Known as the land of one million poets, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is one of Africa’s newest oil producers. Mauritania bridges the Arab Maghreb and western sub-Saharan Africa; an expanse of desert presents a cultural divide between its Arab-Berber population to the north and its black African population to the south. Many of the people in both regions are nomads.

In the Middle Ages, Mauritania was the cradle of the Almoravid movement, which spread Islam throughout the region and temporarily 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 protectorate was extended over the territory. Mauritania gained its independence in 1960.

In 1976 Mauritania and Morocco divided up Spanish Sahara, now known as the Western Sahara, after Spain pulled out of the region. Guerrillas of the Polisario front, aiming to establish an independent state in the territory, fought the forces of both countries. Mauritanians agreed to peace with the Polisario in 1979 but relations with Morocco worsened as a result.

Economically, Mauritania depends heavily on drought-prone agriculture as its rich coastal fishing grounds are threatened by over-exploitation.  However, offshore oil exploitation began in 2006. Yet, despite its rich natural resources, Mauritania remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

A coup in 2005 ended President Taya’s two decades of authoritarian rule.  A presidential election two years later, in March 2007, marked the start of a short-lived move towards democracy.  However, another coup followed later that year. In July 2009 Mauritania held an election that was seen ahead of its time, and seen as a potential step forward, as President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who came to power through a coup, voluntarily stood for reelection.  But even before results were announced showing Mr. Aziz winning handily, the vote had been denounced by the main opposition candidates, who called it “an electoral coup d’état.”

Internationally, Mauritania is facing a new threat by the new Al-Qaeda militants operating in the Maghreb regions, presenting a serious challenge.

Agaila Abba Hemeida

Summer 2011 Maghreb Center Intern


BBC. BBC, n.d. Web. 5 July 2011. <;.

New York Times . New York Times , 23 July 2009. Web. 5 July 2011. <;.

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