As the American Defense Secretary was busy on a tour of North Africa visiting Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, a delegation from the USA State Department was simultaneously visiting Mauritania. This visit raised many concerns among the observers of this country that has been witnessing many sudden and important developments since the 3 August 2005 coup.
This concern is related to the timing and indications of the visit rather than the level of the delegation. The United States had condemned the coup and back then had called for the return of the deposed president Ould Al Taya. The American stand did not come as much of a surprise for those who had realized the close ties between the former regime in Mauritania and the American administration despite the break up of relations after the Gulf war in 1991 due to Ould Al Taya’s support of Iraq, which was soon reversed however.
Informed sources pointed out that the US-Mauritanian talks in 1993 that took place on the sideline of the annual United Nations meeting, have led to the Americans clarifying their demands in order to resume normal relations. There were two demands, “to normalize relations with Israel and accept the Middle East peace process, and to sever ties with Iraq that had reached a high level at the end of the eighties when Iraq supported Mauritania in its war with Senegal.
Ould Al Taya quickly responded in favor of the Americans. He started by imprisoning the leaders of the Mauritanian Baathists (the Avante Garde Party) who had supported him in the 1991 elections; he also ordered the Iraqi ambassador who was very much respected in Nouakchott to leave. The opening up to Israel soon followed. The process began with a meeting of the two foreign ministers in Madrid that concluded with the decision to open up diplomatic charge d’affair bureaus. This later developed to full relations. As the Iraqi embassy was closing, an Israeli embassy was opened in Nouakchott. Thus, there has always been a side by side strengthening of ties with Israel while the ties with Iraq were weakened. Simultaneously, ties with the USA grew stronger.
Long gone has the time when the American Ambassador Brown (the former legal advisor of the American Armed Forces Chief of Staff during the 1991 Gulf war) threatened the Mauritanian president (whose residence was blocks away from the American embassy) and had publicly accused him in the American press of brutal human rights violations. Before that, the relationship between the two countries was never that strong. The last Mauritanian president to visit the United States was Ould Dada who met with American president John Kennedy.
However, in the post-September 11 world, political and security coordination between the two countries has strengthened. Ould Taya saw a good opportunity to coordinate his Islamist opponents who caused him difficulties due to the normalization with Israel. Ould Taya did not only hand over some Mauritanian Islamists to the United States, but he has also waged a war of ideas on religious “extremism” under the pretense of holding firm to the sources of “Mauritanian Legislation”. His media targeted mosques, cultural institutes, schools, religious schools and the like. He then arrested the most popular Islamist figures such as Mohamed Al Hasan Ould Al Dedo, Al Mukhtar Wild Mohamed Moussa, and the popular political activist Jameel Ould Mansour, as well as others. They were released only after the August coup.
Over the last few years, it seems that Mauritania has become an important ally of the U.S, as it was the only Arab state that did not withdraw its ambassador from Israel after the eruption of the second Intifadah. The United States also viewed Mauritania as an important strategic asset in light of the escalation of Islamist activities in the North Western region of Africa. Add to these two factors the fact that Mauritania is slowly becoming a promising oil producer due to its location on the Atlantic Ocean and an important country to American strategic interests.
Ould Al Taya managed to employ all these factors to his interest especially after the failed coup of 8 June 2003, and after the attack carried out by the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat against a military unit on the borders with Algeria. He took advantage of such action to convince the Americans that his country was at the frontline of the battle against terrorism. It is for this reason the American condemnation of the 3 August coup in Mauritania was well anticipated. This disapproval was toned down a few days later after the United States was reassured that this change would not affect its vital interests, would not sever ties with Israel, and would not shrug off the commitments of the former regime towards the war on terrorism.
At present, despite the USA exclusion of Mauritania from the list of preferred trade partners, (which is largely insignificant because the volume of trade between the two partners is trivial) and that it may have had a role in the World Bank’s refusal to postpone the payment of Mauritanian debts, the USA has expressed its relief more than once for the guarantees offered by the Mauritanian interim government for the democratic course and national agreement.
The most recent announcements by America’s deputy Secretary of State were ambiguous concerning Mauritania. Yet, all indications hint that the crisis between the two countries is over. The latest visit has normalized relations between the two countries even if warmth was absent. In fact, warmth would hardly have advanced the Mauritanian population that is moved continuously by pictures of the American occupation and the Palestinian Intifadah more than the internal situation.