Malta has a very high population density. The population is ethnically diverse, a mixture of Arab, Sicilian, Norman, Spanish, Italian, and British strains. English and Maltese, a Semitic dialect, are the official languages, although Italian is also widely spoken. Roman Catholicism is the religion of nearly all the people.
Malta has no rivers or lakes, no natural resources, and very few trees. It is, however, of great strategic value and was an important British military base until 1979. Following the withdrawal of British forces, the country faced severe unemployment; it has since made progress in diversifying its economic base. Manufacturing and tourism are now the main industries. There is food, beverage, and tobacco processing and the manufacture of electronics, pharmaceuticals, footwear, and clothing. Shipbulding and ship repair, performed in state-owned dry docks, and freight transshipment are also important. Although the soil is poor, there is some agriculture, producing potatoes, cauliflower, grapes, wheat, barley, and cut flowers. Hogs and chickens are raised. International banking and financial services are growing, and the island is developing as an offshore tax haven. Shortage of water has stimulated the building of desalination plants, which now provide more than half the country's freshwater needs. The main imports are machinery, manufactured goods, foodstuffs, and petroleum; exports include machinery, transportation equipment, and manufactured goods. Most trade is with Italy, France, Great Britain, the United States, and Germany.
Malta is governed under the constitution of 1964 as amended. The president, who is the head of state, is elected by the legislature for a five-year term and is eligible for a second term. The prime minister is the head of government. Members of the unicameral legislature, the 65-seat House of Representatives, are popularly elected to five-year terms. Malta is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.