As early as the 10th century, Maldives was an important link in maritime trade in the Middle East. Maldives was a major supplier of cowrie shells, which were widely used as a form of currency in Asia and parts of the East African coast. Coir, the fibre of the dried coconut husk, was used to rig the dhows that regularly plied in the Indian Ocean. Maldivian coir was in great demand in the medieval period and was exported to India, China, Yemen and the Persian Gulf.
The largest and dominant ethnic group in the Maldives is Dhivehis, who are native to the region and who speak the Dhivehi language. The overwhelming majority of Maldivians profess the Islamic faith.
Maldives was a Buddhist country in the ancient period. Buddhism reached the islands around the 3rd century BC and remained the dominant religion until about the 12th century. Islam was introduced to the Maldives by Abul Barakat, a Muslim traveller who is believed to have come from Morocco or Iran or Somalia. A Buddhist king converted to Islam in 1153 and adopted the title of Sultan Muhammad al-Adil. The sultanate lasted until 1932.
In 1558 the Portuguese established a small garrison in the Maldives, which was administered from their main colony in Goa. The Portuguese attempted to impose Christianity on the Maldivian Muslims, which was fiercely resisted. The Portuguese were ultimately driven out of the region. In the mid-17th century, the Dutch established control over the Maldives. In 1796 the British expelled the Dutch from Ceylon and included the Maldives as a British protectorate. Maldives remained a British protectorate until 1953 when the sultanate was suspended and the First Republic was established under the presidency of Muhammad Amin Didi. Shortly thereafter, Didi was killed in a mass uprising, following which the sultanate was restored. In 1965 the monarchy was abolished and Maldives was proclaimed as a republic. Ibrahim Nasir was elected as the republic's first president.
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (born 1937) succeeded Nasir as president in 1978 and remained in the post till 2008. His long reign was marked by political stability and economic development. Tourism received a boost during his presidency. Maumoon ruled with an iron fist and enacted legislation that placed severe restrictions on political freedom and civil liberties. He survived three attempted coups. The last years of Maumoon's rule were marred by a huge debt, overspending by the government, rising unemployment and allegations of corruption in high places.
Muhammad Nasheed, a journalist and political activist, founded the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and launched a campaign against the authoritarian government of Abdul Gayoom and for political and democratic reforms. He was imprisoned and tortured by the government. In 2008 a new constitution was approved by the Maldivian parliament, following which presidential elections were held. Nasheed was elected president. Nasheed strengthened democratic institutions and rolled back repressive laws. He also sought to draw the world's attention to the challenge faced by Maldives by rising sea levels.
In 2011 there were large-scale public protests against Nasheed and a police mutiny, which were engineered by his opponents. In 2012 Nasheed resigned and the vice-president Mohammed Waheed Hassan was sworn in as president. Nasheed was later arrested and charged with terrorism.
In the 2013 elections, Nasheed won most of the votes in the first round, but the results were annulled by the Supreme Court. In the re-run vote, Abdullah Yameen, Abdul Gayoom's half-brother, was elected president.
Yameen's presidency has been mired in massive corruption scandals, allegations of clandestine and illegal sale of several islands and violations of human rights. According to an investigation carried out by Al Jazeera, Yameen and his former vice-president Ahmed Adeeb embezzled millions of dollars from state coffers and plundered at least $79 million paid by foreign and local tourism companies to Maldives's treasury. In 2016 Adeeb was jailed for 33 years on charges of corruption and terrorism.
The popular resentment and anger against Yameen's authoritarian and corrupt government has escalated in recent months. The opposition parties, led by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohammed Nasheed, have formed a coalition to demand Yameen's resignation and the holding of fresh elections.