The distinctive topography of the Maldives – an archipelago of more than 1,200 small islands – allows for a strict demarcation of function. One island houses the two square kilometre capital, Male’, while an adjacent one serves as the international airport. Then there is an island to store fuel, another to serve as a rubbish dump, a further 199 or so ‘inhabited’ islands for the local population, and 80 others containing individual tourist resorts. There is also an island for detaining and torturing political prisoners.
The view from the air is spectacular. The islands are grouped into 26 white atolls in two north-south chains set in a vivid blue sea. Most local people circulate between them in traditional flat-bottomed dhonis and many earn their living by fishing for tuna. But since the 1970s the dominant industry has been tourism: more than half a million visitors arrive each year. Most are fairly well-heeled. The Rania resort, for example, charges $10,000 a night and the world’s largest private yacht, owned by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, can be seen gliding around. Geographical apartheid helps to keep the hedonistic tourists away from the largely Muslim population.
The tourist dollar has transformed the Maldives into the most prosperous country in South Asia – providing around a third of government revenue, as well as funnelling cash into the pockets of well-connected politicians who own resorts. But it has also been used to improve social services which, given the scattered nature of the population, are expensive to deliver and, as a result, both health and education standards have been rising, and poverty falling.
Development in the Maldives has been rapid but uneven. For one thing it relies heavily on migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, who account for more than a quarter of the labour force. Migrants make up two-thirds of secondary school teachers, for example, and most of the doctors, as well as half the staff in the tourist resorts. They are also the main source of sweated labour, clambering around the capital’s many construction sites.
Rapid development has also been socially disruptive. Family life has always been provisional. The Maldives has the world’s highest divorce rate: half of women aged 50 and above have been married four or more times – a reflection of the disapproval of extra-marital affairs combined with the ease of divorce. Added to this now are the aspirations of a newly educated generation who, bored or frustrated, are leaving the atolls for Male’. A further source of disruption is drugs: in recent years many islands have been swamped with heroin, while many children also drink ‘cola water’ (eau-de-cologne diluted with soft drinks).
Jeremy Horner / Panos / www.panos.co.uk
The Maldives suffered a serious blow in December 2004 when the Asian Tsunami washed across islands most of which rise no more than one metre from the sea. Fortunately, the unique conformation of the atolls deflected and diffracted the waves and only 82 people died (many washed out to sea in the first wave were carried back in the second). The infrastructure was, however, badly damaged and many tourist resorts are still closed.
Most young people in the Maldives have known only one dictatorial ruler: Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. First elected in 1978, he has had six successive terms of office, ensured through a mixture of constitutional guile and violent repression. The Majlis (a parliament packed with Gayoom’s cronies) selected a single presidential candidate whom it offered to the voters in a yes-no referendum: guess who. Just to be sure, Gayoom also took the precaution of banning political parties and independent newspapers, radio or TV. He has also regularly imprisoned prominent dissidents. As a result, the Maldivian Democratic Party, led by Mohamed Nasheed, has had to operate from exile in Sri Lanka.
Under international pressure, Gayoom has in the last few years been pushed towards democratic reforms (see Politics, below). But he still seems determined to cling on.
|Leader||President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who is both head of state and head of government.|
|Economy||GNI per capita: $2,510 (Sri Lanka $1,010, Britain $33,940 [Maldives was a British protectorate until 1965] ). Around half of national income comes from tourism. Previously the main source had been fishing, and the Maldives is still the world’s largest tuna exporter. Until the 2004 Tsunami, the economy had been growing on average 8% per year and the Maldives became the only country to graduate from the UN’s ‘least developed country’ status. In 2005, however, following the Tsunami, the economy shrank and the country had to seek international aid.|
|People||321,000. Around a quarter are now crowded into Male’. People per square kilometre: 1070 (UK 245).|
|Health||Infant mortality 35 per 1,000 live births (Sri Lanka 12, Britain 5). The public health system is good, though heavily dependent on contracted Indian doctors. Nutrition is less good: around a third of children are malnourished as a result of poor feeding. Diet is monotonous, often consisting of many combinations of tuna and coconut. Most of the expensive imported fruit and vegetables goes to the tourist resorts.|
|Environment||Very fragile and seriously threatened by global warming: most of the country is no more than one metre above sea level. Much coral was killed by a spike in water temperatures in the late 1990s and is only slowly reviving.|
|Culture||Most of the population originates from Sri Lanka and south India.|
|Religion||Almost all are Sunni Muslim.|
|Language||The national language is Dhivehi, which uses an Arabic-based script.|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||Poverty has been falling: less than 1% of people live on less than $1 per day, but inequality is now rising, notably between Male’ and the atolls.|
|Literacy||Almost 100% in the national language, Divehi. A high proportion are also literate in English which is the medium of instruction in schools.|
|Life expectancy||71 years (Sri Lanka 74, Britain 79).|
|Freedom||Until recently political parties were banned. No independent media. Dissidents are locked up and tortured for ‘treason’. In September 2005 progressive journalist Jennifer Latheef was sentenced to ten years for ‘terrorism’.|
|Position of women||By the standards of many other Muslim countries, women are fairly emancipated, but they still have less freedom than men. Since many men work away from home in the tourist resorts around half of households are female-headed.|
|Sexual minorities||Homosexuality is illegal – as indeed is any form of extramarital sex.|
|New Internationalist assessment||In June 2004 Gayoom announced democratic reforms, including the registering of political parties, and has established a special people’s Majlis to draw up a new constitution. But the process has been desperately slow. Meanwhile opposition demonstrations continue to be broken up with baton charges, and opposition leaders accused of treason and tortured. Old habits die hard.|