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Mauritania, officially known as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, is located in northwest Africa, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, and surrounded by Senegal, Mali and Algeria. Its name originates from the Berber kingdom known in ancient times as Mauretania.
Mauritania is the 29th largest country in the world, with nearly 400,000 square miles (1,030,700 sq. km) in area. Its 2006 estimated population is approximately 3.2 million, of which over 99% is Muslim. Its geography is mostly desert, with some dunes and sandstone plateaus. The highest peak in Mauritania reaches 3280 feet (1000 m). Its capital city of Nouakchott is the largest in the nation, and located on the Atlantic Ocean.
Mauritania’s first settlers were the Bafours, originally a nomadic people. Over the 5th to 7th centuries, Berber tribes originating in Northern Africa migrated into the region. Later, Arabs fought the Berbers for control, and eventually succeeded. Although the Arabs gained control, the Berbers heavily influenced the region, evidenced by today’s culture and language.
The French began annexing the region toward the end of the 19th century and by 1920, Mauritania became part of what was known as “French West Africa.” One benefit of French control was that they put an end to widespread slavery and ongoing tribal warfare. Mauritania became independent in 1960, and many Black Africans began to resettle Mauritania, sparking conflict with the Moors to the North who wished the country to remain Arab. National unity continues to remain elusive as the “white” Moors, “black” Moors and non-Moor groups struggle to control certain cultural, religious and political aspects of Mauritania.
Today, Mauritania’s system of government shows its western influences. Its French-influenced model of administration includes 13 regional governors, and a centralized government that has gone through periods of weakness and strength. Since the 1960s, democracy has been spotty, with several military coups, one as recent as 2005. On 11 March 2007, Mauritania enjoyed its first democratic presidential election in nearly 50 years.
Mauritania’s economy is heavily agricultural, but iron ore makes up 50% of its exports. Fishing and its recently discovered offshore oil reserves are two other highly valuable resources that have attracted foreign investors. The tourism trade is still fairly modest due to infrastructure issues, but many visitors are drawn to Chinguetti, ranked the seventh holiest city in Islam.