Mauritania’s first female envoy to DC hopes to boost country’s image

Mauritania's first female envoy to DC hopes to boost country's image
Cissé Cheikh Boide has been Mauritania’s Ambassador to the United States since March 2021. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

Roughly the size of Texas and California combined, Mauritania has a population of just 4.3 million. This makes it one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. It’s also one of the least known – a reality his ambassador to Washington would like to change.

Cissé Cheikh Boide, Mauritania’s first female envoy to the United States, arrived in March 2021. Before that, she was its permanent representative at UNESCO in Paris for two years.

“We are an African country, a Maghreb country, an Arab country and an Islamic republic,” she said. “Our religion is based on tolerance and we are very proud of our diversity. Our people speak Fulani and Wolof as well as Arabic and we all live in harmony.”

Yet Mauritania, which this week celebrates its 62nd anniversary of independence from France, is one of the poorest countries in the world. The westernmost of the 22 member states of the Arab League, based in Cairo, ranks 158th in the United Nations’ 2022 Human Development Index – just behind Papua New Guinea and ahead of Côte d’Ivoire – out of 191 jurisdictions.

Mauritania, the largest country in the world lying entirely below an elevation of 1,000 meters, also faces widespread desertification due to persistent droughts and climate change. In addition, it also addresses a refugee crisis sparked by political instability and violence in neighboring Mali, with some 85,000 Malians now living in Saharan Mauritanian refugee camps.

Boide, 52, spoke recently The Washington diplomat during an interview that later extended to a traditional Mauritanian lunch at her official residence that included fresh goat’s cheese salad, African lamb couscous and traditional sweet mint tea.

Another artwork in the Mauritanian Embassy residence is this depiction of Oualata, a small oasis town in south-east Mauritania. Founded in the 11th century as a resting place for caravans of Trans-Saharan trade, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

The ambassador, one of eight children, has a bachelor’s degree in tourism and hotel management from the International Institute of Tourism in Tangier, Morocco. She also holds advanced degrees from the University of Lille in France and speaks French, Arabic, English and Spanish.

“My father was the chief of the Mauritania armed forces. My brother is the head of the special forces. I come from a military family and have been associated with the military my entire life,” Boide said, adding that her mother was a French teacher. “It’s common nowadays for both parents to be educated, but in my day that wasn’t very common.”

From 2002 to 2009, Boide held various positions in the Ministry of Commerce, Crafts and Tourism of Mauritania, helping to promote the North African country as a tourist destination. She then served as Mauritania’s Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport (2009-13) and President of her country’s National Commission for Education, Science and Culture.

In 2014 she became International Policy and Strategy Advisor and was responsible for management, project evaluation and sustainable development until her appointment by UNESCO in 2019.

Among the main challenges: countering extremism, improving human rights

Mauritania, an ancient kingdom inhabited by Berber tribes in the 3rd century, was conquered by Arabs in the 8th century and has remained Islamic ever since. About a third of the population lives in the capital, Nouakchott, and due to Mauritania’s longstanding French colony until independence in 1960, French is widely spoken.

“The United States was the first country to recognize our independence and we have very good relations,” Boide said. “The US supports Mauritania with partnerships aimed at improving public health, preventing and countering violent extremism, and providing food security and humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations, including Malian refugees.”

Mauritania, an arid West African country the size of Texas and California combined, is home to just 4.3 million people, making it one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery and criminalize it in 2007, although some form of it persists due to the historical caste system between the Bidhan (White Moors) and Haratin (Black Moors).

“There is no traditional slavery in Mauritania. In fact, we have amended laws to condemn slavery,” the ambassador told us. “But we should be very honest. Like any other country, we have income inequality and we are fighting it. We also have problems with unemployment, desertification and poverty. But traditional slavery does not exist.”

Despite widespread criticism of its poor record on human rights and democracy, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani’s victory in Mauritania’s 2019 presidential election marks the country’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence.

Meanwhile, ISIS and Boko Haram terrorists continue to destabilize West Africa. In September, Cameroon’s Ambassador to the United States, Henri Etoundi Essomba, said The diplomat that eliminating the threat of Islamist extremism to West Africa is his country’s top priority.

Boide can only agree, she told us.

“Of course we fight extremism, but Mauritania has a very specific strategy based on development and security and everyone knows about it,” she said. “Our approach to countering terrorism is to address not only the security threats, but also the underlying politics and economics. We work closely with local communities, particularly in the areas near our border with Mali.”

A painting of Fort Saganne, a 1984 film starring Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve and filmed on location in Atrar, Mauritania, hangs in the residence of the Mauritanian Embassy. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Nouakchott is in fact the headquarters of the G5 Sahel, a regional organization established in 2014 that coordinates cooperation on development policy and security issues between five countries: Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger.

“As the seat of the G5 Sahel Executive Secretariat, Mauritania plays a key role in shaping how other G5 Sahel countries respond to regional threats,” Boide said. “Mauritania has managed to contain terrorists and counter violent extremism within its borders. We are very proud that American support and training has helped Mauritania in this important effort.”

Mauritania enjoys relatively good relations with all of its neighbors, including Morocco and Algeria, although these two countries have long been locked in a bitter dispute over Western Sahara. The 266,000 square km area, once a territory of Spain, has been claimed by both Morocco and Mauritania, although Mauritania dropped all claims in 1979.

Morocco waged a 16-year guerrilla war against the Polisario Front, an Algerian-based nationalist movement but retains control of the territory. In 2020, the United States became the first country to officially recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco’s normalization with Israel.

Could Mauritania become a major natural gas exporter?

In this respect, Mauritania was a foreign policy outsider. As early as October 1999, it became the third member of the Arab League – after Egypt and Jordan – to recognize Israel as a sovereign nation, ending the state of war that had existed between the two countries since 1967.

With the establishment of diplomatic relations, Mauritania soon opened an embassy in Tel Aviv and Israel opened its mission in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. Relations lasted for the next 10 years – with bilateral cooperation on agriculture and health – despite a terrorist attack on the Israeli embassy for which an al-Qaeda affiliate later claimed responsibility.

But in early 2009, following a war between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Mauritania severed ties with the Jewish state and has yet to restore them. There has been talk of Mauritania joining the Abraham Accords, under which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and – to a lesser extent – ​​Sudan have taken steps to normalize relations with Israel.

Cissé Cheikh Boide has been Mauritania’s Ambassador to the United States since March 2021. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

Boide declined to speculate on that possibility, saying only that “we are working on this issue in agreement with the Arab League. Mauritania takes into account what the Mauritanian people want, which is closely related to the Palestinian cause.”

In the meantime, Mauritania would like to attract more US tourists, but given the lack of direct flights, ongoing concerns about COVID and regional political volatility, this has been a major challenge. In 2021, the embassy in Washington issued only 123 visas to Americans, down from 252 in 2018.

The Mauritanian immigrant community in the United States is not very large — only about 10,000, in fact — and you might not expect it in states: Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, and Florida. So it does not receive significant income from foreign remittances like many other West African countries such as Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal.

Still, Mauritania expects economic growth of 4.5% this year and 6.5% growth in 2023, driven largely by exports of fish, gold, silver, iron and lithium – but all eyes are now on natural gas and Mauritania’s estimated 50 trillion cubic feet of reserves.

The country could become a major offshore natural gas exporter next year thanks to the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim project, 125 km off the coast of Mauritania and neighboring Senegal.

The company is owned by BP and Dallas-based Kosmos Energy Ltd. which estimates that liquefied natural gas exports could add US$30 billion to the economies of both West African countries over the next 30 years.

“Mauritania and the United States are growing business partners, with US companies operating in Mauritania’s hydrocarbon and agricultural sectors. And there is potential for investment in renewable energy,” said the ambassador. “Mauritania stands firm with the US government and the American people to create a better future. I am optimistic about that future, especially if we stand together.”

License plates from the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

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