|General background: Independent from France
in 1960, Mauritania annexed the southern third of the
former Spanish Sahara (now Western Sahara) in 1976,
but relinquished it after three years of raids by the
Polisario guerrilla front seeking independence for the
territory. Opposition parties were legalized and a new
constitution approved in 1991. Two multiparty presidential
elections since then were widely seen as flawed, but
October 2001 legislative and municipal elections were
generally free and open. Mauritania remains, in reality,
a one-party state. The country continues to experience
ethnic tensions between its black minority population
and the dominant Maur (Arab-Berber) populace.
Area comparative: Slightly larger than three
times the size of New Mexico.
Desert; constantly hot, dry, dusty
Mostly barren, flat plains of the Sahara; some central
Population: 2,828,858 (July 2002 est.)
Ethnic groups: Mixed Maur/Black 40%, Maur
30%, Black 30%
Religions: Muslim 100%
Language: Hassaniya Arabic (official), Pulaar,
Soninke, Wolof (official), French
Government type: Republic
Legal system: A combination of Shari'a (Islamic
law) and French civil law.
Economic overview: Half the population still
depends on agriculture and livestock for a livelihood,
even though most of the nomads and many subsistence
farmers were forced into the cities by recurrent droughts
in the 1970s and 1980s. Mauritania has extensive deposits
of iron ore, which account for half of total exports.
The decline in world demand for this ore, however,
has led to cutbacks in production. The nation's coastal
waters are among the richest fishing areas in the
world, but overexploitation by foreigners threatens
this key source of revenue. The country's first deepwater
port opened near Nouakchott in 1986. In the past,
drought and economic mismanagement resulted in a buildup
of foreign debt. In February, 2000, Mauritania qualified
for debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries
(HIPC) initiative and in December 2001 received strong
support from donor and lending countries at a triennial
Consultative Group review. Mauritania withdrew its
membership in the Economic Community of West African
States (ECOWAS) in 2000 and subsequently increased
commercial ties with Arab Maghreb Union members Morocco
and Tunisia, most notably in telecommunications. In
2001, exploratory oil wells in tracts 80 km offshore
indicated potential viable extraction at current world
oil prices. However, the refinery in Nouadhibou historically
has not exceeded 20% of its distillation capacity,
and it handled no crude in the year 2000. A new Investment
Code approved in December 2001 improved the opportunities
for direct foreign investment.
Communication/Telephone system: Limited system
of cable and open-wire lines, minor microwave radio
relay links, and radiotelephone communications stations
(improvements being made).
Places of interest: There are some nice spots
for fishing, bird-watching and even surfing along
the coast and a few caravan towns in the interior
that might be of interest.
Travel tips: There are several disputes, landmines
and conflict along the borders.