vice-President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, was sworn in as President.

Abdulla Yameen won the 2013 Maldives Presidential election by a narrow margin. His party, the Progressive Coalition won parliamentary elections.  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.

In March 2015, the Maldives Supreme Court convicted former President Nasheed on terrorism charges and sentenced him to 13 years imprisonment. 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 high profile opposition political figures were also arrested or detained.

The Maldives renounced its membership of the Commonwealth on 13 October 2016 after the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) agreed to place the country on its formal agenda. 

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, former President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

In February 2018, the Supreme Court reversed a series of previous rulings against the Opposition, ordering all detained Opposition leaders to be released and mandating the reinstatement of 12 Opposition MPs expelled from Parliament.  In response, the Maldives Government declared a State of Emergency, suspending core constitutional and legal provisions. Following the announcement of a State of Emergency, security forces arrested two Supreme Court judges, including the Chief Justice and its Judicial Administrator.

Former president, Gayoom was also arrested.  The three remaining Supreme Court judges later overturned their previous decision to release political prisoners. In June 2018, Gayoom and the two Supreme Court judges were sentenced to 19 months jail. The State of Emergency was lifted in March, 45 days after it was imposed.

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. Revenue from the sector accounts for 38 per cent of government revenue, derived from tourism-related duties and lease of islands. Tourism arrivals continue to grow, with the Maldives seeing an 8 per cent increase between its 2016 and 2017 arrivals.

Construction has overtaken tourism as the main driver of growth, fuelled by a surge in public and private investments.  Between 2015-17, average growth in this sector was 19 percent. 

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 5.2 per cent between 2013 and 2018, reaching $4.8 billion in 2018. 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. We remain a constructive partner, encouraging the Government of the Maldives to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Maldivians, including freedom of assembly and speech.

Australia and the Maldives cooperate well in multilateral and regional forums on irregular migration and climate change.

Australia–Maldives bilateral trade has remained steady over the past decade. Total bilateral trade was $115 million in 2017, of which $42 million was Australian merchandise exports. The bulk of bilateral merchandise trade is Australian food and beverage exports to the Maldivian tourism industry. Australia was the Maldives' 13th largest source of imports in 2017.  Tourism and education remain strong sectors for trade in services, with education valued at $13 million.

Development assistance

Australia will provide an estimated $2.6 million in Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to the Maldives in 2018-19, mainly focused on human resources development. Australia’s aid to Maldives will target human development through the education sector. In 2018-19, we will provide 52 long-term and short-term Australian Awards for study at Australian universities, focued on economics and development, education and management and commerce.

Australia 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 provided funding in 2015-17 to 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.

Last Updated: 20 September 2018