Besides being an exotic vacation destination, the Maldives is a country hardened by the nature of its size and location. The smallest and least populated Asian country is in the heart of a strategic region that finds itself threated by climate change and an uncertain internal situation in which India has once again been called to intervene. Little more than 300,000 people live on 200 islands, out of the 1,192 that form the archipelago. The islands lie scattered like confetti along the equator, in a long stretch of ocean crisscrossed by oil tankers traveling between the Persian Gulf and the Far East. A Muslim nation, the Maldives has long seen India as a partner and protector. Its scarce natural resources (a full 30% of its GDP comes from tourism) and its particular geographic location prevent the Maldives from having a political system independent of international influence. In 2008, after years of autocratic rule following its independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, the first free elections in the Maldives went to the Maldivian Democratic Party. MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed became President of the Maldives after years of imprisonment, where his resistance and charisma earned him the moniker “Mandela of the Maldives.” Among his first actions as president were democratic consolidation, the widespread introduction of welfare, and a genuine concern for the future of the tiny island nation. Rising only 1.4 meters above the surface of the sea, the very existence of the atolls is at risk from rising sea levels caused by melting polar ice.
Nasheed’s actions were contested by the previous administration, and with the decisive help of the military, they were able to depose the new President and install a more conservative leader. Both contenders for the throne look to India to find an ally, although it has been conspicuously neutral until now. After the regime change last February, India remained silent; now, spurred on by the international community, India is pushing the Maldives for a political solution to its woes. A diplomatic stir was created when the new government pushed the elections back to 2013, in an attempt to shore up the political landscape that was recently regained. The ex-President Nasheed flew to Delhi to appeal to Manmohan Singh, and his words were pragmatically inviting: “I have always considered the Indian Ocean to be an Indian nation. Our foreign policy has been clear: ‘find a friend, keep that friend.’ For us, that friend is India.” A few weeks later, during an official visit to Delhi, the current president Mohamed Waheed Hassan maintained that there would be no more changes in politics in his country. “We will continue to honor India as our closest friend and ally.” Waheed evidently felt the need to pacify Indian concerns, which have already been uneasy not so much with the 250,000 Chinese visitors who visit the islands each year, but also because of the Maldives’ close proximity to its shores.