The Maldives is a group of atolls lies in the Indian Ocean, south-southwest of India, comprised of over 1100 islands covering an area of 298 sq. km. (115 sq. mi.), about twice the size of the District of Columbia. Its capital, Malé has a population of 70,000; the overall population (mid-year 2002) is 280,000. The Maldives was long a sultanate, first under Dutch and then under British protection. It became a republic in 1968, three years after independence. Since 1978, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom - currently in his sixth term in office - has dominated the islands' political scene.
The Maldives climate is tropical; hot, humid; dry, northeast monsoon (November to March); rainy, southwest monsoon (June to August). Its terrain is mainly flat, with white sandy beaches and a coastline of 644 km. The highest point is an unnamed location on Wilinglili island in the Addu Atoll, 2.4 m.
The earliest settlers of the Maldives were probably from southern India. Indo-European speakers followed them from Sri Lanka in the fourth and fifth centuries BC. In the 12th century AD, sailors from East Africa and Arab countries came to the islands. Today, the Maldivian ethnic identity is a blend of these cultures, reinforced by religion and language. Originally Buddhists, Maldivians were converted to Sunni Islam in the mid-12th century. Islam is the official religion of the entire population. The official and common language is Dhivehi; the writing system is from right to left. English is used widely in commerce and increasingly as the medium of instruction in government schools.
Over the centuries, the islands have been visited and their development influenced by sailors from countries on the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean littorals. In the 16th century, the Portuguese subjugated and ruled the islands for 15 years (1558-73) before being driven away by the warrior-patriot Muhammad Thakurufar Al-Azam. Although governed as an independent Islamic sultanate for most of its history from 1153 to 1968, the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 until July 25, 1965. In 1953, there was a brief, abortive attempt at a republican form of government, after which the sultanate was re-imposed. Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued to operate for another 3 years. On November 11, 1968, it was abolished and replaced by a republic, and the country assumed its present name.
Ibrahim Nasir, Prime Minister under the pre-1968 sultanate, became President and held office from 1968 – 1978. He was succeeded by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was elected President in 1978 and reelected in 1983, 1988, 1993, 1998, and 2003. The president heads the executive branch and appoints the cabinet. Nominated to a 5-year term by a secret ballot of the Majlis (parliament), the president must be confirmed by a national referendum. The unicameral Majlis is composed of 50 members serving 5-year terms.
CIA World Factbook; U.S. State Department Background Notes, 200712; 200707