Mauritania seeks to position itself in the African theatre of the Gulf’s power game

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Bin Salman and Mauritania's president

Gulf Countries are expanding their reach into the Sahel area and Mauritania is not an exception to this trend. However, its love overdose for Saudi Arabia highly contrasts with the pseudo-crisis that the relation between the Kingdom of the Saud and the Maghreb countries is going through. 

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Mauritania are not new but have never been of importance to the kingdom. As in many places, relations were limited to the proselytization by Saudi agents intended to expand their rigorist vision of Islam – Wahabism – to other societies. In this regard, during the 60’s, and amid the fierce regional power competition against Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia financed the construction of mosques, charitable projects, individual preachers, religious schools and Islamic centers, operated by institutions close to the Saudi state such as the Muslim World League (established in 1962), the Ministry for Islamic Affairs and the Haramayn Charitable Foundation. Many of these institutions were closed during the crackdown on Islamists carried out by the Mauritanian regime in the early 2000s.

However, cooperation beyond that aspect has never been solid, as Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, a professor of political science at the University of Nouakchott, recognizes. Saudi Arabia support has been confined to specific moments and through multilateral institutions such as the Arab Fund for Social Economic Development and the Islamic Development Bank, but most of the times is limited to humanitarian assistance.

Part of the explanation for the lack of stronger ties lies in the complicated relations between Mauritania and Morocco, due to the former’s recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on Western Sahara’s territory. Since Saudi-Moroccan relations have been strong, Mauritania has always been relegated to a minor role. However, the recent disagreements between both monarchies due to the Qatar crisis, among other reasons, may have prompted Mauritanian authorities to seek for the opportunity of strengthening the ties with the House of Saud. Another explanation has been the growing ties between Mauritania and Iran since Mohammed Abdelaziz’s takeover of power in 2008 until, under Saudi pressure, the Mauritanian regime cut diplomatic relations with Iran in May 2018 accusing it of carrying out Shia proselytism.  

In the last two years, cooperation between both countries has reached levels never seen in the past. In January 2017 Mauritania and Saudi Arabia signed a military agreementfor joint cooperation in the fields of military training, information and logistical exchanges as well as medical. Recently, last December, Mohammad bin Salman paid a visit to the African country, the first time that a high Saudi representative arrived to the country since last King Faisal did in 1972. In the framework of this visit, Sidi Mohammed Ould Maham, Minister of Information of Mauritania, referred to Saudi Arabia as a “strategic ally

To thank the newly found trust by the Saudi regime, Mauritania has not run short in gestures. For instance, 500 to 700 Mauritanian military forceswere sent to Yemen to combat Houthi rebels in the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition. Also, the African nation has not been strange to the game of power played between Gulf countries in Africa and cut diplomatic relations with Qatar on June 6, 2017, accusing it of “financing terrorism”. Moreover, last September, the Mauritanian regimen accused the emirate of funding the Muslim Brotherhood in the country as well as other Islamist groups. Besides, they have closed the Islamist scholars training centre in Nouakchott for “spreading terrorism”, a shift that analysts described as “external pressure”. Also, in the difficult timesMauritania has proved itself a loyal ally, defending Saudi Arabia after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, stating that “Mauritania is confident in Saudi justice” while at the same time denouncing “the campaign of false allegations” against the kingdom. 

Finally, Saudi Arabia has become quite involved in the funding of the G5-Sahel joint force (a French-sponsored alliance grouping Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso to fight terrorism in the Sahel). Since 2017, the kingdom has committed several hundreds of million euros to the joint force. Despite this new friendship, Mauritanian authorities should be wary of the real leverage that they can play towards their new allies. Their close relations with the Saharawi authorities are not well seen by many Arab countries. Besides, the growing expansion of Gulf countries in Africa is aimed at reaching their national interests, gaining allies to their causes against Iran and Qatar while disregarding national grievances and problems, such as in the case of Somalia and Sudan. 

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