Since the contested 2013 election of Abdulla Yameen, Maldives has made the headlines internationally for the wrong reasons. Although tourism continues to thrive, the arrest, detention and subsequent exile of its first democratically elected president, the arrest of two supreme court judges and a state of emergency imposed in early 2018 all serve to reinforce the impression that an almost total state capture has occurred. Despite strong criticism from international bodies, reports of corruption continue, as well as instances of intimidation and arrests of opponents of the government.

Authoritarian Tendencies

Following the coup of 2012, the 2013 presidential election saw the presidency go to Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled unchallenged for 30 years before President Nasheed's short time in office. Despite the family ties, Yameen and Gayoom quickly fell out and are now political enemies. Indeed, Yameen jailed Gayoom's politician son in 2017 and again in 2018 – for 'attempting to overthrow the government', according to newspaper Maldives Independent – and even arrested Gayoom himself during 2018's state of emergency declaration.

President Yameen's controversial rule has been marked by the frequent jailing of political opponents, including former president Mohamed Nasheed, indicted in 2015 for 'terrorism' and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in a trial that the UN condemned as politically motivated. After seeking medical treatment abroad, Nasheed was granted political asylum in the UK, where he continues to live in exile today. In 2017, Yameen sent the army to close the People's Majlis (the Maldivian Parliament), where a no-confidence vote against him was about to be held. The following year, two members of the Supreme Court were arrested after signing a ruling releasing many of the regime's political opponents.

At the time of writing it was impossible to make any predictions about the 2018 presidential elections. It's even possible that they won't happen at all with the state of emergency declared at the start of the year. Widespread concerns remain that the election will not be free and fair and that opposition candidates may not be allowed to stand. Opposition forces are hoping to field a single candidate as a show of unity, but there's as yet no sign of who that might be.

Plots, Scandal and Graft

In September 2015, a small explosion on President Yameen's yacht – an attempt on his life, it was later claimed – occurred as the president and his entourage arrived in Male. A month later the president arrested his vice-president, Ahmed Adeeb, for charges of high treason and terrorism, the fourth high-profile rival of the president to be arrested on terrorism charges since 2013. Adeeb was handed a 10-year jail sentence in 2016, cleansing the executive of potential challengers for the presidency.

Despite this consolidation of power, an even bigger storm was brewing for Yameen: in 2017 an Al Jazeera investigation into corruption in Maldives stunned the nation. In his documentary piece Stealing Paradise, journalist Will Jordan identified what he believed was a vast US$1.5 billion graft scheme, in which President Yameen and his associates were allegedly skimming huge sums from the fees paid by foreign companies wanting to lease Maldivian islands to turn into resorts. While many locals knew that corruption was a problem, nobody had any idea of the scale at which this was apparently operating.

Relations between the government and the press were already fragile following the disappearance in 2014 of Rilwan Abdulla, a journalist for the newspaper Minivan News, who received death threats after investigating political corruption and was last seen being abducted at knife-point outside his house. After the government introduced new laws allowing the state to close media organisations accused of defamation in 2016, the status of the press in Maldives was downgraded from 'Partly Free' to 'Not Free' by democracy organisation Freedom House, a position echoed by organisations such as Reporters Without Borders.

Is It Safe To Go?

Despite the political tension and worryingly authoritarian developments in Male, tourism continues to boom, with 1.2 million tourists arriving in 2017 alone, more than four times the population of the entire country. Hotels at both ends of the spectrum are being built with astonishing speed: new luxury properties at the top end and cheaper guesthouses on inhabited islands are completed almost monthly.

With growing options for travel beyond the established resort islands, this is a fascinating time to visit Maldives, especially if you’re lucky enough to visit the capital and other inhabited islands. If you do visit Male, do be sure to avoid any large demonstrations of other mass gatherings, however, as there's always the possibility of unrest. The fast pace of change here – despite the current political instability – is all part of the charm of discovering this proud and fiercely independent island nation.