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Mauritania: Country Profile

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Mauritania: Country Profile

Mauritania, the westernmost Arab country, is one of Africa's largest, poorest nations.

Basics:

Official country name: Islamic Republic of Mauritania
Area: 419,212 sq miles (1,030,070 sq km)
Population: 3.3 million (2007 est.)
Median age: 17.1
Ethnic Groups: Moors of Arab, Berber and black African descent, 66 percent; blacks of African descent, 34 percent.
GDP and GDP per capita: $1.6 billion and less than $530 (2007 estimates)

Government and Politics:

The president, who’s also the head of state, is popularly elected to a five-year term. The Legislature consists of a National Assembly, whose 95 members are popularly elected to five-year terms, and a Senate, whose 56 members are elected by municipal leaders to six-year terms. Mauritania has an independent judiciary and 21 political parties.

Religion:

Almost all Mauritanians are Sunni Muslims. Islam is the official state religion. The distribution of non-Islamic material or preaching non-Muslim religious messages is prohibited. Non-Muslims, including small Roman Catholic and Jewish communities, may practice their religion only in their churches or synagogues.

Economy:

Mauritania is one of the poorest economies in the world, ranking 137th out of 177 counties on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, and 109th out of 157 countries on the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. Iron ore mining and fishing are Mauritania’s chief exports. Oil extraction offshore began in 2006. Mauritania is dominated by desert, which is expanding southward. Drought chronically hampers the country’s small agricultural sector. Unemployment is around 20 percent.

Military:

Mauritania has a small military with a $90 million budget (or less than the cost of two F-18 fighter jets). Conscripts must serve two years, although volunteers make up the majority of the ranks.

Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:

Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery, in the early 1990s. However, the country still has an estimated 90,000 to 100,000 slaves. The CIA reports that “Mauritania is a source and destination country for children trafficked for the purpose of forced labor, begging, and domestic servitude; adults and children are subjected to slavery-related practices rooted in ancestral master-slave relationships in isolated parts of the country where a barter economy exists.”

History:

The earliest inhabitants of Mauritania, beginning in the 3rd century c.e., are thought to have been Berber nomads known as the Bafur. The Arabization of Mauritania took place first by Islamic warriors in the 11th century, then by the Beni Hassan tribe that stretched its origins to Yemen. Mauritania fell under French colonial power in the 19th century and claimed its independence in 1960. Military juntas dominated politics until a bloodless coup in 2005. Democracy has made tentative inroads since.

Current Issues:

Mauritania held its first democratic presidential election since 1960 in March 2007. Military rule ended. Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was popularly elected. Mauritania is part of the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership, an American initiative that trains soldiers of sub-Saharan countries in counter-terrorism. Internally, the country’s greatest challenge is the effective, rather than merely nominal, abolishing of slavery, which persists in many regions.

Notable Facts:

  • Mauritania is the only Arab country of the North African Maghreb to have diplomatic relations with Israel (since 1999).
  • Mauritanian Arabs have enslaved black Mauritanians for over 500 years. The practice was officially abolished in 1981, but it continues.
  • With heavy funding from Saudi Arabia, the number of mosques in the nation's capital has increased from about 58 in 1989 to 900 today, according to Yahya Ould Al-Bara, anthropology professor at the University of Nouakchott.
  • An estimated 65% of Mauritanian girls have suffered through female genital mutilation, or cutting.
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