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Background Note: Mauritania

Background Note: Mauritania

PROFILE

OFFICIAL NAME:
Islamic Republic of Mauritania

Geography
Area: 1,030,070 sq. km. (419,212 sq. mi.); slightly larger than Texas and New Mexico combined.
Cities (2004): Capital--Nouakchott (pop. 708,000). Other cities--Nouadhibou (72,000), Rosso (50,000), Kaedi (34,000), Zouerate (34,000), Kiffa (33,000), Atar (24,000).
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.

People
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Mauritanian(s).
Population (2007): 2,961,000.
Annual growth rate: 2.5%.
Ethnic groups: Arab-Berber (White Moor), Arab-Berber-Negroid (Black Moor), Haalpulaar, Soninke, Wolof (Black African Mauritanians).
Religion: Islam.
Languages: Arabic (official), Hassaniya (Arabic dialect), French, Pulaar, Wolof, and Soninke.
Education: Years compulsory--six. Attendance (student population enrolled in primary school)--82%. Adult literacy (% of population age 15+)--59%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--67/1,000. Life expectancy--64 yrs.
Work force: Agriculture and fisheries--50%. Services and commerce--20%. Government--20%. Industry and transportation--10%.

Government
Type: Republic.
Independence: November 28, 1960.
Constitution: Approved 1991. Original constitution promulgated 1961.
Branches: Executive--president (head of state). Legislative--bicameral national assembly, directly elected lower house (81 members), and upper house (56 members) chosen indirectly by municipal councilors. Judicial--a supreme court and lower courts are nominally independent but 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: 21.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
National day: November 28, Independence Day.

Economy
GDP (2007): $2.8 billion.
Annual growth rate (2007): 1.9%.
Per capita income (2006): $952.
Natural resources: petroleum, fish, iron ore, gypsum, copper, gum arabic, phosphates, salt and gold.
Agriculture (13% of GDP 2007): Products--livestock, traditional fisheries, millet, maize, wheat, dates, rice.
Industry (47% of GDP 2007): Types--mining, commercial fishing.
Services (41% of GDP 2007).
Trade: Exports (2006, f.o.b.)--$1.4 billion: iron ore, fish and fish products, gold, copper, petroleum. Export partners (2007)--China 30.5%, France 9.5%, Italy 8.6%, Spain 8.5%, Japan 5.5%, Netherlands 5.3%, Belgium 5%, Cote d'Ivoire 4.7%. Imports (2006)--$1.5 billion: machinery and equipment, petroleum products, capital goods, foodstuffs, consumer goods. Import partners (2007)--France 16.7%, China 8.2%, Spain 6.8%, U.S. 6.2%, Belgium 5.8%, Brazil 5.5%.
Currency: Ouguiya (UM).
USAID: Total FY 2008 USAID humanitarian and development assistance to Mauritania--$21,106,735.

HISTORY
From the 3rd to 7th centuries, the migration of Berber tribes from North Africa displaced the Bafours, the original inhabitants of present-day Mauritania and the ancestors of the Soninke. Continued Arab-Berber migration drove indigenous black Africans south to the Senegal River or enslaved them. By 1076, Islamic warrior monks (Almoravid or Al Murabitun) completed the conquest of southern Mauritania, defeating the ancient Ghana empire. Over the next 500 years, Arabs overcame fierce Berber resistance to dominate Mauritania. The Mauritanian Thirty-Year War (1644-74) was the unsuccessful final Berber effort to repel the Maqil Arab invaders led by the Beni Hassan tribe. The descendants of Beni Hassan warriors became the upper stratum of Moorish society. Berbers retained influence by producing the majority of the region's Marabouts--those who preserve and teach Islamic tradition. Hassaniya, a mainly oral, Berber-influenced Arabic dialect that derives its name from the Beni Hassan tribe, became the dominant language among the largely nomadic population. Within Moorish society, aristocratic and servant classes developed, yielding "white" (aristocracy) and "black" Moors (the enslaved indigenous class).

French colonization at the beginning of the 20th century brought legal prohibitions against slavery and an end to interclan warfare. During the colonial period, the population remained nomadic, but sedentary black Africans, whose ancestors had been expelled centuries earlier by the Moors, began to trickle back into southern Mauritania. As the country gained independence in 1960, the capital city of Nouakchott was founded at the site of a small colonial village. Ninety percent of the population was still nomadic. With independence, larger numbers of ethnic Sub-Saharan Africans (Haalpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) entered Mauritania, moving into the area north of the Senegal River. Educated in French, many of these recent arrivals became clerks, soldiers, and administrators in the new state.

Moors reacted to this change by trying to Arabicize much of Mauritanian life, such as law and language. A schism developed between those who considered Mauritania to be an Arab country (mainly Moors) and those who sought a dominant role for the Sub-Saharan peoples. The discord between these two conflicting visions of Mauritanian society was evident during intercommunal violence that broke out in April 1989 (the "1989 Events").

The country's first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, served from independence until ousted in a bloodless coup on July 10, 1978. Mauritania was under military rule from 1978 to 1992, when the country's first multi-party elections were held following the July 1991 approval by referendum of a constitution.

The Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS), led by President Maaouiya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, dominated Mauritanian politics from April 1992 until he was overthrown in August 2005. President Taya, who won elections in 1992 and 1997, first became chief of state through a December 12, 1984 bloodless coup which made him chairman of the committee of military officers that governed Mauritania from July 1978 to April 1992. A group of current and former Army officers launched a bloody but unsuccessful coup attempt on June 8, 2003.

On November 7, 2003, Mauritania's third presidential election since adopting the democratic process in 1992 took place. Incumbent President Taya was reelected. Several opposition groups alleged that the government had used fraudulent means to win the elections, but did not elect to pursue their grievances via available legal channels. The elections incorporated safeguards first adopted in 2001 municipal elections--published voter lists and hard-to-falsify voter identification cards

On August 3, 2005, President Taya was deposed in a bloodless coup. Military commanders, led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohammed Fal (alternative spelling: Vall) seized power while President Taya was attending the funeral of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. Colonel Fal established the ruling Military Council for Justice and Democracy to run the country. The council dissolved the Parliament and appointed a transitional government. The Transitional Government quickly established a timetable for the establishment of democratic rule within two years' time that led to successful parliamentary elections in November 2006, and free and transparent presidential elections in March 2007. A new democratically elected government under President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was inaugurated on April 19, 2007.

On August 6, 2008, President Abdallahi was overthrown in a bloodless coup. General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz seized power after President Abdallahi issued a decree dismissing General Aziz and three other senior military officers. The country is currently run by a 12-member "High State Council" composed entirely of military officers. As of mid-December 2008, President Abdallahi remained under house arrest in his native village of Lemden.

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Mauritania held a series of elections that began in November 2006 with a parliamentary vote and culminated March 25, 2007 with the second round of the presidential election. Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdellahi was elected President and took office on April 19, 2007. After almost 16 months of civilian rule, President Abdallahi was deposed on August 6, 2008 by a military-led coup, throwing the future of Mauritania's new-found democracy into doubt.

The government bureaucracy is composed of 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 (wilaya), including the capital district, Nouakchott. Control is tightly concentrated in the executive branch of the central government, but a series of national and municipal elections since 1992 have produced some decentralization.

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. Conflict among White Moor, Black Moor, and Black African Mauritanian groups, centering on language, land tenure, and other issues, continues to be a major challenge to national unity. Political parties, illegal during the military period, were legalized again in 1991.

Principal Government Officials
President--Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi
Prime Minister--Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghef
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Cheikh El Avia Ould Mohamed Khouna
Minister of Economy and Finance--Sidi Ould Tah
Ambassador to the United Nations--Abdelrahim Ould Elhadrami
Ambassador to the United States--Ibrahima Dia

Mauritania maintains an embassy in the United States at 2129 Leroy Place NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-232-5700, fax 202-232-5701) and a Permanent Mission to the United Nations at 211 East 43rd Street, Suite 2000, New York, NY 10017 (tel. 212-986-7963, fax 212-986-8419).

U.S.-MAURITANIAN RELATIONS
The United States strongly condemns the military coup that overthrew the legitimate and democratically-elected president in 2008. Furthermore, the United States considers the "High State Council" and its cabinet to be illegitimate and undemocratic. As a result, non-humanitarian U.S. Government aid to Mauritania has been suspended, and travel restrictions have been placed on military and civilian individuals who are obstructing the return to democratic government. The United States continues to call for the unconditional release of President Abdallahi, and for an immediate return to constitutional order.

The U.S. Government fully supported Mauritania's transition to democracy, and congratulated Mauritania on the successful series of 2006-2007 parliamentary and presidential elections. The U.S. condemned the August 2005 coup and the unconstitutional assumption of power by the Military Council for Justice and Democracy, and called for a return to a constitutional government through free and fair elections as soon as possible. The United States provided election-related assistance for voter education, political party training, and democracy building.

Before the 2005 coup, U.S.-Mauritania relations were excellent, but underwent several transformations since Mauritania gained independence. From 1960 to 1967, the United States maintained cordial relations with Mauritania and provided a small amount of economic assistance. During the June 1967 Middle East war, Mauritania broke diplomatic and consular relations with the United States but restored ties 2 years later and maintained relatively friendly relations until the late 1980s, despite disagreement over the Arab-Israeli issue.

The 1989 rupture between Mauritania and Senegal (the "1989 Events") that resulted in Mauritania's deportation of tens of thousands of its own citizens to Senegal, negatively affected U.S.-Mauritanian relations. (The Mauritanian Government, assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), began repatriating refugees in early 2008.) Moreover, Mauritania's perceived support of Iraq prior to and during the 1991 Gulf war 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 U.S. responded by formally halting USAID operations and all military assistance to Mauritania. Relations also suffered in the 1990s as a result of repeated reports that slavery continued in some parts of Mauritania despite legal proscriptions.

By the late 1990s, the Mauritanian Government: adopted policies facilitating the return of those expelled or who fled during the 1989 Events; turned away from Iraq and toward the West; and initiated a poverty reduction strategy while securing debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. (See also Fact Sheet.) Improved relations with the United States, including the return of military cooperation and training programs, accompanied these changes. Mauritania formally opened diplomatic relations with Israel in 2000 and remains one of only three Arab League member-nations to have done so.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Mark M. Boulware
Deputy Chief of Mission--Dennis Hankins
Regional Security Officer--Robert Castro
Political Officer--Robert Lester
Economic-Consular Officer--Lindsay Kiefer
Public Affairs Officer--Heather Fabrikant
Management Officer--Susan N'Garnim
Peace Corps Country Director--Obie Shaw

The address of the U.S. Embassy in Mauritania is Rue Abdallaye, BP 222, Nouakchott, Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Tel. (222) 525-2660/525-2663; fax (222) 525-1592.

TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program advises Americans traveling and residing abroad through Country Specific Information, Travel Alerts, and Travel Warnings. Country Specific Information exists for all countries and includes information on entry and exit requirements, currency regulations, health conditions, safety and security, crime, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. Travel Alerts are issued to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas that pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country because the situation is dangerous or unstable.

For the latest security information, Americans living and traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet web site at http://www.travel.state.gov, where the current Worldwide Caution, Travel Alerts, and Travel Warnings can be found. Consular Affairs Publications, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, are also available at http://www.travel.state.gov. For additional information on international travel, see http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Travel/International.shtml.

The Department of State encourages all U.S. citizens traveling or residing abroad to register via the State Department's travel registration website or at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Registration will make your presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an emergency and will enable you to receive up-to-date information on security conditions.

Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada or the regular toll line 1-202-501-4444 for callers outside the U.S. and Canada.

The National Passport Information Center (NPIC) is the U.S. Department of State's single, centralized public contact center for U.S. passport information. Telephone: 1-877-4-USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778); TDD/TTY: 1-888-874-7793. Passport information is available 24 hours, 7 days a week. You may speak with a representative Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Eastern Time, excluding federal holidays.

Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) and a web site at http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/default.aspx give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. The CDC publication "Health Information for International Travel" can be found at http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/contentYellowBook.aspx.

Further Electronic Information
Department of State Web Site. Available on the Internet at http://www.state.gov, the Department of State web site provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information, including Background Notes and daily press briefings along with the directory of key officers of Foreign Service posts and more. The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) provides security information and regional news that impact U.S. companies working abroad through its website http://www.osac.gov

Export.gov provides a portal to all export-related assistance and market information offered by the federal government and provides trade leads, free export counseling, help with the export process, and more.

STAT-USA/Internet, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides authoritative economic, business, and international trade information from the Federal government. The site includes current and historical trade-related releases, international market research, trade opportunities, and country analysis and provides access to the National Trade Data Bank.

ENDS

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