HISTORY: Algeria’s population has been influenced by a variety of peoples crossing the North African region towards Europe and the Middle East. Its language and culture have been shaped by conquering and colonizing Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines who dominated the lands until the Arab invasion in the seventh century, when most of the country was converted to Islam.

After Spanish rule in sections of the Maghreb coast, in particular the north-western parts of today’s Algeria, from the 14th until the 16th century, the region was annexed by the Ottomans, who incorporated Algeria as a province, with Algiers as its capital.

Algeria was conquered in 1830 by the French, who integrated the country as a department rather than an overseas territory, which was common for other French colonies. Chaffing under French rule, Algerian rebels formed the National Liberation Front (Front de Liberation Nationale, FLN) and took to arms on November 1st,1954. The independence struggle achieved victory in 1962, when Algeria became a sovereign nation.

GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE: Algeria is the second-largest African country after Sudan and the largest in the Mediterranean region. Its total land boundaries span 6343 km, and the country borders Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Mall Mauritania, Western Sahara and Morocco along its western flank. Its northern border consists of slightly less than 1000 km of Mediterranean coastline. The country’s total land surface measures nearly 2.4m sq km, making it just under 3.5 times the size of Texas and nearly four times the size of France.

The geography varies significantly by region, ranging from mountains and plains to the sands of the Sahara

Algeria has a diverse landscape, in particular in the north, which is characterized by the Tell Atlas, the High Plateaus (more commonly known in French as the Hauls Plateaux) and the Saharan Atlas. The Tell consists of a narrow coastal strip with a mountainous hinterland stretching from Morocco along the length of Algeria’s Mediterranean coast into Tunisia. This is also the densest area in terms of population, home to the country’s largest cities, such as Algiers (over 3m inhabitants) and Oran (650,000 inhabitants), and it is traditionally also the nation’s agricultural heartland.

Further inland the Hauts Plateaux consist of arid, steppe-like plains that run east for almost 600 km from the Moroccan border. The plains average around 1200 meters above sea level in height and gradually drop down to around 400 meters at the base of the Saharan Atlas, the final barrier between the Sahara Desert and northern Algeria. This range runs parallel to the Tell Atlas, culminating in the Aures Mountains in the north-west.

South of these mountains lies the vast surface of the Sahara, covering around 90% of the country’s total land surface and home to less than 10% of the population. Two striking features of this wild landscape are the Grand Erg Occidental and Grand Erg Oriental, which rise hundreds of meters in an ever-changing landscape of wind-sculpted sand dunes.

The contrast in landscape makes for a varied climate. Whereas the dense northern part of the country enjoys a mild climate with wet winters and hot, dry summers, the Hauts Plateaux has a drier climate with cold winters and hot summers. Due to the plains broken topography, sharp local contrasts in both temperatures and incidence of rainfall can be noticed throughout the year. The Sahara has a typical desert-like climate with temperatures reaching extreme heights in summer-time, and even in winter, midday desert temperatures can be very high. Rainfall is fairly common along the coastal part of the country, ranging from 400 to 670 mm per year. Inland the rainfall is less plentiful.

NATURAL RESOURCES: Algeria’s energy sector is the backbone of its national economy. In 2008 hydrocarbons accounted for 98.5% of the country’s exports and 80% of its budget revenues. The country’s gas sector is of particular national importance; in 2008 Algeria was the world’s fourth-largest supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG), the fifth-largest supplier of natural gas and accounted for 10% of the gas consumed by the EU.

Although oil was first discovered in 1956 and gas in 1961, both are considered to be underexplored. Despite regulatory challenges and the volatility in oil prices, foreign firms have taken up an increasingly important role in the exploitation of the country’s natural resources, in particular in traditionally energy-rich areas such as Hassi Messaou, Hassi Rmel and In Salah.

Recently launched bidding rounds are expected to increase the production capacity of oil and gas, and Algeria is expanding both its refining and transport capacity in order to optimize its export potential. Efforts to extend the existing gas pipeline network, such as the Medgaz pipeline running from Hassi Rmel to Almeria in the south of Spain, are in line with this.

Other natural resources that can be found in Algeria include iron ore, phosphates, uranium, lead and zinc. The Agence National du Patrimoine Minier (National Mining Patrimony Agency) has launched a bidding round for 62 mines over the course of 2009 with a view to increasing the country’s limited mineral production.

POPULATION: Algeria’s population stood at 34.18m according to July 2009 estimates, an increase of 1.2% from the year before. Nearly 70% of the population falls into the 15- to 64-year-old age group, and over 25% is under the age of 14. Life expectancy currently stands at 72 years for males and 75 for females.

Around 40% of the population lives in the Tell Atlas bordering the Mediterranean coast. Those residing in the Sahara are mainly concentrated around one of the many oases sprouting out of the desert, although some 1.5m inhabitants remain nomadic or partly nomadic. The largest nomadic tribe is the Touareg, which live in the region of Tamanrasset, a medium-sized city in the far south of the country. About 99% of the population is registered as being Arab-Berber, whereas less than 1% is of European descent. The European minority is largely made up of descendants of pied noirs, European nationals living in Algeria during the French colonial days.

The majority of the population lives along the Mediterranean coast

LANGUAGE: Algeria’s official language is Arabic, referring to both Algerian Arabic, which incorporates many French and Tamazight words and is used in daily speech, and modern standard Arabic, which is the formal version used in schools, government offices and the media. Although some neighboring countries generally understand Algerian Arabic, the differences with Middle Eastern dialects are substantial. French, widely used until the end of the Boumédiene era in the late 1970s, is rapidly losing ground with younger generations. English is very little spoken and understood, as are other foreign languages.

RELIGION & CULTURE: Although the Algerian population largely practices the same religion, Islam, their background is highly diversified.

Algeria is heavily influenced by Sunni Islam, the state religion to which more than 90% of its people belong. The country’s makes efforts to maintain a secular state, but religion plays an important role in people’s daily lives in Algeria, exercising influence over many social events such as family law and social organization, etiquette, food and dress, as well as general law and commerce. Islamic traditions, however, are lesser visible in urban and upper-middle class areas.

EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM: There are some 8.1m students in primary and secondary schools in the country and a further 1.1 m in higher education. Algerians enjoy free education, which is compulsory up to the age of 16. Despite this, enrolment rates remain relatively low and are particularly low from primary through secondary school. About half of those eligible are currently enrolled in secondary school, which starts at the age of 12. The quality of public education remains problematic, especially in rural areas, due to a lack of teachers, classrooms and a generally obsolete curriculum.

The primary language of school instruction is Arabic, but classes in Tamazight, the Berber language, have been permitted since 2003. Strong restrictions on holding classes in French have been imposed on both pub-lic and private schools since 2005.

In 2008, Algeria’s literacy rate stood at 70%, positioning it above countries such as Morocco and Egypt.

Private education remains limited in large part because few families can afford to send their children to private institutions.

Women constitute the majority of students enrolled in higher education, with 54% females among the total 1.1 m Algerian students.