After achieving independence in 1962, following a long struggle with France, Algeria found itself in a difficult position: it produced only modest amounts of oil, had limited infrastructure in rural areas, grappled with unemployment in excess of 70% and was devastated by the conflict with its colonial ruler.
Just a half-century later, the country now numbers among the top oil producers on the continent and is one of the largest gas producers in the world, playing a key role in supplying energy to its northern neighbours – including France. Algeria’s infrastructure is in the midst of a dramatic overhaul, with new cross-country highways and transmissions lines helping improve rural development and new port and aviation facilities expanding commercial activity.
Of course, the history of development has not been without its complications. These included an extended conflict in the 1990s that erased some socioeconomic gains made since 1962, a slow pace of economic reforms that impacted social development indicators, and a lingering legacy of state centralisation that dampened private sector growth and limited diversification. Nevertheless, the progress is impressive, especially considering some of the hurdles the country has had to overcome.
GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE: With a total land surface of 2.38m sq km, Algeria is the largest African country by geographical size (having overtaken Sudan following South Sudan’s succession in 2011), as well as the largest country in the Mediterranean region. Its land boundaries span 6343 km, and the country borders Tunisia and Libya to the east, Niger and Mali to the south, Mauritania to the south-west, and the Western Sahara and Morocco along its western flank. Its northern border consists of just under 1000 km of Mediterranean coastline.
Although 85% of the country is desert, Algeria is topographically diverse, in particular in the north, which consists of the Tell Atlas, the High Plateaux and the Saharan Atlas. The Tell is a fertile narrow coastal strip home to the bulk of the population and some of the largest cities, including the capital, Algiers. It has a mountainous hinterland stretching all the way from Morocco in the west to Tunisia in the east. Only 3% of land is arable, with total agricultural surface area amounting to 8.67m ha.
Algeria has a semi-arid climate, though one that varies significantly by location. Desert areas are dry and daytime temperatures frequently exceed 40°C, though they can fall below 0°C at night; by contrast, coastal regions enjoy a Mediterranean climate with mild wet winters and hot humid summers, when there is almost no rainfall.
In the capital, Algiers, the average maximum temperature generally peaks in August at about 30°C, while the lowest average minimum temperature is usually recorded in January, at around 9°C. Precipitation typically peaks at around 140 mm in December, falling to near zero in July and August. The High Plateaux have a mostly dry climate characterised by cold winters and hot summers.
POPULATION: Roughly 91% of the population lives in less than 13% of the country’s territory, mostly in the north along the Mediterranean. The Sahara, by contrast, contains less than 10% of the total. The population was an estimated 35.6m in 2010, with over 68% under 35 years of age. Of that 35.6m, 99% is of Arab and/or Berber descent, with a European minority making up most of the remaining 1%.
Berber (also called Amazigh) peoples, the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa, have lived in the region since at least 10,000 BCE. While other peoples have settled and/or controlled parts of Algeria over the ages, they have not fundamentally altered the country’s Arab-Berber character. East of Algiers, the mountainous region of Kabylie is home to Algeria’s largest Berber population, which speaks its own Berber dialect, called Kabyle. Other Amazigh populations in Algeria include the Chaoui in the eastern Atlas Mountains, the Mozabites in the Mzab Valley and the Tuareg, who speak a language called Tamashek, in the far south. A few Black African communities also live in the south.
Most Algerians living in the Sahara are concentrated around the oases found in the south, in towns such as Tamanrasset and Tindouf. Some desert cities, such as Hassi Messaoud and Adrar, are growing rapidly as a result of the oil and gas industry, with production concentrated in the centre of the country. Some 1.5m inhabitants remain nomadic or partly nomadic, including the Tuareg. Today 99% of the country’s population is Sunni Muslim.
Arabic is the official language, although many Algerians are fluent in French as well. The Algerian Arabic dialect, Darja, is spoken in daily life, and differs substantially from standard Arabic, which is mainly used only in the media, government offices and schools. Darja varies greatly from region to region. Kabyle, the most common Berber dialect, is spoken in the eastern part of the country. Although French is recognised as the language of business, it is losing ground to Arabic and even English, which – though far from common – is spoken by many in the younger generation.
EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM: Social development indicators have improved significantly in recent years for the over 8.1m pupils in primary and secondary schools and the additional 1.1m in higher education. Education is free and compulsory until age 16. However, the education sector remains underdeveloped, with low enrolment rates particularly for primary and secondary school. Only half of eligible students are currently registered in secondary school, which begins at age 12. Public schools across the country, in particular in rural areas, suffer from low quality education, due to a lack of resources, teachers and classrooms, alongside an outdated curriculum.
Despite these drawbacks, Algeria’s literacy rate continues to exceed many of its neighbours (70% in 2008), though it remains below international standards. Students are primarily taught in Arabic, though classes in the Berber language Tamazight were introduced in 2003. As part of a recent government emphasis on Arabic, stringent restrictions were placed on French-speaking classes for both private and public schools in 2005. Private education remains limited as private classes are generally not affordable for most Algerians. Students in private schools generally receive lessons based on the French curriculum, despite state restrictions on French itself, and students can take the French and Algerian baccalaureate exams. Women comprise the majority of higher education, at 54%.
NATURAL RESOURCES: Another crucial element in Algeria’s history has been its natural resources, with expanses of land and maritime territory containing large amounts of mineral and hydrocarbons wealth.
Hydrocarbons are the mainstay of the economy, representing 97-98% of exports, 60% of government revenue and upwards of 30% of GDP (though these figures vary significantly from year to year, depending on the price of oil). Algeria has produced oil since 1956 and gas since 1961. In 1964 the country became the first commercial producer of liquefied natural gas (LNG). The country ranks 15th in the world for both total oil production and proven oil reserves, 7th in the world for LNG supply and 10th in terms of natural gas reserves. Algeria is the third-largest supplier of gas to Europe, which is increasingly dependent on Algeria for energy. Over 10% of European consumption originates in Algeria, while around 40% of oil exports go to the US, making it the largest purchaser of Algerian oil.
Other natural resources include iron ore, phosphates, uranium, lead and zinc. The country is a significant producer of several agricultural products. It is one of the world’s largest producers of dates, for example, though export volumes remain small.
SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT: The improving economic situation has helped lift a number of social indicators. Algeria ranked 96th out of the 187 countries surveyed in the 2011 Human Development Index, making it the second-highest-ranked country in the “medium human development” category and just short the “high human development” category.
Life expectancy has increased from around 50 in 1965 to 73 today. The population has tripled from around 12m in 1966 to 36m, despite the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Algerians to Europe in the first decade of independence. However, population growth has fallen from above 3.3% in 1966 and similar levels into the 1980s to around 1.2% today, as the annual birth rate has dropped from around 50 per 1000 habitants in the period immediately after independence to about 17 now. Thanks to investment and improvements in health care infant mortality has gone from around 154 deaths per 1000 live births in 1965 to about 25 today. The proportion living in cities has increased from 30% to 66% today. Of the local population, some 90% were illiterate at independence, a figure that is now just 30%.