Welcoming home Mauritania's outsiders

Welcoming home Mauritania's outsiders
Feature: Mauritanian expatriates have long believed that their countrymen back home view them as cash cows to exploit. Now, with unrest gripping their host countries, many are forced home.
3 min read
25 March, 2015
Mauritania is one of the Arab world's most isolated countries [Getty]

Anywhere they go, they claim, Mauritanian expatriates keep their customs alive and are secure in theiridentity. Unlike Arabs.

Back home, however, it is a different story. Mauritanian expatriates complain they are viewed in their homeland as just a source of remittances.

Frosty reception

Returning expatriates say they feel financially exploited and have little support, facing neglect and social bias.

"I sometimes feel like a stranger abroad and in my own country as well," says Mohammed Said Weld Baba, a 47-year-old former expatriate who recently returned to Mauritania. 

"People have changed, the treatment has changed. Plus the stereotypical view of expats does not encourage a person to settle down."

Baba spent 32 years in Angola but says he always tried to maintain his cultural and religious roots and made frequent visits to Mauritania.

Back home, in the country where the Arab world meets sub-Saharan African, his countrymen viewed him as being wealthy due to his status as an expatriate, he said.

Many believed that his job overseas was as a well-paid currency exchanger, or that he owned gold and diamond mines in Africa.

In reality most Mauritanians overseas work in dire conditions and for meagre salaries.

However, a lucky few do strike it rich.

Mauritanian youth, especially the undereducated and unemployed, see expatriates on holiday driving fancy cars and spending lavishly, and are encouraged to work overseas hoping for similar success.

Sidi Weld Abiedi, a 26 year old who immigrated to Canada five years ago, said he decided to emigrate due to a shortage of jobs and low pay in Mauritania.

     I sometimes feel like a stranger abroad and in my own country as well.

- Mohammed Said Weld Baba, former Mauritanian expatriate

He believed that a life overseas would be the solution to his financial problems, especially after witnessing the wealthier expatriates in the cities and villages in Mauritania during the summer months.

Investing at home

Abiedi sends monthly remittances back to Mauritania and invests in real estate at home. Most expatriates also send money back to Mauritania to help their families financially.

It is a good life for many, but most make sacrifices to ensure their families are taken care of, or invest the bulk of their money in real estate in Mauritania or other projects.

Now, expatriates and Mauritanians returning home have called on the government to open up new investment opportunities.

"Currently, expatriates invest more than former expatriates despite the fact that many have lost a large part of their savings and income due to problems in their host countries in Africa," economist Mohamed Mahmoud Weld al-Ghouth told al-Araby al-Jadeed said.

"Also, there have been 'campaigns' against Mauritanian expats, such as in Angola, where large numbers have been deported," he added. 

Unrest has gripped many countries that have traditionally hosted Mauritanian workers - particularly Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Mali, Angola and Nigeria - is forcing Mauritanians to return home.

The outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa, another popular destination for Mauritanians, has also spread panic seeing many leave for home.

Ghouth called on officials in the Nouakchott government to be more open to the idea that expatriates have made massive contributions to the Mauritanian economy and assist those who are returning back to the country.

Remittances from the 320,000 Mauritanians working abroad have traditionally made a big impact on the country’s economy.

With poverty afflicting a large chunk of the population, encouraging skilled and experienced expatriates to use their savings to develop the business sector could provide more Mauritanians with job opportunities at home.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.