As such, the mostly nomadic population has been divided between Arab-Berbers to the north and black Africans to the south.

Mauritania is one of only three Arab countries that formally opened diplomatic relations with Israel in 2000.

Geography

Mauritania is a northern African country, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between Senegal and Morocco-dominated Western Sahara, with a land area of 1,030,400 sq km.

Historical background

From the third to seventh centuries, the migration of Berber tribes from North Africa displaced the original inhabitants of present-day Mauritania, the Bafours. Continued Arab-Berber migration drove indigenous black Africans south to the Senegal river. By 1076, Muslim warrior monks (Al Murabitun) completed the conquest of southern Mauritania, defeating the ancient Ghana empire.

Modern political history

Colonised by France at the beginning of the 20th century, Mauritania gained independence in 1960 and annexed the southern third of Western Sahara in 1976.

Three years of raids by the Polisario guerrilla front seeking independence for the territory forced Mauritania to relinquish the area.

Despite the legalisation of opposition parties and the approval of a new constitution in 1991, Mauritania remains, in reality, a one-party state. The country continues to experience ethnic tensions between its black minority population and the dominant Arab-Berber populace.

Official name: Islamic Republic of Mauritania
Capital: Nouakchott
Form of government: Islamic Republic
Gained independence: 28 November 1960

Economy

Nearly half of Mauritania’s population depends on agriculture and livestock for its livelihood.

Currency: Ouguiya (MRO) - 1 USD = (app) 247.9 MRO
Natural resources: Iron ore, gypsum, copper, phosphate, diamonds, gold, oil, fish
Major industries: Fish products, iron ore, gypsum
GDP: $5.3bn (2002 est)
GDP annual growth rate: 3.3% (2002 est)
Per capita GDP: $1900 (2002 est)
Imports: 68.4% of GDP (2002 est)
Exports: 39.4% of GDP (2002 est)

Military

Army, navy (including naval infantry), air force, national gendarmerie, national guard, national police, presidential guard (BSSP).

Military budget: $26m (2002 est)
Army size: 15,750 active troops

Culture

A combination of Islamic, French and traditional African influences, Mauritania has remained an exotic attraction for adventure-seeking tourists, and those looking for a more spiritual journey, injecting some much needed money into the economy.

Population: 2,893,000 (2003 est)
Languages: Hassaniya Arabic, Wolof (both official), Fulani, Pulaar, Soninke, French
Religions: Islam (official)
Ethnic diversity: Mixed Maur/black 40%, Maur 30%, black 30%
Literacy rate: 41.7%
Important media: Al-Shab, Horizon, Journal Officiel, Le Calame, L'Eveil-Hebdo, Nouakchott Info (private daily), Mauritanian TV (state-run programmes in Arabic, French and other local languages).

Sources: World Bank, countryreports.org, MSN Encarta, politinfo.com, The Almanac