U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Mauritania, July 1995
Bureau of Public Affairs
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
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
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%.
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,
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
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-
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
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
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
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides
Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel Warnings are
issued when the Department of State recommends that Americans avoid
travel to a certain country. Consular Information Sheets exist for
all countries and include information on immigration practices,
currency regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime
and security information, political disturbances, and the addresses
of the U.S. embassies and consulates in the subject country. They can
be obtained by telephone at (202) 647-5225 or by fax at (202) 647-
3000. To access the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board by computer, dial
(202) 647-9225, via a modem with standard settings. Bureau of
Consular Affairs' publications on obtaining passports and planning a
safe trip abroad are available from the Superintendent of Documents,
U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402 (202) 783-
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be
obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-
While planning a trip, travelers can check the latest information on
health requirements and conditions with the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at (404) 332-
4559 provides telephonic or fax information on the most recent health
advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice
on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A
booklet entitled Health Information for International Travel (HHS
publication number CDC-94-8280, price $7.00) is available from the
Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and
customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to
travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's
embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see
"Principal Government Officials" listing in this publication).
Upon their arrival in a country, U.S. citizens are encouraged to
register with the U.S. embassy (see "Principal U.S. Embassy
Officials" listing in this publication). Such information might
assist family members in making contact en route in case of an
Further Electronic Information:
Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). Available by modem, the CABB
provides Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and helpful
information for travelers. Access at (202) 647-9225 is free of charge
to anyone with a personal computer, modem, telecommunications
software, and telephone line.
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the
Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S.
foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background
Notes; Dispatch, the official weekly magazine of U.S. foreign policy;
daily press briefings; directories of key officers of foreign service
posts; etc. DOSFAN is accessible three ways on the Internet:
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on a quarterly
basis by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on
the Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an
array of official foreign policy information from 1990 to the
present. Priced at $80 ($100 foreign), one-year subscriptions include
four discs (MSDOS and Macintosh compatible) and are available from
the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
P.O. Box 37194, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-
1800 or fax (202) 512-2250.
Federal Bulletin Board (BBS). A broad range of foreign policy
information also is carried on the BBS, operated by the U.S.
Government Printing Office (GPO). By modem, dial (202) 512-1387. For
general BBS information, call (202) 512-1530.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of
Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information,
including Country Commercial Guides. It is available on the Internet
(gopher. stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at
(202) 482-1986 for more information.
Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of
Public Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington,
DC -- July 1995 -- Managing Editor: Peter A. Knecht -- Editor:
Department of State Publication 8169 -- Background Notes series --
This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without
permission; citation of this source is appreciated.
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing
Office, Washington, DC 20402.
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