The Atlantic wealth: One-on-one with Mauritania's president

Ahmed Al-Moslemany
Monday 24 Feb 2020

Mauritania is a country with a rich history. A third of the Mauritanian people write poetry and a third listens and evaluates. As such, the country has forged a term similar to "democratic majority", that is "creative majority", where two thirds of the population are either poets or critics.

I visited Mauritania many times and every time the plane lands in Nouakchott Airport the beauty of this wonderful land enchants me. Its kind people shower their visitors with words of friendliness and a welcoming spirit, and you can feel their warmth is genuine. 

Nouakchott International Airport carries the name of Oumtounsy, after the battle in which Mauritanians defeated the French. 2020 marks the 60th anniversary of Mauritania's independence.

Last time I visited Nouakchott to attend the "African Scholars: Promoting Tolerance and Moderation against Extremism and Sectarianism" Conference, which was organised by the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS) headed by Sheikh Abdallah ibn Bayyah, chairman of the United Arab Emirates' Fatwa Council. I liked the speech by the Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, who inaugurated the conference. His speech was brief and the Arabic language he used was eloquent.  

Ghazouani is steering his country through hard times because terrorism is spreading from neighbouring Mali to its surroundings. Mauritania is about to possess an enormous wealth of natural gas recently discovered.

The discovery of a source of energy is always good news except that it necessarily evokes wide concern. In Iraq and Libya the wealth was transformed into a curse. Oil didn't bring money as much as it brought bloodshed. This requires permanent alertness whenever oil fields emerged on land or in sea.

Mauritania overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and at its joint borders with Senegal lies hope: water and natural gas, and on its other side of the borders lies Mali where crime and terrorism are rife. Across borders that stretch for 5,000km, opportunities and dangers collide.

It is hard to understand this region without paying attention to the words of the Mauritanian president. I requested to meet him in Nouakchott and he had just returned from the London Summit. My request was granted and a meeting was scheduled to take place in Abu Dhabi. 

I visited the president at his residence in one of the hotels in the Emirati capital. I gave him a copy of my book, A Nation in Danger – Religion and Politics in the Arab World. I was fortunate to meet him again in the council of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

Al-Mahfouz, son of Sheikh Abdallah ibn Bayyah, met the Mauritanian president before me. When I met him outside the reception hall, he told me "You’ll meet a refined leader in both politics and religion." 

The Mauritanian president greatly appreciates President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and believes relations between Cairo and Nouakchott are at their best.

During the meeting, Ghazouani discussed politics and economics. I wished I had more time to listen to his analyses on worldly matters. His composure and poise doubled the meeting’s benefits.

Ghazouani believes the main problem in the Sahel and Sahara countries is development. Thus, focusing on the security dimension without development will be futile.

When I said the anger of the people in the region is visible, he said it was due to the deteriorating economy and the hardships of life, adding that security is key to protect life, but that food, clothing, housing, education and health are life itself.

“We are one of the Sahel and Sahara countries and we aren’t part of the ongoing battles. However, the continuing deterioration creates more pressure and tension in the region," he said.

The Mauritanian president doesn’t see what’s happening in Libya as distant affairs. He believes instability in Libya will spread its pressures to the south and west. This in turn will increase instability in the Sahel and Sahara region.

Ghazouani’s assessment is similar to that of research centres and studies which consider that this fragile geopolitical region might continue to deteriorate if the conditions in Libya didn't improve. While France is fighting, at the request of the government, terrorism in Mali, seven years and five billion euros didn’t end the situation decisively. Since France and the coalition forces are fighting in an area that equals the size of Belgium 70 times, the situation in Libya might double this area so maybe the region would look like a new Afghanistan or “Afghanistan Africa”.

"The matter is connected to terrorism and organised crime working in narcotics, arms trade and human trafficking. What has helped arms trade to flourish is this arsenal that Gaddafi left and those illegal arms coming from the Mediterranean," he said.

The Mauritanian president is trying to rebuild the Mauritanian vision. He is happy regarding the understanding with Senegal concerning the large amount of natural gas explored on both countries’ borders as well as the leading companies starting to work in Nouakchott. Moreover, his successful visit to the Emirates and Abu Dhabi’s allocation of $2 billion for investment, development and soft loan projects in Mauritania boosted hope that his country will move one step forward.

The president isn’t worried about security in his country and has previously engaged in battles against terrorism.

During his presidential campaign, the president suggested a project to dig a canal from the Senegal River that extends for 50km that will push agricultural development forward. When I spoke with the president about his vision for development he said, "The social culture is an extremely vital element. Some of its facets have been changed for the better... We are the people of the desert and past generations didn’t pay attention to the sea. This has now changed and new generations began to reconcile with the sea."

On the new resorts constructed on the Atlantic shores he said, "We have another problem. The Mauritanians don’t like craft works and they keep away from professions. However, new generations started to move positively forward. Now, there are those who manage restaurants and food projects and those who work in construction and architecture. Our country has a big wealth; we have huge fisheries resources in the Atlantic Ocean and we have agricultural and livestock resources in addition to mineral resources such as iron, copper and gold."

There is a lot for President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani to achieve. Some await the Atlantic Ocean's wealth eagerly and others are fearful of this moment. In my opinion, the true wealth that Mauritania possesses is the Mauritanians themselves.


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