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Diplomacy in Action

Mauritania (07/95)


For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Official Name:
Islamic Republic of Mauritania

Area: 1.1 million sq. km. (419,212 sq. mi.); slightly larger than Texas and New Mexico combined. Cities: Capital--Nouakchott (pop. 600,000). Other cities--Nouadhibou (70,000), Kaedi (74,000), Zouerate (27,000), Kiffa (65,000), Rosso (50,000). Terrain: Northern four-fifths barren desert; southern 20% mainly Sahelian with small scale irrigated and rain-fed agriculture in the Senegal River basin. Climate: Predominantly hot and dry.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Mauritanian(s).
Population (1995): 2.3 million.
Annual growth rate: 2.9%.
Ethnic groups: Arab-Berber, Arab-Berber-Negroid, Pulaar, Soninke, Wolof.
Religion: Islam.
Languages: Hassaniya Arabic (official), French, Pular, Wolof, and Soninke.
Education: Years compulsory--none. Attendance--Student population enrolled in primary school 83%. Adult literacy--33%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--125/1,000. Life expectancy--46 yrs.
Work force: Agriculture and fisheries--50%. Services and commerce-- 20%. Government--20%. Industry and transportation--5%. Other--5%.

Type: Republic.
Independence: November 28, 1960.
Constitution: Promulgated 1961, abolished by decree July 10, 1978. New constitution approved by referendum July 20, 1991.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state). Legislative--bicameral national assembly, elected lower house (79 members), and upper house (56 members) chosen indirectly by municipal councilors. Judicial--a supreme court and lower courts are subject to control of executive branch; judicial decisions are rendered mainly on the basis of shari'a (Islamic law) for social/family matters and a western style legal code, applied in commercial and some criminal cases.
Political parties: Officially 19.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.

GDP (1994 est.): $1.1 billion.
Annual growth rate: 5.6%.
Per capita income: $480.
Natural resources: Fish, iron ore, gypsum.
Agriculture (24% of GDP): Products--livestock, millet, maize, wheat, dates, rice.
Industry (30% of GDP): Types--iron mining, fishing.
Trade (1994) (40% of GDP): Exports--$419 million. Major markets--Japan 29%; Italy 14%; France 14%; Spain 10%, Belgium/Luxembourg 7%; Switzerland 5%. Imports--$384 million: foodstuffs, machinery, tools, cloth, consumer goods. Major suppliers--France 33%; U.S. 10%; Spain 9%; Germany 6%; Algeria 6%; Belgium/Luxembourg 5%; Italy 4%.

Before June 7, 1967, the United States maintained cordial relations with Mauritania and provided a small amount of economic assistance. However, Mauritania broke diplomatic and consular relations with the United States during the June 1967 Middle East war. Relations were restored two years later, and ties were relatively friendly until the late 1980s, despite disagreement over the Arab-Israeli issue.

Between 1983 and 1991, when the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) mission in Mauritania ceased operations, the United States provided $67.3 million in development assistance. The U.S. also provided emergency food assistance through bilateral channels until 1992 and, subsequently, through multilateral channels. Since 1981, the United States has provided about $100 million in economic and food assistance.

The 1989 rupture between Mauritania and Senegal that resulted in the deportation of tens of thousands of Mauritanian citizens negatively affected U.S.-Mauritanian relations. Moreover, Mauritania's perceived support of Iraq prior to and during the Gulf war of 1991 further weakened the strained ties.

Relations between the U.S. and Mauritania reached a low in the spring of 1991, as details of the Mauritanian military's role in widespread human rights abuses surfaced. The United States responded by formally halting USAID operations and all military assistance to Mauritania.

Since late 1991, the Government of Mauritania has expressed a desire to restore good relations with the United States. It has implemented democratic reforms such as the legalization of political parties, a free press, and presidential and legislative elections. The government has also improved its overall performance on human rights.

The prospects for resuming U.S. military and development assistance to Mauritania hinge on Mauritania's continued progress on human rights.

Trade and Investment
In 1995, an American firm was awarded a $17 million contract for projects in Mauritania in telecommunications and other fields, indicating that bilateral commercial ties are expanding.

Mauritanians would welcome U.S. investment, particularly in fisheries. U.S. exporters have been active in the mining sector, although primarily through European offices or agents. Export opportunities exist in transportation, agriculture, boat repair, and port handling equipment.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Dorothy M. Sampas
Deputy Chief of Mission--Joseph D. Stafford
Political/Military Officer--Raymond D. Richart, Jr.
Economic/Consular/Commercial Officer--Marie C. Damour

The address of the U.S. embassy in Mauritania is BP 222, Nouakchott, Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Tel. (222)(2) 526-60/526-63; Telex AMEMB 5558 MTN; Fax (222)(2) 515-92.

From July 1978 to April 1992, Mauritania was governed by a military junta. The ruling group was composed of military officers holding ministerial portfolios or important positions in the defense establishment. The chairman of the committee was also chief of state. A new constitution was approved by referendum in July 1991; in early 1992, faced with internal crisis in the form of ethnic strife, as well as a cutoff of military and development assistance from abroad, the government reverted to civilian rule and the military committee was disbanded. Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya remained at the head of government. As of June 1995, only one military officer remained in the Council of Ministers.

Politics in Mauritania have always been heavily influenced by personalities, with any leader's ability to exercise political power dependent upon control over resources, perceived ability or integrity, and tribal, ethnic, family, and personal considerations. It is likely that during the civilian transition still underway, the chief of state, though very powerful, will continue to be subject to tribal and ethnic pressures. Conflict between Moor and non-Moor ethnic groups, centering on language, land tenure, and other issues, continues to be the dominant challenge to national unity.

The government bureaucracy is composed of traditional ministries, special agencies, and parastatal companies. The Ministry of Interior controls a system of regional governors and prefects modeled on the French system of local administration. Under this system, Mauritania is divided into 13 regions (wilayas) and one district (Nouakchott). Control is tightly centralized in Nouakchott. However, partly because of 1992 national elections and 1994 municipal elections, a decentralizing trend in the bureaucracy is underway.

Political parties, illegal during the military period, were legalized again in 1991, as a sign of democratic reform. By April 1992, when the civilian transition occurred, 15 political parties had been recognized. Although most are small, there are two main opposition parties. Most opposition parties boycotted the first legislative election in 1992, and the parliament is dominated by one party, President Taya's PRDS (Parti Republicain et Democratique Social). The opposition participated in municipal elections in January-February 1994 and subsequent Senate elections, gaining representation at the local level as well as one seat in the Senate.

Much social status is determined by descent from either the region's Arab-Berber conquerors or the Caucasoid-Negroid peoples they enslaved. A distinction between aristocracy and servant historically defined Maure (Moor) society as "white" and "black"--traditionally the enslaved indigenous class came to be called black Moors--although such status differences are declining.

The ethnic conflict that troubled Mauritania in the late 1980s and early 1990s has lessened, although political parties still reflect the country's social division. Many of the country's non-Arabic-speaking black citizens support opposition parties, while others are active in the PRDS.

Principal Government Officials
President--Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya
Prime Minister--Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Mohamed Salem Ould Lekhal
Ambassador to the United Nations--Mohamed Ould Ely
Ambassador to the United States--Ismael Ould Iyahi

Mauritania maintains an embassy in the United States at 2129 Leroy Place NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-232-5700).

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