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Arab League 2016 summit puts spotlight on isolated Mauritania

Mauritania, hosting for the first time, will hold summit in a massive tent after Morocco restrained from hosting

Ismaeel Naar

Published: Updated:

Mauritania is so adamant to hold this year’s Arab League summit, set to begin on Tuesday, so much so that it has said it is willing to host it in a “tent” if need be. And it has stuck to its promise.

Long gone will be the grandeur optics of massive ballrooms that usually host Arab leaders.

Instead, Mauritania will hold the 27th summit meeting in a specially erected tent after President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz had pledged that his country was ready to host the event.

On a map, Mauritania is one of the farthest located Arab countries from the rest of its Middle Eastern neighbors. Its official language is Arabic with French and Zenaga Berber recognized as other languages.

The capital and largest city is Nouakchott, where the summit is being held, is home to around one-third of the country's 3.5 million people.

Mauritania – A game-change in Arab politics?

Despite a lack of five-star hotels, proper infrastructures and massive logistics that is usually expected of a host-nation, analysts and observers say its finally time Mauritania got the chance to host after Morocco declined earlier this year.

One African expert, whose met and interviewed Mauritanian journalists and officials over the years, says the controversy over Mauritania being “unprepared” to host an event of this magnitude was unwarranted.

“It is good to get Mauritania back into the Arab political map,” British-Lebanese journalist and independent media consultant Youssef Khazem told Al Arabiya English.

“Mauritania hasn’t been active for a very long time in the Arab league. By allowing Mauritania to host, it is giving a new spirit to the Arab league,” he added.

An Egyptian journalist speaking to Al Arabiya News Channel last week also said it was a good choice to allow Mauritania to host this year because “while the country has always been part of the Arab League, many did not know just how much of Mauritanian culture is Arab. So hosting this year will play a big role in raising its profile,” he said.

Another common criticism of the country is that because it is situated so far from other Arab nations, it has isolated itself over the years from central Arab issues.

Khazem says the lack of attention towards the country by the rest of the Arab world is more so the fault of mainstream media rather than a lack of effort from Mauritania itself.

“When I speak to a Mauritanian official or journalist, they speak in the classical Arabic instead of speaking in accents. They are Arabs. Arab media in general doesn’t focus on Mauritania a lot, that’s why the Arab public doesn’t know much about the country,” he said.

By many accounts Mauritania, known as the land of a million poets, is one of the poorest and smallest Arab nations. It has a population of 3.98 million, a GDP of $1,068 and a life expectancy of 57 years for men and 61 years for women.

But hosting the Arab League summit is expected to provide a much-needed boost for the country both politically and economically, says Khazem.

Just last month, Mauritania inaugurated its new international airport – a much needed upgrade from its previous terminal – with a capacity to host two million passengers annually.

“This infrastructure should be considered a source of pride for all Mauritanians because it is the largest project undertaken by Mauritania since 1960,” Mohamed Lemine Ould Cheikh, Minister of Culture and spokesman of the government said.

Even political opposition activists say hosting the summit will be a win-win situation for their country.

“Holding the Nouakchott summit will bring back glory and restore Maurtania’s standing regionally. It will hopefully play a part in healing old wounds and fix the rifts among us,” political opposition activist Ahmad Ould Allal was quoted as saying by local media.

‘Holding the summit is a must’

After more than four months of postponement, Arab leaders will get a chance to meet, albeit later than scheduled, to discuss a wide-range of issues stemming from the five-year war in Syria, the question of Palestine and turbulence in Iraq and Libya.

The meet has been long-awaited after Morocco, which originally planned to host the summit on March 29, bowed out after it suggested hosting a summit this year without groundbreaking resolutions would give “a false impression of unity.”

“Amid the lack of important decisions and concrete initiatives to submit to the heads of states, this summit will be just another occasion to approve ordinary resolutions and to pronounce speeches that give a false impression of unity,” a statement from the Moroccan foreign ministry said in February.

The League of Arab States, referred to as the Arab League, was founded by Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and Transjordan, which became Jordan in 1950, in Cairo in 1945.

Membership later expanded to include Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

This year’s summit, says Khazem, is a feat on its own given the months of postponement.

“While I agree with what the Moroccans are saying, holding the summit is a must to keep the Arab league running,” Khazem said.

“We’re going to see a normal agenda, there won’t be any big explosions in statements – if you can say that. But holding the summit, be it in Mauritania or any place else, is a good thing at the end of the day,” he added.