As of 2014, the United Nations designates the geographical region of North Africa as consisting of seven countries: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Western Sahara. These countries make up the territory north of the Sahara desert. Sudan was a larger country until 2011, when South Sudan became a separate independent country.
It is common practice to group South Sudan with the countries of North Africa. However, since gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, it has been classified by the United Nations as part of Eastern Africa.
North Africa also includes a number of Spanish possessions (Ceuta and Melilla and tiny Spanish islets off the coast of Morocco) as well the Canary Islands and the Portuguese Madeira Islands, in the North Atlantic Ocean northwest of the African mainland.
North Africa is distinct from the rest of the African continent not just geographically but also because of historical, cultural, religious and political differences. Historically, North Africa has been shaped by interaction with neighboring cultures, particularly the Mediterranean, via trade and the advent of sea travel. Religiously, the introduction and spread of Islam in the region has set North Africa apart from the Christian majority of the south and it is now considered an important part of the Arab world.