Mauritania: moving ever closer to the West

Mauritanian President Ould Ghazouani sends a telegram to Volodymir Zelenski on the day Ukraine celebrates 31 years of independence from the USSR, which could indicate the country's alignment with Western powers

PHOTO/OLIVIER HOSLET via REUTERS  -   The President of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, located in the west of the African continent, has become not only for Spain, but for most Western powers, an important ally in the southern region of the planet. Its status as a privileged partner of the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation - a status that was recognised during the summit in Madrid last July, which was attended by the Mauritanian foreign minister, Mohammed Salem Ould Merzoug - makes this clear.

The visit of a delegation from the military alliance to Mauritania in June 2021 seemed to be the starting signal for an improvement in relations that has continued ever since. And it has not because, in addition to the geostrategic location provided by the partnership with Nouakchott, there has also been pressure from Russia's growing influence in the Sahel region.

PHOTO/ARCHIVE - Mauritanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed Salem Ould Merzoug

"For the first time, the Allies agreed today on a defence capability development package for Mauritania. We will help them deal with security challenges, including border security, irregular migration and terrorism [...] and focus our support on special operations, maritime security and intelligence," concluded NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg after meeting with member state heads of state and government at the Madrid summit, and after identifying the terrorist threat in the Sahel as "one of the main threats to NATO's security".

AFP/AFP - Map showing the zones of influence of armed groups in the Sahel

Mali's exit from the G5 Sahel counter-terrorism group - also comprising Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania itself - as well as the end of Operation Barkhane and the withdrawal of French troops from Malian territory - which accused Paris, and Western powers of interference in the country - have also prompted NATO's increased interest in the partnership with Nouakchott. 

PHOTO/French Army via AP - This undated photograph distributed by the French army shows Russian mercenaries boarding a helicopter in northern Mali. Over the past five years, Russia has conducted military operations in at least half a dozen African countries using a shadow mercenary force that analysts say is loyal to President Vladimir Putin

"Mauritania is considered a strategic country because it is the link between the African Sahel and the Maghreb, it is the founding country of the G5 alliance in the Sahel, and it enjoys a stable security situation, unlike other countries. All these factors, on the one hand, have led NATO to focus on partnership with Mauritania to ensure its stability. On the other hand, following the deterioration of the security situation in Mali and the entry of Wagner elements, [the Alliance aims] to address the threat of Russian expansion in the Sahel countries," explained Mauritanian journalist Al-Mukhtar Ould Sidi for Arab News.

AP/LUDOVIC MARIN - The leaders of the five countries of the Sahel region of West Africa - Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger - meet with French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott to discuss military operations against Islamic extremists in the region on 30 June 2020
Nouakchott, between Kiev and Moscow?

On the occasion of the 31st anniversary of Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union, the President of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, addressed a telegram to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymir Zelenski, on Wednesday. "I am pleased to express my warm congratulations to you and wish you a speedy end to the war in your country and a return, once again, to peace, security and prosperity," read the communiqué, which also expressed "Mauritania's full readiness to work to develop the cooperative relations that exist between the two countries to serve the interests of two friendly peoples". This was reported by the Mauritanian state news agency. 

At the same time, Moscow continues its efforts to consolidate its influence, not only in the Sahel region, but throughout the African continent, in the face of the international marginalisation to which it has been subjected following Ukraine's invasion. Its relations with Mauritania, in particular, came to fruition in June 2021, when the Kremlin and the Sahelian power concluded a major military cooperation agreement, two years after the bilateral pact began to be defined. June 2021, just as the Ottoman delegation decided to visit the country. 

PHOTO/ Ukrainian Presidential Press Service via REUTERS - Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky and his wife Olena lay flowers at the Memorial Wall of Ukraine's Fallen Defenders amid Russia's attack on Ukraine during the Independence Day celebration in Kiev, Ukraine August 24, 2022

And although, given its ties with Moscow, journalist Ould Sidi stated that "Mauritania is not in a position to take a position on what is happening in Ukraine, and is aware that it must remain within limits [...], nor will it enter into a direct confrontation to prevent Russia from expanding in the Sahel", several analysts have considered it rather complicated to separate the telegram sent by Ould Ghazouani from his rapprochement with Western powers, and in particular with NATO. Especially as Ukrainian Independence Day coincided with the six-month anniversary of the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. 

AFP/THOMAS SAMSON - Mauritanian soldiers stand guard at a command post of the G5 Sahel joint force in southeastern Mauritania, near the border with Mali
Mauritania and the West, growing cooperation

Perhaps it was the Allied delegation's visit, perhaps the shifting balance in the G5 and the Sahel, or perhaps the Russian threat. But, whatever the case, NATO's interest in continuing to deepen the partnership with Mauritania in the coming years, broadening political dialogue and boosting cooperation on the ground, seems irrefutable evidence of Western intentions for Nouakchott to compensate, strategically speaking, for the estrangement from Bamako.

However, despite the long history of cooperation between NATO and Mauritania (including the Mediterranean Dialogue initiative, of which Nouakchott has been a member since 1995, and collaboration on military training), the scope of new and forward-looking partnerships is considered limited. "Mauritania will not allow the presence of French or European combat forces on its territory [as was the case in Mali]. This military presence is limited to training and intelligence assistance," explained Al-Mukhtar Ould Sidi on the Sahelian country's reluctance to foreign interference, except in cases of extreme necessity.