The Islamic Republic of Mauritania was one of eight sovereign nations that severed relations with the State of Qatar when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis erupted in June 2017.1 This move underscored both Nouakchott’s desire to curry favor with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Mauritanian government’s deep concerns about Islamist activity in African, Arab and Muslim countries.2 As Mauritania’s president, Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, blames the Muslim Brotherhood “for the destruction of several Arab countries,” Nouakchott is fully supportive of Saudi Arabia’s anti-Islamist and anti-Qatari foreign policy and has consistently backed Riyadh and Abu Dhabi against Doha throughout the past Gulf Crisis.3
At a time in which Mauritania’s leadership sees Qatari-backed Islamists as a terror menace that threatens the Maghrebi country’s security, Nouakchott’s severing of ties with Doha was largely about rejecting what the Mauritanian regime perceives as outside interference in its internal affairs. Nouakchott’s opposition to Qatar must be further analyzed within the context of myriad social, political and economic crises that have left the leadership in Mauritania — much as in other autocratic Arab regimes — viewing Qatar’s media culture — principally by the Al Jazeera network — and the emirate’s anti-status-quo foreign-policy agenda as threatening to stability in Mauritania.
TIES WITH SAUDI ARABIA
Mauritania’s historically close links with Saudi Arabia predate the country’s independence from France in 1960. Mauritania had vested interests in establishing an increasingly cooperative relationship with Riyadh, largely due to issues regarding Morocco. As many prominent Moroccans made claims to Mauritania, arguing that it belonged to “greater Morocco,” the leadership in Mauritania was nervous about the ambitions of Rabat, which did not even recognize Mauritania until 1969, when the Organization of Islamic Cooperation had its founding meeting in the Moroccan capital.4 King Faisal’s historic visit to Mauritania in 1972 strengthened Riyadh-Nouakchott ties and served to help facilitate a thaw in Mauritanian-Moroccan relations, making the kingdom particularly valuable to Nouakchott from a diplomatic perspective.5 During this period, Saudi Arabia was extending the kingdom’s religious influence in Mauritania and other Arab/African countries through charitable projects, religious schools, mosque construction and Islamic centers. To this day, Saudi Arabia’s religious influence is evident in Nouakchott, where the main mosque is known as “the Saudi mosque.”6
Like other impoverished Arab/Islamic countries, Mauritania has spent decades turning to the kingdom for investment and aid. Thus, along with ideological factors, Nouakchott’s interest in moving closer to Saudi Arabia for economic purposes is a major variable that has influenced the Maghrebi country’s alignment with Riyadh, not only in the Gulf dispute, but also in Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic spat with Canada in August 2018 and in the Yemeni civil war.7,8
That Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) made a stop in Mauritania on his way back to Saudi Arabia from the G20 Summit in Argentina last October, shortly after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, was illustrative. Nouakchott sought to help Riyadh rally its Arab allies amid the saga that has followed the journalist’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. While in the Mauritanian capital, MBS received a red-carpet welcome at the presidential palace, where he met with the head of state and pledged to build a hospital in Nouakchott.9 Given that Morocco chose not to receive MBS during that global tour, it was significant that Mauritania’s leadership stood by the Saudi crown prince and decided to show support for him despite the international outcry over the Khashoggi affair.
Nouakchott’s closeness to Riyadh, as well as Abu Dhabi, is driven by long-term strategic thinking. In March, the Saudis and Emiratis announced their plans to boost their investment in Mauritania’s port and military facilities. For Gulf states, particularly the UAE, Mauritania is of much strategic importance along Africa’s Atlantic coast, where the build-up of projects in Nouadhibou (Mauritania’s second largest city) represent competition to Morocco’s Dakhla and Tangier Med projects at a time in which geopolitical tension is heightening between Rabat on one side and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the other.10
VITRIOL FOR QATAR
Nouakchott’s firm position on the ongoing GCC crisis is not only a consequence of Mauritania’s interest in a stronger relationship with Riyadh. Also in play is a growing Mauritanian animus towards Qatar. Ultimately, Nouakchott’s problems with Doha boil down to Al Jazeera’s reporting on slavery and social issues in the African country, Qatar’s perceived destabilizing role in Mali, and the emirate’s support for the Arab Spring demonstrations and uprisings, including those in Mauritania.
Mauritania’s full-throated support of the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — mirrored decisions by three other governments that initially cut diplomatic relations with Qatar — Senegal, Comoros and Maldives — as well as governing administrations in Libya, Yemen and three semi-autonomous Somali provinces. The five latter groupings were all mired in internal conflict, and, like the boycotting countries, seeking to deepen their relationships with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. By contrast, most Arab capitals staked out a variety of middle-ground positions, most of them calling for dialogue, including two GCC countries (Kuwait and Oman), Jordan, Djibouti and four Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya’s Government of National Accord). Other regional governments equivocated or swapped positions; the day after Senegal left the boycotting group, on August 22, Chad joined it. The new group of four nations with Chad and five administrations in conflict areas continued to support the boycotting quartet that seeks to isolate Qatar by cutting it off diplomatically and economically. Mauritanian support for the ATQ has not wavered since it began.
The decision to fully cut ties with Qatar in alignment with the Saudi/Emirati-led bloc highlights Mauritania’s strong support for ATQ and longstanding geostrategic concerns with both real and perceived Qatari actions. It also reflects elements of Mauritania’s domestic politics, underscoring the complex interrelationship between Mauritania’s internal dynamics and its foreign policy. The positions that Mauritania’s various domestic political groupings have taken align with the various, shifting positions that Arab states and Muslim-majority countries have taken on Qatar. Virtually all Arab, Muslim and African countries face real extremist threats, albeit to varying degrees; and certain voices in these countries, including in Mauritania, have chosen to blame Qatar for their struggles against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other terror organizations.
Mauritania’s government falls into the camp that blames Qatar to the highest degree. Militant salafi jihadists whom Mauritanian officials believe receive Qatari backing frequently transit Mauritania’s porous borders. Mauritania has alleged that Doha sponsors an array of transregional terror groups afflicting the Maghreb-Sahel region. As the boycott began, the Mauritanian ministry released a statement maintaining that Qatar was guilty of backing terror groups and the “propagation of extremist ideas” that have “resulted in heavy losses to human life in these Arab countries, in Europe, and throughout the world.”11 Along with some French military officials, Mauritania’s government accused Qatar of sponsoring the jihadist factions that usurped control of northern Mali in 2012: Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Although independent assessments of Qatar’s military role in northern Mali have been inconclusive, Doha’s political and cultural influence and humanitarian inputs in northern Mali have been undisputed and the cause of much consternation. Qatar has supported Islamic schools and charities in northern Mali since the 1980s.12 Qatar supported rebels in Libya, who chased out pro-Qadhafi Tuaregs, who then brought their weapons to northern Mali, indirectly causing northern Mali to fall (ironically, to the enemies of Qatar’s Libyan clients). Also, during the 2012 conflict, only the Qatar Red Crescent was given access to certain conflict zones, while northern areas under the control of violent extremists fighting the Malian state received food and humanitarian aid flown in from Doha.
Other Qatar-related issues hit closer to home. The emirate hosts former Mauritanian President Muawiya Ould Taya. A larger issue is Al Jazeera’s coverage of a range of Mauritanian issues, particularly slavery. Both slavery and vestigial slavery-based relationships are a complex set of social phenomena in Mauritania and extremely sensitive politically. Media coverage rarely captures that complexity and, as Mauritania’s government rightly points out, can easily fan flames of social conflict.
Following the Arab Spring uprisings of late 2010 and early 2011, the Mauritanian government accused the Gulf emirate of plotting to overthrow it, in part through Al Jazeera’s special programs critical of Mauritania’s domestic politics. Called in to the presidency, the Qatari ambassador defended Al Jazeera’s independent editorial line, to which the Mauritanian president responded with a litany of press reports condemning Doha for its unhelpful role in northern Mali. Mauritania paid an economic price for this position. Its energy minister warned France’s Total against signing any contracts with Qatar as a third party; this had a negative impact on Total’s investments in Mauritania.
The previous emir of Qatar visited Mauritania in September 2012 (four months prior to the French-led operation in Mali known as Operation Serval) to deflect some of these diplomatic headwinds and sign economic agreements between the two countries. When the Qatari leader departed, he did so without any formal farewell ceremony, raising suspicions that disagreements on regional issues were the reason. Ten days after the emir left the country, Mauritania closed the Qatari-Mauritanian Establishment for Social Development, highlighting the brewing crisis in bilateral relations.
After Mauritania had cut off relations with Israel in 2009, the country became increasingly aligned with Syria.13 During Arab Spring demonstrations and uprisings in 2011, the Mauritanian government opposed Doha’s backing of rebels fighting the regime in Damascus, as well as those fighting the Qadhafi regime in Tripoli. Arab nationalist elements in Mauritania’s political arena had long expressed solidarity with Muammar Qadhafi and Bashar al-Assad, backing the latter via the Support of the Resistance and Defense of Syria Front. One of the pro-Assad groups was the Mauritanian Baathist Party, which had also supported Saddam Hussein during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis and helped forge Mauritania’s position in favor of Saddam. It ended up joining only three other countries in favor of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Arab-nationalist Mauritanians, long aligned with Middle Eastern autocrats who are ”secular,” staked out a strong pro-Assad position. As elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world, Qatar’s support of Arab Spring demonstrations and uprisings (except in Bahrain, where Al Jazeera’s coverage was initially muted and Qatar’s support circumspect) caused distress in the political establishment. Qatar’s image suffered among segments of Mauritanian society that saw Doha’s actions across the region as fanning the flames of extremism and terror.
Despite mounting diplomatic tensions between Nouakchott and Doha after 2012, Qatar continued to maintain strong relations by making investments, particularly in Mauritania’s tourism and real estate sectors.14 In October 2016, Mauritania’s Minister of Trade, Industry, Handicraft, and Tourism, Naha bint Mouknass, inaugurated a real-estate project entailing hotels and luxury villas to be implemented by a Qatari firm owned by Doha’s ambassador to Nouakchott, Abdulrahman bin Ali al-Kubaisi, who attended the project’s inauguration.15 But this diplomatic and economic effort, while positively impacting Mauritania, failed to moderate Nouakchott’s position.
Mauritanian citizens did not uniformly unite behind the government’s anti-Qatar stance, just as they did not unite behind the country’s support of Saddam Hussein in 1990-91. To the contrary, various groups — particularly Islamists — voiced their staunch opposition to Mauritania’s alignment with the ATQ against Doha.
Since Mauritania’s drought-accelerated, urbanizing waves of the 1970s and 1980s, Islamists had capitalized on demographic shifts to make inroads into the country’s political arena.
President Ould Taya allowed multiparty municipal elections in 1994 in which Islamist candidates participated. But following these elections, Mauritanian officials cracked down, arresting scores of Islamists, prohibiting specific Islamist organizations, and banning the preaching of political messages.18 Ultimately, the crackdown did not end Islamism as a potent political force in Mauritania. Yet it did result in some Islamist activists fleeing to the GCC.19
Mauritania’s recognition of Israel in 1999 added new layers of friction to the government’s relationship with its domestic Islamist constituency.20 Qatar’s Al Jazeera was popular in Mauritania and led many in the country to grow increasingly connected with pan-Arab/Islamic causes such as Palestine, which contributed to an Islamist backlash against the government’s recognition of Israel. Such reporting fueled a perception in Nouakchott that the Qatari state-owned network represented an alarming source of trouble.
Islamists in Mauritania also took issue with the government’s alignment with Washington’s Pan-Sahel (and later Trans-Saharan) counterterrorism operations, which expanded following the September 11, 2001, attacks.21 By condemning Nouakchott’s involvement in Western-led anti-terror campaigns, Mauritanian Islamists have championed themselves as protectors of their country’s sovereignty and independence from Washington and Paris.
Al Jazeera’s coverage of domestic Mauritanian political and social issues has also been popular among many Mauritanians. It has endeared Qatar to anti-slavery, pro-reform and pro-democracy groups. These groups have also long been anti-Arab nationalist and took positions against Saddam and in favor of Saudi Arabia and the liberation of Kuwait in 1990-91. These groups tend to support greater political rights and participation by Mauritania’s largest “ethnic” group — the Arabic-speaking haratine, or descendants of freed slaves — while also supporting a greater political role and respect for Mauritania’s African groups mainly prevalent in the south, largely along the Senegal River and inland.
GULF DISPUTE DIVIDES MAURITANIANS
The Qatar crisis has brought disagreements between the Mauritanian government and elements of the country’s opposition groups to the fore. Hours after Mauritanian diplomats announced Nouakchott’s decision to sever ties with Doha, protesters gathered outside Qatar’s embassy to voice their opinion that their government’s action against the emirate did not reflect popular will.22 Mauritanian social-media users and the country’s dominant Islamist opposition party — the National Rally for Reform and Development (NRRD), commonly referred to as Tewassoul — demanded that Nouakchott restore official relations with Qatar. Representatives of the NRRD, which Mauritanian officials have accused Qatar of backing, claimed that Mauritania’s support for the blockade of Qatar demonstrated Nouakchott’s dependency on foreign states that do not have Mauritania’s national interests at heart.23 Thirteen other opposition parties then joined the Islamist party in opposing the government’s decision, amounting to a quasi-totality of the democratic opposition.24
Public opposition to the Mauritanian government’s foreign policy in the Gulf was on display during MBS’s stop in the country during December 2018. In anticipation of the visit, thousands of Mauritanians protested in the streets of Nouakchott. Yeni Şafak, a Turkish media outlet, reported that demonstrators chanted defiant slogans accusing Mauritania’s leadership of prioritizing Saudi money above Mauritania’s citizenry in welcoming the Saudi crown prince. Those protesting the MBS visit focused on the war in Yemen and the crackdown on dissidents in the kingdom. The NRRD strongly opposed the decision to welcome MBS in Nouakchott.25
During the Saudi- and Emirati-led campaign to diplomatically and economically isolate Doha, the ATQ has sought to use its collective financial leverage over African governments to bring more of the continent’s countries in line with that agenda. Yet most governments of Muslim-majority African countries have stood by Qatar since the Gulf crisis erupted in June 2017. For the most part, the African states that have maintained officials ties with Doha throughout the crisis have done so primarily due to economic and investment links, but they also reject the ATQ’s narrative about a “Qatari threat.”
In contrast, Mauritania’s leadership had several scores to settle with the Qataris, notwithstanding continuing Qatari attempts to invest and use soft power to win over Mauritanians, which explain Nouakchott’s early support for the ATQ. Yet, how the Qatar crisis eventually pans out internationally and in Mauritania’s domestic political environment remains to be seen. The GCC’s diplomatic row has become another issue driving a wedge between Mauritania’s government and the NRRD.
Looking ahead, there are virtually no reasons to expect the Gulf crisis to be resolved as long as the current leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar remain in power. The GCC summit held in Saudi Arabia in December 2018 demonstrated that the two sides are no closer to making the compromises necessary for resolving the dispute than they were after the diplomatic crisis broke out in 2017. Furthermore, events in Algeria, Libya, and Sudan in early 2019 have served to heighten friction between Qatar and the ATQ. Delicate political transitions in Algiers and Khartoum along with Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli turned into strategic clashes that further pit the two sides of the Gulf dispute against each other. As the GCC rift continues, the destabilizing reverberations will be felt throughout the wider Arab/Islamic world, with a host of Sunni-majority countries coming under mounting pressure to take sides between the Saudi/UAE-led bloc and the Qatari-Turkish alliance.
Odds are good that Mauritania’s close ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as the country’s need for financial support from the kingdom — plus the regime’s perceptions of Qatar as a predatory state that sponsors terrorist organizations across the Maghreb-Sahel — will keep Nouakchott and the ATQ in the same boat on most geopolitical issues and diplomatic spats while the Sunni Muslim world becomes increasingly polarized. Unfortunately for the Mauritanian people, this clash over the future of the Arab world keeps their country from capitalizing on the long-term benefits that could come from strong ties with all the wealthy monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, including both Qatar and the blockading states.
* William Lawrence contributed to this article.
1 Tim Cocks, “Mauritania Breaks Diplomatic ties with Qatar, Gabon Voices Condemnation,” Reuters, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gulf-qatar-mauritania/mauritania-bre….
2 Aisha Fareed, “Mauritania wants stronger ties with Kingdom,” Arab News, 2016, http://www.arabnews.com/node/1017786/saudi-arabia.
3 “Mauritanian President: ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ behind destruction of nations,” Saudi Gazette, 2018, http://saudigazette.com.sa/article/542393/World/Mena/Mauritanian-Presid….
4 Michael Farquhar and Alex Thurston, “How Mauritania exports religion to Saudi Arabia — And not just the other way around,” The Brookings Institution, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/12/13/how-mauritan…. -around/.
7 Monya Ghanemi, “Mauritania voices solidarity with Saudi Arabia in Canada row,” Al Arabiya, 2018, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/gulf/2018/08/07/Mauritania-voices….
8 Kamailoudini Tagba, “Mauritania to send ground boots to Yemen, military source,” The North Africa Post, 2015, http://northafricapost.com/9559-mauritania-to-send-ground-boots-to-yeme….
9 Lamine Chikhi, “Saudi crown prince arrives in Algeria,” Reuters, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crownprince-algeria/saudi-cr….
10 Cinzia Bianco, “Tensions Rising Among Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE,” LobeLog, 2019, https://lobelog.com/tensions-rising-among-morocco-saudi-arabia-and-the-….
11 Tim Cocks, “Mauritania breaks diplomatic ties with Qatar, Gabon voices condemnation,”
12 Karen Young, “Mapping GCC Foreign Policy: Resources, Recipients and Regional Effects,” London School of Economics Middle East Centre, 2015, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/64242/1/Cover%20Photo_Doha%20Skyline.pdf.
13 “Qatar, Mauritania cut Israel ties,” Al Jazeera, 2009, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2009/01/2009116151135307776.ht…; and M. al-Frieh and H. Said, “Mauritanian Ambassador affirms importance of activating bilateral agreements with Syria,” Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), 2017, http://sana.sy/en/?p=117393.
14 “Mauritania’s Tourism Minister Inaugurates Qatari Real Eatate Project in Nouakchout,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2016, https://www.mofa.gov.qa/en/all-mofa-news/details/2016/10/19/mauritania’s-tourism-minister-inaugurates-qatari-real-eatate-project-in-nouakchout-.
15 “Qatari real estate project inaugurated in Mauritania,” Gulf Times, 2016, http://www.gulf-times.com/story/518115/Qatari-real-estate-project-inaug….
16Alex Thurston, “Mauritania’s Islamists,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012, http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/03/01/mauritania-s-islamists-pub-47312.
20 “Albright praises new diplomatic ties between Israel, Mauritania,” CNN, 1999, http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/meast/9910/28/israel.mauritania/index.html.
21 Alex Thurston, “Mauritania’s Islamists,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012, http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/03/01/mauritania-s-islamists-pub-47312.
22 “Protests in many countries in solidarity with Qatar,” Gulf Times, 2017, http://www.gulf-times.com/story/552778/Protests-in-many-countries-in-so….
23 “African States Stake Out Range of Positions in the Wake of Qatar-Gulf Rift,” Maghreb Times, 2017, https://themaghrebtimes.com/06/10/african-states-stake-out-range-of-pos….
24 Mohamed al-Bakay, “Mauritanian parties urge govt not to cut ties with Doha,” Anadolu Agency, 2017, http://aa.com.tr/en/africa/mauritanian-parties-urge-govt-not-to-cut-tie….