Page last updated at 13:18 GMT, Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Profile: Maumoon Gayoom of the Maldives

Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has been Asia's longest-serving leader prior to his historic election defeat in October 2008 at the hands of Mohamed Nasheed.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
The defeated president latterly appeared more vulnerable

But few have heard of him outside the sleepy Indian Ocean archipelago he has governed for three decades.

His supporters say this is because he has been a popular president who quietly got on with the business of making the Maldives more affluent and tackling head-on the problem of rising sea levels which it's feared may wash away his entire country.

President Gayoom held power in the coral-fringed atolls since 1978, elected in yes-or-no referendums.

Under him, tourism has made the Maldives the most prosperous country in South Asia but his political opponents have described him as a dictator who ruled the country like the Sultans of old.

They argue that his anonymity was a sign of something more sinister. President Gayoom, they said, silenced domestic dissent to steer the Maldives along a course of his own choosing.

Exclusive destination

The defeated president, 71, defended earlier curbs on democracy in the Maldives by pointing to its booming economy.

He said that his decision to introduce a new constitution in August 2008 paved the way for the country to become a fully functioning democracy and the presidential elections were a reflection of that.

Since 1978, his economic policies transformed a cluster of desert islands ringed by coral reefs into South Asia's most exclusive holiday destination.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
I thank the people of the Maldives for allowing me to serve them for 30 years
Defeated Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
With a per capita income of $2,280, the Maldives' population of 250,000 Sunni Muslims is now one of the wealthiest in the region.

Entire islands have been given over to luxury hotel developments and tourism has become the engine of the Maldivian economy.

Yet the reliance on Western tourism made President's Gayoom's government sensitive to Western criticism.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups accused his government of imprisoning and torturing its opponents, allegations the government said were baseless.

The president also at times appeared to be politically and personally vulnerable. In September 2007, the country was hit by a bomb attack in a park near the main mosque in the capital, Male.

That prompted the president to introduce new laws to combat "Islamic extremism" in his country.

In January 2008 he escaped unhurt after he was attacked by a man wielding a knife.

Rising tides

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was born in the Maldivian capital, Male, in 1937, and studied in Sri Lanka and Egypt.

He has brushed aside three coup attempts and appears to have mastered the art of staying in office.

But more recently he realised that the islands he governed could do with some staying power of their own.

If sea levels continue to rise at recent rates, the low-lying Maldives are set to vanish beneath the waves within the next few decades.

The threat of "going under" cast President Gayoom in the role of an environmentalist advocating curbs on global warming.

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