Regional suitors standby as Mauritania’s fortunes look up

Neighbours are vying for the West African state’s hand as a big new gas field goes live later this year.

Mauritania has a big new gas field about to go live and a handy Atlantic location for exports. Add a well-stocked mineral larder, and you have an attractive mix.
Sara Gironi Carnevale
Mauritania has a big new gas field about to go live and a handy Atlantic location for exports. Add a well-stocked mineral larder, and you have an attractive mix.

Regional suitors standby as Mauritania’s fortunes look up

Site of the world’s biggest camel and jewellery markets, Mauritania is also said to be home to a million poets, its vast landscapes acting as muse.

This former French colony of 4.5 million people on the west coast of Africa certainly has a fascinating history, fascinating people, and, after recent discoveries, a potentially promising economic future.

Global trends are acting in the country’s favour, increasing the importance of Mauritania’s location (on the Atlantic coast) and its rich natural resources.

Its neighbours have not been slow to notice. In February, during the 37th summit held in Addis Ababa, Mauritania was elected to preside over the African Union for 2024, despite early interest from Morocco and Algeria.

In the end, Mauritania was supported by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said Mauritania “deserves the presidency... due to its economic development achievements, role as a stabilising force in the region, and positive contributions to issues facing the African continent”.

Making Mauritania

The Amazigh and Bafour people were among the first to settle here. Originally nomads, they were among the first in recorded history to convert to an agricultural lifestyle.

Mauritania is also said to be home to the Almoravids, who rose up in support of the Taifa kings in their war in Andalusia in the 11th century, led by Yusuf bin Tashfin, who built the city of Marrakech and made it the capital of the Islamic Maghreb.

To its northwest is Western Sahara, a disputed territory claimed by Morocco. To its northeast is Algeria, while Mali lies to Mauritania’s east and south-east. Bringing up the rear is Senegal, which is to the southwest.

Global trends are acting in the country's favour, increasing the importance of Mauritania's Atlantic location and its rich natural resources.

Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, lies along its 700km Atlantic coastline. Inland, 90% of its territory is taken up by mainly flat Saharan sands—so much of it, in fact, that there are only 27 countries in the world that are bigger by landmass.

It gained its independence from France in 1960. In the years since, the discovery of oil, gas, and gold has helped with its development, wealth, and prosperity.

Add natural resources to a handy location for sea and land trade routes and you have a lot of interest. As French historian Henry Hauser said, whoever controls the sea controls an important aspect of a nation's power.

A further opportunity for both Mauritania and external parties may come from alternative energy solutions, with the harnessing of solar power and even wind well suited to this part of Africa.

The Saudi Mosque in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

In parts of Mauritania, both sun and wind are abundant. It is very rare to get both power sources reliably at the same time, one of only ten such spots anywhere in the world. Crucially, it means that electrolysers can run virtually non-stop.

Legacies and locals

Like much of the continent, Mauritania has sought to break away from the decades of conflict and struggle that stretched back to the colonial era, then the Cold War, where new states felt they had to take sides in the big global power battle.

Too many suffered from those who sought to divide Africa's governments and exploit its resources for their own ends, often doing so in the name of "revolution".

Today, economic development is the focus. This is accelerating with the activation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Furthermore, there is a general move away from traditional conflict resolution forums, such as the United Nations.

Mauritania's president Mohamed Ould Ghazouani has grand ambitions. He wants to help reform the structure of the 54-member African Union, enhancing both its role and position in the world by strengthening its partnerships.

His country is an active member of the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and a founding member of the Arab Maghreb Union, so he may have to draw on contacts from these networks to help.

In parts of Mauritania, both sun and wind are abundant. It is one of only ten spots in the world to get both power sources reliably at the same time.

Like others in Africa, Ghazouani faces severe and multiple challenges, not least from war, climate change, and external migration, as tens of thousands seek new lives in Europe.

In addition, Mauritania still has a big problem with domestic slavery, which was only outlawed in 2007 (and only then, under international pressure).

Most of Mauritania's traditional nomads and farmers were forced to go and live in the cities during the droughts of the 1970s and 80s.

Despite the discovery of oil in 2001, the country remains desperately poor. The average Mauritanian is 21 years old.

Still, its mineral wealth and control of its maritime trade routes means that the country remains of interest to other states.

Mauritania's geostrategic location has become more important since much of the world's merchant shipping chose to divert around Africa.

Ghazouani has sought to make sure that this interest does not extend to terrorist, separatist, or criminal networks.

Coups and corruption

In recent years, Mauritania has succumbed to the twin African curse of coups and corruption. In this, it is far from alone. Yet it seems to be doing better than most.

The African Union regularly suspends membership in countries whose governments are ousted in military coups. Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Conakry, and Sudan are on the list.

These days, it seems de rigueur for coup plotters to hire Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group to help them seize and retain power, something the African Union is concerned about.

Using sanctions and boycotts extends to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Fed up with military coups in the Sahel, ECOWAS recently suspended the membership of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

They reacted by threatening to withdraw from ECOWAS for good. They called for creating a tripartite economic bloc and issuing a unified currency to replace the French West African Franc. ECOWAS soon relaxed its sanctions.

For stability, Mauritania once looked south to Senegal, a rare role model for democratic transitions of power.

Yet even Senegal wobbled when head of state Macky Sall postponed a February 2024 election that his preferred candidate was expected to lose.

The decision was reversed after protests and uproar from Senegal's international friends.

Senegal's President-elect Bassirou Diomaye Faye (R) meets outgoing President Macky Sall at the presidential palace in Dakar, Senegal, on March 28, 2024.

Opposition candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye, 44, has just been elected.

Milking the Atlantic

Although not a member of ECOWAS, Mauritania is considered geographically close to the bloc that is under the t

On a recent trip to Africa, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, "Any regional disputes should not lead to the expansion of terrorist, separatist, or criminal movements towards the West African coast".

In terms of security, that would be a red line.

Due to attacks on merchant vessels by Houthi fighters in Yemen, most of the world's shipping is currently diverting away from the Red Sea and going around the Horn of Africa instead, head up the continent's West (Atlantic) coast.

Although not a member of ECOWAS, Mauritania is considered geographically close to the bloc that is now under threat of imploding.

The US does not want to repeat the experience of the Houthis in the Atlantic.

Therefore, it was concerning that last month, Arsenio Dominguez, secretary-general of the International Maritime Organisation, warned of increased piracy around the Gulf of Guinea on Africa's West Coast.

Shortly before the Houthis began their attacks, Blinken launched the Atlantic Cooperation Partnership project in September 2023 with about 40 participating countries.

The project aligns with Morocco's 'Atlantic Africa' initiative, consisting of 23 coastal states, and the creation of corridors allowing Sahel countries to access ports in southern Morocco to develop trade with the rest of the world.

Jessye Lapenn, coordinator of the Atlantic Cooperation Partnership, reiterated US support for it during a meeting of ambassadors from North and South Atlantic countries hosted by the Moroccan embassy in Washington last week.

The Sahel countries joined the 'Atlantic Africa' project proposed by Morocco's king to break the isolation of four landlocked countries—Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso—in the heart of the Sahara.

In Marrakech late last year, their foreign ministers agreed to establish a taskforce to prepare details for implementation. The plan involves includes roads and railways to take goods and people to and from the large port of Dakhla.

Proponents say this will increase economic development for some of the continent's poorest by facilitating access to the Atlantic to market their products, attract foreign investment, and benefit from their abundant natural resources.

Gas and trade

Mauritanian Foreign Minister Salem Ould Merzoug praised "the wisdom of Morocco and the development it has witnessed", adding that President Ghazouani wanted the two countries to continue cooperating.

Morocco's neighbour has something to offer. Economic growth in the capital, Nouakchott, is expected to go from 5% in 2024 to 14% in 2025.

That is largely because the twice-postponed extraction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim field shared with Senegal is scheduled to finally start later this year.

The delayed extraction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim field, which Senegal shares, could finally start later this year.

With reserves estimated at 25,000bn cubic feet, it is one of Africa's most promising fields.

Mauritania's government says its total gas reserves are estimated at around 110 trillion cubic feet, ranking it third in Africa behind Nigeria and Algeria.

BP, which has a 56% stake in the field, says Mauritania's location lets it export gas to Europe, where states are searching for alternatives to Russian gas.

The company hopes to build up to an annual gas production of 10 million tons.

If all goes to plan, Mauritania's government could reap $14bn over the next 30 years. The gas itself will give impoverished Mauritanians cheap electricity, while exports will give the country both clout and cash.

Morocco and Algeria

Morocco exports part of its trade to Africa through the Guerguerat corridor, which has seen significant traffic flow since its opening in 2020.

The Morocco-Mauritania border is huge, at more than 1,500km, and benefits from shared roads. The Algeria-Mauritania border is less than a third of that length and shares no paved infrastructure.

Bilateral trade between Mauritania and Morocco is around $350mn annually, compared to around $200mn with Algeria.

Morocco wants this to increase is preparing to open a new trade crossing with northern Mauritania from the east, about 250km from the port of Dakhla.

Not to be outdone, Algeria rapidly opened a border crossing with Mauritania to establish a free trade zone in the presence of both nations' leaders and promised to extend a road for hundreds of kilometres to the city of Zouérat in the Sahara Desert.

Mauritanian newspaper Al-Anbaa wrote that "the rapid development of the Moroccan economy and its expanding trade and investment activities in many African regions have taken on a new form of expansion, linking the commercial sector in Mauritania and the Sahel countries with the giant Moroccan ports".

The newspaper added that "Algeria finds itself surrounded by an economic dynamic supported by active diplomacy".

Looking ahead

Mauritanians go to the polls again early next summer. So far, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani seems to have chalked up some successes by employing a mix of political pragmatism and realistic economic strategies.

A lot will depend on the extent to which Mauritania's 4.5 million people can benefit from the gas. That, to some extent, will depend on regional partnerships.

If all goes to plan, Mauritania's government could reap $14bn from its shared gas field over the next 30 years. 

Last year, Nouakchott, Abuja, and Rabat signed an agreement to participate in, and benefit from, a gas pipeline that stretches between them for 5,660km, mainly under the Atlantic Ocean.

Mauritania can now export some of its gas to Europe through this pipeline, which will also include a separate pipeline to transport green hydrogen. The project is being funded by Germany, following Chancellor Olaf Scholz's visit in 2022.

Yet Mauritania has more than just gas. It is rich in mineral resources, notably iron, and is Africa's second biggest exporter of ore, yet it also has gold, copper, and silver.

If these natural riches can be leveraged to benefit the Mauritanian economy and improve the living standards of its people, the country could become a regional powerhouse.

Mr Ghazouani may even get re-elected and continue to keep Mauritania on the democratically straight and narrow. Yet where there is wealth, there is temptation.

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