Mauritania is undoubtedly the most overlooked country in the Maghreb. The largely desert Islamic Republic, with an Arab and Berber population in the north and black Africans in the south, is seldom in the news – unless it has something to do with al-Qaida. As Mauritanian social network activist Nasser Weddady explains:
Mauritanians are very conscious that they and their country are a footnote in the world, and more so in the Arab world itself. We are almost never talked about, very few people can even locate us on the map. Most Arabs don’t even know that we share with them a common language and in the case of some, common ancestry. Furthermore, when fellow Arabs talk about us, the clichés and stereotypes veer quickly into the realm of the exotic.
Mauritania covers more than a million square kilometres of the Saharan desert, its two main population centres punctuating the 800-kilometre Atlantic coastline. Stretching east into the Sahel from these two pins on the map, the angular northern borders wedge against Morocco, Algeria and Mali, while the Senegal River valley softens the outline along the southern edge. The immense desert contains a wealth of natural resources such as copper, gold, gypsum and iron, but the extractive industries offer few employment opportunities for unskilled labour. Meanwhile, persistent drought, desertification and poverty in the interior gradually push tens of thousands of Mauritanians to abandon a life of humble self-sufficiency as nomadic livestock herders or smallholders in rural village communities. They arrive seeking new means of survival in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou. But they find that high unemployment means few work opportunities, even for trained workers or university graduates, let alone semi-nomadic herdsmen or farmers with only a rudimentary education. The inevitable result is a sprawling mess of urban slums, many of which are routinely bulldozed by the authorities, the inhabitants forced to beg for charity. The towns were not built to cope with such dramatic population shifts, and meagre efforts to create or improve essential infrastructure are failing to keep pace.