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The Maldives

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.

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled September 1989

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)