The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a West African country in the semiarid Sahel. It faces the Atlantic Ocean and is bordered by Senegal to the southwest, Mali to the southeast and east, Algeria to the northeast and the disputed Western Sahara to the northwest. The country has an ancient past as part of the western trans-Saharan trade route and owes much of its social and cultural makeup to the Arab conquests of North Africa. The colonization of north and west Africa, mainly by France in the 19th and 20th centuries, also profoundly affected the large, sparsely populated territory. Today, Mauritania is a weak country. For years, it has struggled with political crises among the elites, including several coups and attempted coups. State authority remains uneven outside the capital of Nouakchott, as regional and local elites often bargain for power with the country's political and military elites. Violent militant groups sometimes use its ungoverned spaces to the east and northeast for trafficking and travel. For years, the country has had fragile economic growth, but it is now seeing an uptick in interest from international energy companies because of the proven natural gas and oil deposits off its coast. This has the potential to increase income for the cash-strapped government. How the elites manage any windfall will help determine the country's future.