The Maldives: Facts and History

The Maldives is Asia's smallest country in area and population.
Boating in the Indian Ocean off of the beautiful Maldives Islands.

Nattu /

The Maldives is a nation with an unusual problem. In the coming decades, it may cease to exist.

Usually, when a country faces an existential threat, it comes from neighboring nations. Israel is surrounded by hostile states, some of which have openly declared their intention to wipe it from the map. Kuwait was nearly snuffed when Saddam Hussein invaded it in 1990.

If the Maldives disappears, though, it will be the Indian Ocean itself that swallows the country, fueled by global climate change. Rising sea levels are also a worry for many Pacific Island nations, of course, along with another South Asian country, low-lying Bangladesh.

The moral of the story? Visit the beautiful Maldive Islands soon and be sure to buy carbon offsets for your trip.


The Maldivian government is centered in the capitol city of Male, population 104,000, on the Kaafu Atoll. Male is the largest city in the archipelago.

Under the constitutional reforms of 2008, the Maldives has a republican government with three branches. The President serves as both head of state and head of government; presidents are elected to five-year terms.

The legislature is a unicameral body, called the People's Majlis. Representatives are apportioned according to the population of each atoll; members are also elected for five-year terms.

Since 2008, the judicial branch has been separate from the executive. It has several layers of courts: the Supreme Court, the High Court, four Superior Courts, and local Magistrate Courts. At all levels, judges must apply Islamic sharia law to any matter that is not specifically addressed by the Constitution or laws of the Maldives.


With just 394,500 people, the Maldives has the smallest population in Asia. More than one-quarter of Maldivians are concentrated in the city of Male.

The Maldive Islands were likely populated by both purposeful immigrants and ship-wrecked sailors from southern India and Sri Lanka. There seem to have been additional infusions from the Arab Peninsula and East Africa, whether because sailors liked the islands and stayed voluntarily, or because they were stranded.

Although Sri Lank and India traditionally practiced a strict division of society along Hindu caste lines, society in the Maldives is organized in a simpler two-tier pattern: nobles and commoners. Most of the nobility live in Male, the capital city.


The official language of the Maldives is Dhivehi, which seems to be a derivative of the Sri Lankan language Sinhala. Although Maldivians use Dhivehi for most of their daily communications and transactions, English is gaining traction as the most common second language.


The official religion of the Maldives is Sunni Islam, and according to the Maldivian Constitution, only Muslims may be citizens of the country. Open practice of other faiths is punishable by law.

Geography and Climate

The Maldives is a double chain of coral atolls running north-south through the Indian Ocean, off the southwest coast of India. Altogether, it comprises 1,192 low-lying islands. The islands are dispersed over 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) of the ocean but the total land area of the country is only 298 square kilometers or 115 square miles.

Crucially, the average elevation of the Maldives is just 1.5 meters (almost 5 feet) about sea level. The highest point in the entire country is 2.4 meters (7 feet, 10 inches) in elevation. During the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, six of the Maldives' islands were completely destroyed, and fourteen more rendered uninhabitable.

The climate of the Maldives is tropical, with temperatures ranging between 24 °C (75 °F) and 33 °C (91 °F) year-round. The monsoon rains generally fall between June and August, bringing 250-380 centimeters (100-150 inches) of rain.


The economy of the Maldives is based on three industries: tourism, fishing, and shipping. Tourism accounts for $325 million US per year, or about 28% of the GDP, and also brings in 90% of government tax income. Over half a million tourists visit each year, mainly from Europe.

The second-largest sector of the economy is fishing, which contributes 10% of GDP and employs 20% of the workforce. Skipjack tuna is the prey of choice in the Maldives, and it is exported canned, dried, frozen and fresh. In 2000, the fishing industry brought in $40 million US.

Other small industries, including agriculture (which is severely restricted by the lack of land and freshwater), handicrafts and boat-building also make small but important contributions to the Maldivian economy.

The Maldives' currency is called the rufiyaa. The 2012 exchange rate is 15.2 rufiyaa per 1 US dollar.

History of the Maldives

Settlers from southern India and Sri Lanka seem to have peopled the Maldives by the fifth century BCE, if not earlier. Little archaeological evidence remains from this period, however. The earliest Maldivians likely subscribed to proto-Hindu beliefs. Buddhism was introduced to the islands early, perhaps during the reign of Ashoka the Great (r. 265-232 BCE). The archaeological remains of Buddhist stupas and other structures are evident on at least 59 of the individual islands, but recently Muslim fundamentalists have destroyed some pre-Islamic artifacts and works of art.

In the 10th through 12th centuries CE, sailors from Arabia and East Africa began to dominate the Indian Ocean trade routes around the Maldives. They stopped in for supplies and to trade for cowrie shells, which were used as currency in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The sailors and traders brought a new religion with them, Islam, and had converted all of the local kings by the year 1153.

After their conversion to Islam, the formerly Buddhist kings of the Maldives became sultans. The sultans ruled without foreign meddling until 1558, when the Portuguese appeared and established a trading post in the Maldives. By 1573, however, the local people drove the Portuguese out of the Maldives, because the Portuguese insisted on trying to convert people to Catholicism.

In the mid-1600s, the Dutch East India Company established a presence in the Maldives, but the Dutch were wise enough to stay out of local affairs. When the British ousted the Dutch in 1796 and made the Maldives part of a British protectorate, they initially continued this policy of leaving internal affairs to the sultans.

Britain's role as the protector of the Maldives was formalized in an 1887 treaty, which gave the British government sole authority to run the country's diplomatic and foreign affairs. The British governor of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) also served as the official in charge of the Maldives. This protectorate status lasted until 1953.

Beginning on January 1, 1953, Mohamed Amin Didi became the first president of the Maldives after abolishing the sultanate. Didi had tried to push through social and political reforms, including rights for women, that angered conservative Muslims. His administration also faced critical economic problems and food shortages, leading to his ouster. Didi was deposed on August 21, 1953, after less than eight months in office, and passed away in internal exile the following year.

After Didi's fall, the sultanate was re-established, and British influence in the archipelago continued until the UK granted the Maldives its independence in a 1965 treaty. In March 1968, the people of the Maldives voted to abolish the sultanate once more, paving the way for the Second Republic.

The political history of the Second Republic has been full of coups, corruption, and conspiracies. The first president, Ibrahim Nasir, ruled from 1968 until 1978, when he was forced into exile in Singapore after having stolen millions of dollars from the national treasury. The second president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, ruled from 1978 until 2008, despite at least three coup attempts (including a 1988 attempt that featured an invasion by Tamil mercenaries). Gayoom was finally forced out of office when Mohamed Nasheed prevailed in the 2008 presidential election, but Nasheed, in turn, was ousted in a coup in 2012 and replaced by Dr. Mohammad Waheed Hassan Manik.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Maldives: Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, October 29). The Maldives: Facts and History. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Maldives: Facts and History." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).