The majority of Mauritanians are desert nomads no more. The exodus to the cities, primarily to the capital Nouakchott, continues. President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, considered strong in terms of security, has made less progress battling corruption and insuring Mauritania's rich natural resources accrue to the benefit of all. Despite speculation to the contrary, Aziz, who won re-election to another five year term in 2014, announced in October 2016 that he would not seek constitutional changes to allow him to run for a third term. A significant, if minor step, since opposition voices – whether in politics or the media – are given little room to breathe in Mauritania.
A prominent blogger, Mohamed Ould Cheikh, was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death in 2014; and an anti-slavery activist, Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, was jailed for 18 months after publicly burning Islamic legal texts purporting to advocate slavery. Abeid turned to politics and was Aziz's primary opposition in the 2014 presidential election. He was jailed again and released in May 2016. The country now looks to 2019, which could mark Mauritania’s first transfer of power from one elected president to another.
Because of Mauritania’s long border with Mali, it has received large numbers of refugees fleeing the conflict in that country. The Senegalese border represents another stark divide. Although both countries share the same riverine estuary, the Mauritanian side remains relatively barren compared to the agricultural productivity south of the river. A hunting concession, primarily for extra-large Mauritanian warthogs, occupies some of the space, and there's talk of a renewed effort to stimulate rice growing in the Senegal River Valley. One obstacle however, are the landowners, rumoured to be primarily cronies of the regime who have little incentive to allow small-scale farming. Some regard the talk as simply an excuse to privatise land at the expense of already exploited Afro-Mauritanians living there.
The public education system is in dire need of reform. Only a small number of Mauritanians finish middle school and even fewer graduate high school. Inequality and corruption remain endemic. An entrenched oligopoly, with a pronounced ethnic dimension and links to Mauritania's armed forces, control much of the country's wealth and resources. To Aziz's credit, in 2015 he helped launch the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI), which pledges to shine light on an opaque industry. A fishing agreement with the EU was renegotiated, but there's less clarity around how Chinese companies operate in Mauritania. Still, little of the country's catch (grouper, dorado, sardines, lobster, etc) is processed locally. For example, fish caught of the coast of Mauritania is shipped to Europe and then back to other African countries, like Nigeria, where it's on-sold. The racks of drying fish you see at ports in Nouâdhibou and Nouakchott, a grisly-looking skeletal mishmash, are generally exported directly within Africa.
Large foreign companies operating in Mauritania, like Kinross, Petronas and MCM – as well Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière de Mauritanie (SNIM), Mauritania's own conglomerate – dominate the economy. Only recently has the government encouraged small-scale gold mining. It's no doubt a harsh existence – shovelling sand for hours on end in the middle of the desert, protected only by a tattered tarp. Besides gold, iron ore (the raw ingredient used to make steel), copper and a few other minerals (uranium, phosphate, gypsum) constitute its mineral wealth. Offshore oil and natural gas deposits are being explored. On a smaller scale, in terms of revenue but not employment, the date harvest in a handful of inland regions provides a livelihood to an estimated 20,000 Mauritanians.