According to the current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication, Mauritania has been assessed as Level 3 (Reconsider Travel) due to crime and terrorism.
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
U.S. Embassy Nouakchott does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The American Citizen Services (ACS) Unit cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.
The U.S. Department of State has assessed Nouakchott as being a CRITICAL-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.
Please review OSAC’s Mauritania-specific page for original OSAC reporting, Consular alerts, and contact information; some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.
Crime rates in Nouakchott are difficult to quantify, as the national government only loosely tracks and reports consolidated crime statistics. While crime data is generally available at the local and community level, the collection, reliability, and dissemination of such information is impossible to assess. It is also highly probable that many crimes go unreported, further skewing what little data is available. In this context, the Department of States assesses that actual crime rates in Mauritania are higher than those reported in most well-developed countries.
Generally speaking, there has been a noted increase in violent (murder, assault, battery, robbery, occupied burglary, kidnapping, carjacking) and non-violent crimes (theft, vehicle burglary, vandalism, unoccupied burglary) since 2015. Criminal gangs are active in the main cities, and the high-profile April 2017 daylight robbery of the BMCI bank underscores that crime has become a serious and visible problem.
The Mauritanian government has taken small measures to mitigate rampant crime, and the National Guard and Gendarmerie patrol the highest-crime neighborhoods, particularly in the southern side of Nouakchott. These initiatives achieved a reported decrease in criminal activity by the end of 2017, but with law enforcement increasingly implicated in crimes, including the BMCI robbery and a case of sexual assault, it is difficult to verify governmental claims of progress in crime reduction initiatives.
The expatriate community in Nouakchott has been markedly affected by the increase in crime. Recent examples include:
A home invasion robbery with aggravated assault against an American citizen
A sexual assault at the beach against a French citizen
Occupied home burglaries against American citizens
An attempted sexual assault in Tevragh-Zeina against a French citizen
Incidents of street crimes and crimes of opportunity are also on the rise in Nouakchott. Typical street crimes include pickpocketing, purse snatching, mobile phone theft, theft from vehicles, and mugging. There are also reports of pedestrians flagging down motorists (a common type of ride sharing) in order to steal their vehicle or belongings.
The U.S. Embassy prohibits its employees from walking alone during daylight hours, and any nighttime walking is prohibited.
A 2017 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report ranked Mauritania 124th globally in their commitment to cybersecurity. The ITU considers Mauritania to be in the initiating stage of cybersecurity, meaning they have only just started to make commitments to the issue.
Other Areas of Concern
The U.S. Department of State recommends against all non-essential travel to the following areas:
The Mauritania-Mali border (along the Assaba, Hodh el Gharbi, and Hodj el Chargui regions)
The Hodh El Charghi and Hodh El Gharbi regions of southeastern Mauritania
The eastern half of the Assaba region (east of Kiffa and South of the Department of Hamoud)
The eastern half of the Tagant region (east of Tidjika)
The eastern half of the Adrar region (east of Chinguetti)
The Zemmour region of northern Mauritania
U.S. Embassy staff members may only travel to these regions with Embassy-provided security support. All private sector representatives are advised to travel in a convoy of at least two vehicles, to remain in groups throughout the duration of travel, to avoid travel after dark, and to inform the State Department and the U.S. Embassy of travel plans.
The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Mauritania, as U.S. government employees must obtain special authorization to travel outside Nouakchott. U.S. government employees must travel only during daylight hours.
For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.”
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Driving in Mauritania — especially in the cities — can be extremely dangerous. Traffic rules and driver etiquette differ considerably from U.S.-style “rules of the road,” and many Mauritanians drive without regard for traffic signs or stoplights. It is very common for drivers to brush up against adjacent vehicles as they jockey for lane position, and many drivers switch lanes without first checking for the presence of other vehicles. It is also common for drivers to pass illegally on the road shoulders and to ram other motorists when approaching static obstacles that force them back onto the roadway. This blatant disregard for basic safety leads to many vehicle crashes and frequent injuries to drivers and passengers. To reduce the likelihood of accident or injury, U.S. drivers must assume a defense driving posture when driving. This often means yielding the right-of-way to other, more aggressive drivers. As such, it is important to factor in additional driving time when attending meetings or making appointments.
Additionally, roadway obstructions and hazards caused by drifting sand, animals, and poor roads often plague motorists. Pedestrians often attempt to cross busy streets without waiting for cross traffic to slow or stop. These hazards, when combined with the number of untrained drivers and poorly maintained vehicles, make heightened caution imperative. Drivers should be extremely vigilant, and all vehicle occupants should always wear their seat belts. Nighttime driving is discouraged.
Visitors are urged not to travel alone into the desert or after dark when outside of major urban areas due to road safety concerns. Overland travel is difficult, and roadside assistance is non-existent. The country’s size (larger than Texas and New Mexico combined) and harsh climate make road maintenance and repair especially problematic. Vehicle services are limited outside of Nouakchott, and many fuel stations in the interior only sell diesel fuel, making petrol unavailable in many places.
In terms of infrastructure, there are four major roads leaving Nouakchott, all of which are two lanes and asphalt. Due to the sparse vegetation and a lower population density north of Nouakchott, travel along the roads toward Nouadhibou and Atar is slightly safer than travel to the east or south. The Road of Hope and the road to Rosso are frequently bordered by villages, livestock grazing land, and steep drops at the edge of the roadway. These features, combined with rapid changes in elevation, often limit visibility and create driving hazards. Further, the road to Rosso is under renovation and in extremely poor condition. Even small amounts of rain can make paved roads impassable for cars without high clearance – even in Nouakchott -- as drainage systems in the city are nonexistent. Travelers should plan on extra time when using this route.
The U.S. Embassy allows travel outside of the city for staff members, but all trips require prior approval, a minimum of two cars, multiple means of communication, spare tires, off-road recovery kits, and adequate food and water. A local guide is recommended, along with at least one additional vehicle in case of breakdown. A Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and satellite phone are essential when traveling in remote areas. The telecommunications infrastructure, including cellular telephone coverage, is limited. For those traveling outside the major urban areas, it is recommended to have a satellite telephone readily available. The U.S. Embassy advises travelers to give an itinerary to a friend or relative with instructions to alert the proper authorities if significantly overdue.
For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”
Public Transportation Conditions
U.S. Embassy personnel are not permitted to use public transportation, and visitors should likewise avoid it. Almost all taxis and other forms of public transportation are unregulated, poorly maintained, and in very poor condition. Numerous sexual assaults have also occurred at night in taxi cabs. Travelers should refuse offers for rides from unknown persons, as sexual assaults have also occurred by subjects offering a lift to lure potential victims into their vehicles.
Flights are routinely delayed, and luggage is routinely lost. All luggage is scanned when exiting the airport; alcohol and pork products are confiscated.
One-month tourist visas are available upon arrival to citizens of certain countries, but it must be paid for in euros or U.S. dollars.
The U.S. Department of State has assessed Nouakchott as being a MEDIUM-threat location for terrorist activity directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
Al-Qa’ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has a history of operating in Mauritania, and in March 2017, four al-Qa’ida-linked groups in Mali, including AQIM, merged under the name of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM or “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims”). Since then, JNIM has claimed responsibility for multiple terrorist attacks in the Sahel, though none have taken place in Mauritania.
Although the Mauritanian government denies the presence of organized terrorist cells in the country, citing the lack of successful terrorist attacks since 2011, there have been numerous cases of Mauritanians self-radicalizing and pledging allegiance to terrorist groups. Those who have done so publically have been arrested and incarcerated.
In October 2016, Mauritanian security forces arrested three ISIS sympathizers in Nouakchott.
Thirteen other suspected ISIS members were arrested in a separate incident and were scheduled for trial in early 2018.
The Government of Mauritania has shown support for the G-5 Sahel Force, a regional counterterrorism force comprised of troops from Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania to combat terrorist activities and instability emanating from Mali. The regional headquarters of the G-5 Sahel is in Nouakchott, and the force is led by a Mauritanian general.
Anti-Western sentiment increased following a 2017 judicial verdict that reduced the death sentence issued against blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkeitir, who was accused of apostasy. Some Mauritanians believe the Mauritanian government yielded to pressure from Western countries, particularly the U.S., leading to protests and increased animosity against the U.S.
Additionally, the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move its embassy there was unpopular among many Mauritanians. The decision sparked numerous protests, threats, and negative press against the U.S. and further damaged the U.S.’s reputation in the eyes of many Mauritanians.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
The U.S. Department of State has assessed Nouakchott as being a MEDIUM-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.
The upcoming 2019 presidential elections will be a potential source of increased civil unrest.
Spontaneous protests occur in Nouakchott and in other parts of the country on a weekly basis, usually on Friday afternoons after prayer at local mosques. Most protests consist of 100 to 400 people and are generally non-violent. Unauthorized or violent protests are met with heavy police resistance, and tear gas is frequently used to control or disperse crowds. Police tend to pay special attention to protest activities involving the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) or the February 25 Party.
Recent protests focused on the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the imprisonment of Mauritanian Senator Ghadda, the release of blogger Mkeitir, and new traffic enforcement initiatives. Common areas to avoid during periods of civil unrest in Nouakchott include the Saudi Mosque, the Ibn Abbas Square, and the UN headquarters.
There is growing resentment among the Mauritanian youth about political, religious, racial, and justice issues.
As a Saharan country, where drought conditions are common, adequate and consistent access to water supplies is a constant concern. Paradoxically, when it rains (August-November), the streets flood and stagnate; contaminated water can remain pooled for weeks until the city pumps it out or it evaporates. These water pools, when coupled with shifting sands, can create sizable pot holes and bogs that can be hazardous for vehicles. Consequently, travelers should avoid driving through standing water whenever possible.
Air quality is also poor. Blowing sand, debris, burning trash, and unregulated vehicle exhaust negatively affect both air quality and personal health. Travelers should limit their environmental exposure as much as possible, especially during the winter when sandstorms are frequent. If caught in a sandstorm, it is recommended to take shelter in a building or vehicle with all windows closed.
Roads are often in disrepair, water drainage is non-existent, and overall construction is poor and not adequate by U.S. standards.
Mauritania passed its first-ever data privacy laws in June 2017. The laws created a national authority for the protection of private information. There is now a standard format and appropriate institution for guaranteeing the security and confidentiality of private data.
Personal Identity Concerns
Same-sex relationships are illegal. If convicted of homosexual acts, men are sentenced to death by stoning. Homosexual acts by two women are punished by imprisonment (ranging from three months to two years) and a fine.
Racism is a serious problem, and Mauritania was the last country to outlaw slavery, in 1981. However, no criminal laws enforcing the ban on slavery were passed until 2007. Taking legal action on slavery cases is notoriously difficult in Mauritania, which prosecuted its first slavery case in 2016.
Mauritania is an Islamic republic by law. U.S. travelers should be mindful when travelling with personal religious publications and should consider local laws and customs before making religious statements in public places or engaging in Islam-related debate in public. Any oral or written communication deemed to be proselytism is illegal.
Mauritania has changed from being solely a conduit for illegal drugs to being a consumer nation. In 2017, nearly 400 people were arrested for drug trafficking, and 605 kilograms of hashish and 17,500 psychotropic tablets were seized. The government has begun a large drug awareness program in local schools to educate students on the dangers and consequences of drug consumption.
Westerners are at an elevated risk of kidnapping in Mauritania, especially in the northeast and southeast. Numerous Westerners have been kidnapped in the past few years, many of whom have ended up in the hands of Mali-based terrorist groups. Given Mauritania’s lengthy and porous shared borders, terrorist activities could spill over from Mali and Algeria. There have been no kidnappings of Europeans or Americans in Mauritania in the last six years. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “Kidnapping: The Basics.”
Police response in Nouakchott, and especially in outlying areas, is slow at best and often non-existent. Police rarely have access to vehicles, and in most cases a victim is expected to appear at a police station or give officers a ride to the scene of a crime.
Very few law enforcement officials will be conversant in English, speaking French or Hassaniya instead. However, U.S. citizens, in general, receive favorable treatment from Mauritanian law enforcement. Most government agencies recognize both the financial and infrastructure benefits of the expatriate community in Mauritania and extend some measure of additional courtesy.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
There have been instances of foreigners being singled out for questioning and detention by authorities, and all visitors should carry a passport or other form of official identification. If you are detained or arrested by the Mauritanian authorities, cooperate with the authorities and insist on being put in contact with the U.S. Embassy. Remain calm, focused, and respectful.
Crime Victim Assistance
Although phone numbers for reporting crimes do exist, visitors are encouraged, if possible, to present themselves in person at the nearest police station or Gendarmerie brigade. U.S. citizens may also contact the American Citizen Services (ACS) section of the U.S. Embassy if they are a victim of a crime.
Traffic Police: 119
National police by region (country code: 222)