Just months after the 2009 Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, the newly installed Mauritanian government made a daring move.

The country had been one of only three Arab nations to recognise Israel, but President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who had taken power months earlier in a military coup and booted out the Israeli ambassador, shut his country’s embassy in Tel Aviv.

He then welcomed the foreign minister of Iran – Israel and the US’s arch-rival – to the capital, Nouakchott, in the first such visit since the early 1980s.

Adding insult to injury, Tehran agreed to finish a Nouakchott cancer hospital Israel had started building.

The foreign policy shift was popular among Mauritanians long wary of the country’s friendly relations with Israel and hopeful for a more independent foreign policy. And it ultimately cost the Nouakchott regime nothing. Despite warming to Iran, Mauritania soon began to receive US aid cut immediately after the coup: including millions of dollars in annual development aid.

“Mauritania’s foreign policy, especially under the current president, is pragmatic in the sense of wanting to have good diplomatic relations with all sides,” says Isselmou Ghaly, an instructor at the University of Nouakchott and a journalist.

“This approach is akin to the Mauritanian proverbial saying: ‘I like you for what you admire, but I don’t necessarily hate what you hate.’”

From its independence from France in 1960 until recently, Mauritania was considered an impoverished and sparsely populated backwater on the far edge of both the Arab world and Africa.

But the mostly desert southern Atlantic nation of about 3.5m has acquired greater international significance than its size and economy might lead one to expect.

In the past two years, it has received official delegations from Turkey and France, as well as a visit in January by the USS Elrod, a guided-missile frigate. This year, Mauritania took over from Ethiopia as chair of the African Union.

“Our foreign policy is now based on national interest,” says Lemrabott Issa Baba, a scholar in Nouakchott. “In the past, national policy was very weak and Mauritania was not playing a great role in the region.”

Relations with the west largely soured after the 2008 coup, which toppled the democratically elected government of Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

That forced Mauritania’s isolated new government to court other foreign backers, including the then Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi’s Libya, Qatar, Iran and Turkey. In particular, Ankara’s relations with Mauritania skyrocketed. Turkish shops, schools, and construction companies have a presence.

Mauritania’s large iron ore reserves, as well as the possibility of offshore gas and oil finds, helped attract international interest. But, in large part, Mauritania’s emergence as a hotspot for international terrorism is what has drawn broader western engagement.

The French-led intervention last year in northern Mali, where al-Qaeda affiliates had set up a mini-state, as well as the on-and-off resurgence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, highlight the importance of Mauritania, which has shown an ability and willingness to engage militarily against militants.

“Mauritania is approached by the US as a focal point in the fight against terrorism,” says Paulo Gorjão, a north Africa specialist at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security in Lisbon.

Within the Arab world, the tangled relationship between Morocco and Algeria over the disputed territory of Western Sahara has long drawn in Mauritania, which has at various times courted both north African powers. Morocco considers western Sahara its own despite the objections of Algeria and militants seeking autonomy. Mauritania, which Morocco has in the past also claimed, watches nervously from the sidelines, mostly siding with Algeria in recent years, after edging closer to Rabat until about three years ago.

“With Algeria and Morocco, Mauritanians go back and forth,” says Kal Ben Khalid, the Algerian-American analyst who oversees The Moor Next Door blog. “They can get something from each of them, and turn to one or the other at different times.”

Mauritania maintains strong ties with the EU, but less as a trading partner than as a recipient of aid that sometimes contributes to the rentier mentality that holds back the country’s growth.

Many believe Mauritania’s economic future lies with the rest of Africa. Though the US may provide counter-terrorism support, “Mauritania must secure its borders to achieve stability and that will only come through co-operation with neighbours,” says Mohamed Ould Mahboubi, a Nouakchott political scientist.

Unlike Morocco and other north African states, Mauritania sees itself as deeply embedded within the continent, a result of both its geography and a long history of Mauritanian clerics and traders establishing themselves throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr Issa Baba sees a potential role for Mauritania as a transit point between “white and black” Africa. “We see ourselves as a great nation and a great player in this region.”

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