Mauritania, roughly the size of Texas and California combined, is home to just 4.3 million people. That makes it one of the world’s least densely populated countries. It’s also one of the least known—a reality its ambassador in Washington would like to change.
Cissé Cheikh Boide, Mauritania’s first female envoy to the United States, arrived in March 2021. For two years before that, she was its permanent representative to UNESCO in Paris.
“We are an African country, a Maghreb country, an Arab country and an Islamic republic,” she said. “Our religion is based on tolerance and we are very proud of our diversity. Our people speak Fulani and Wolof as well as Arabic, and we all live in harmony.”
Yet Mauritania, which this week celebrates its 62nd anniversary of independence from France, is one of the world’s poorest nations. The westernmost of the 22 member states of the Cairo-based Arab League, it ranks 158th—just behind Papua New Guinea and ahead of Côte d’Ivoire—out of 191 jurisdictions in the United Nations’ 2022 Human Development Index.
Mauritania, the world’s largest country lying entirely below an altitude of 1,000 meters, also faces widespread desertification due to persistent drought conditions and climate change. In addition, it’s also dealing with a refugee crisis sparked by political instability and violence in neighboring Mali, with some 85,000 Malians now living in Mauritanian refugee camps in the Sahara Desert.
Boide, 52, spoke recently to The Washington Diplomat during an interview that later extended over a traditional Mauritanian lunch at her official residence that featured fresh goat-cheese salad, African lamb couscous and traditional sweet mint tea.
The ambassador, one of eight children, has a bachelor’s degree in tourism and hotel management from the International Institute of Tourism in Tangier, Morocco. She has also earned advanced degrees from the University of Lille in France, and speaks French, Arabic, English and Spanish.
“My father was chief of the Armed Forces of Mauritania. My brother is chief of special forces. I come from a military family, and all my life I’ve been connected with the military,” said Boide, adding that her mother was a French language teacher. “These days it’s common that both your parents are educated, but in my time it was not very common.”
From 2002 to 2009, Boide held various positions within Mauritania’s Ministry of Commerce, Craft and Tourism, helping to publicize the North African country as a tourist destination. She went on to serve as Mauritania’s minister of culture, youth and sports (2009-13), and president of her country’s National Education, Science and Culture Commission.
In 2014, she became an international policy and strategic consultant, doing management, project evaluation and sustainable development until her UNESCO appointment in 2019.
Among key challenges: Fighting extremism, improving human rights
An ancient kingdom inhabited by Berber tribes in the 3rd century, Mauritania was conquered by Arabs in the 8th century and has remained Islamic ever since. The capital city, Nouakchott, is home to around one-third of the population, and French is widely spoken as a result of Mauritania’s many years as a colony of France, right up until independence in 1960.
“The United States was the first country to recognize our independence, and we have very good relations,” said Boide. “The US assists Mauritania with partnerships aimed at improving public health, preventing and combating violent extremism and providing food security and humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations, including Malian refugees.”
In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, criminalizing it in 2007, though a form of it persists due to the historical caste system between the Bidhan (white Moors) and Haratin (black Moors).
“In Mauritania, we don’t have traditional slavery. In fact, we have adapted laws to condemn slavery,” the ambassador told us. “But we should be very honest. Like any other country, we have income inequality, and we are fighting that. We also have problems of unemployment, desertification and poverty. But traditional slavery does not exist.”
Despite widespread criticism of its poor track record on human rights and democracy, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani’s victory in Mauritania’s 2019 presidential election is the country’s first peaceful transition of power since independence.
Meanwhile, ISIS and Boko Haram terrorists continue to destabilize West Africa. In September, Cameroon’s ambassador to the United States, Henri Etoundi Essomba, told The Diplomat that eliminating the threat to West Africa from Islamist extremism is his country’s top priority.
Boide couldn’t agree more, she told us.
“Of course, we’re fighting extremism, but Mauritania has a very specific strategy based on development and security, and everyone knows about it,” she said. “Our approach to combating terrorism is to address not only the security threats, but the underlying politics and economics. We work closely with local communities, especially in the areas near our border with Mali.”
Nouakchott is, in fact, the headquarters of the G5 Sahel, a regional organization formed in 2014 that coordinates cooperation in development policies and security matters among five countries: Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger.
“As host of the G5 Sahel Executive Secretariat, Mauritania plays a key role in shaping how other G5 Sahel countries react to regional threats,” Boide told us. “Mauritania has succeeded in keeping terrorists at bay and in countering violent extremism inside its borders. We are very proud that American support and training has helped Mauritania in this important effort.”
Mauritania enjoys relatively good relations with all its neighbors including both Morocco and Algeria, even though those two countries have long been locked in a bitter dispute over the Westerm Sahara. The 266,000-sq km territory, once a territory of Spain, was claimed by both Morocco and Mauritania, though Mauritania dropped all claims in 1979.
Morocco fought a 16-year guerrilla war against the Polisario Front, a nationalist movement based in Algeria, yet remains in control of the territory. In 2020, the United States became the first country to grant official recognition to Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco’s normalization with Israel.
Could Mauritania become a major natural gas exporter?
In that regard, Mauritania was a foreign policy maverick. Back in October 1999, it became the third Arab League member—after Egypt and Jordan—to recognize Israel as a sovereign nation, ending the state of war that had existed between the two countries since 1967.
With the establishment of diplomatic ties, Mauritania soon opened an embassy in Tel Aviv, and Israel inaugurated its mission in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. Relations endured for the next 10 years—with bilateral cooperation in agriculture and healthcare—despite a terrorist attack on the Israeli Embassy for which an offshoot of al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility.
But in early 2009, following a war between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Mauritania broke relations with the Jewish state and has yet to restore them. There’s been some talk of Mauritania joining the Abraham Accords, which has seen the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and—to a lesser extent—Sudan take steps to normalize relations with Israel.
Boide declined to speculate on that possibility, saying only that “we are working on this issue in conformity with the Arab League. Mauritania takes into consideration what the Mauritanian people want, which is closely related to the Palestinian cause.”
Meanwhile, Mauritania would like to attract more US tourists, but given the lack of direct flights, continuing concerns about COVID and regional political volatility, it’s been a big challenge. In 2021, its embassy in Washington issued only 123 visas for Americans, down from 252 in 2018.
The Mauritanian immigrant community in the United States is not very large—in fact, only 10,000 or so—and in states one might not expect to find them: Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana and Florida. So it doesn’t receive significant revenue from overseas remittances in the way many other West African countries do, such as Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal.
Nevertheless, Mauritania expects 4.5% economic growth this year, and 6.5% growth in 2023, largely driven by exports of fish, gold, silver, iron and lithium—but all eyes are now on natural gas and Mauritania’s estimated 50 trillion cubic feet of reserves.
The country could become a major offshore natural gas exporter next year, thanks to the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim project, located 125 km off the coasts of Mauritania and neighboring Senegal.
The venture is led by BP and Dallas-based Kosmos Energy Ltd., which estimates that over the next 30 years, liquefied natural gas exports could contribute $30 billion to the economies of both West African countries.
“Mauritania and United States are growing partners in business, with US firms operating in Mauritania’s mining hydrocarbon and agricultural sectors. And there is potential for investment in renewable energy,” said the ambassador. “Mauritania stands firm with the US government and the American people to create a brighter future. I am optimistic about that future, especially when we stand together.”