The largely-desert country presents a cultural contrast, with an Arab-Berber population to the north and black Africans to the south. Many of its people are nomads.
In the Middle Ages Mauritania was the cradle of the Almoravid movement, which spread Islam throughout the region and for a while controlled the Islamic part of Spain.
European traders began to show interest in Mauritania in the 15th century. France gained control of the coastal region in 1817, and in 1904 a formal French protectorate was extended over the territory.
Mauritania is rich in mineral resources, especially iron and ore.
It is seen by the West as a valuable ally in the fight against Islamist militancy in the Sahel region.
Some Western countries still have travel warnings in place for their citizens against the backdrop of the high-profile kidnappings and murders in the late 2000s.
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania
- Population 3.6 million
- Area 1.04 million sq km (398,000 sq miles)
- Major languagesArabic (official), French, others
- Major religion Islam
- Life expectancy 57 years (men), 61 years (women)
- Currency ouguiya
President: Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz
Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz took power in a coup in 2008, and was elected president the following year.
He gained another five-year term in June 2014 with almost 82% of the vote in an election boycotted by most of the opposition.
Following his win in the 2014 polls, in which he faced no major challenger to his rule, he promised to work for national unity.
Mauritania has had a dozen coups or attempted coups since independence from France in 1960.
Mauritania has one of the most open media environments of the Maghreb region.
Internet access is unrestricted, with number of users reportedly exceeding 455,000 by 2014.
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Some key dates in Mauritania’s history:
3rd-7th centuries AD – Berber and Arab migrants arrive in present-day Mauritania.
9-10th centuries – Empire of Ghana has its capital in present-day south-west Mauritania.
1076 – Berber Almoravid warriors defeat the Empire of Ghana.
1500s – European mariners and traders establish settlements.
1850s-60s – French forces gain control of southern Mauritania. In 1898 France wins the allegiance of Moors in the region.
1960 – Mauritania becomes independent from France.
1978 – First post-independence president, Moktar Daddah, is deposed in a military coup.
1979 – Mauritania gives up its claims to Western Sahara, deferring to an armed independence movement there.
2009 – Gen Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz – leader of the August 2008 military coup that ousted President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi – wins presidential elections.
2014 – France establishes a long-term military operation to prevent jihadist groups from setting up safe havens in the Sahel, including Mauritania.